NEW YORK — Running outdoors. Cold weather. St. Patrick's Day in New York City.
That's the unusual racing scenario for Bernard Lagat, who will make his half-marathon debut in the NYC Half on Sunday. He regained the U.S. indoor record in the 2-mile last month, but he'll be running the longest race – 13.1 miles – of his storied career outdoors. He's upped his training to withstand at least 60 minutes in temperatures expected in the high 30s for the 7:30 a.m. event.
It's only the eighth road race for the 38-year-old Lagat, who will be joined by 15,000 runners. They'll start in Central Park, move through Times Square and finish in lower Manhattan. It's the biggest New York Road Runners race since Hurricane Sandy forced the cancellation of the NYC Marathon last fall.
Here's a quick look at what's up with Lagat, a native of Kenya who went to Washington State and became a U.S. citizen in 2004.
So why not start with a 10K race instead of the half-marathon? Lagat says he's been training since November and wanted "a bit of a challenge" after just missing a bronze medal in the 5,000 meters at the London Olympics. His friend and training partner Abdi Abdirahman, the runner-up in the 2007 Half, kept encouraging him during runs in Flagstaff, Ariz. He'll be in the field along with American Dathan Ritzenhein, the 2009 worlds half-marathon bronze medalist. Ritzenhein says of Lagat, "If you come to the last 400 meters and he is there, that is bad news." Lagat last ran on the streets of New York as the defending champ in the Fifth Avenue Mile in September, when he finished second.
Lagat met his wife Gladys, who became an athletic trainer, in college. Gladys and a physical therapist work on any small injuries to "fix it right away." They live in Tucson with their children Miika, age 7, and Gianna, 4, who usually attend his races. Lagat scooped up his daughter after setting the American 2-mile record at the Millrose Games in the Bronx, but she got shy and wanted to return to her mother. So Miika joined his dad in a victory lap, waving to the crowd. Lagat says he can imagine "Gigi" getting impatient during the half marathon, asking "When's Daddy going to finish?" After all, his longest race lasts about 13 minutes. He's also the U.S. record holder in the 1,500 meters, the mile, the 3,000 meters and the 5,000 and won the Wanamaker Mile a record eight times at Madison Square Garden.
ROAD TO RIO?
For all his American records and medals at the world championships, Lagat hasn't been lucky lately at the Olympics. An Achilles tendon injury hampered him at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he didn't medal, and he missed the bronze in London by 0.63 seconds after tangling with another runner. With five U.S. records, is there anything left to prove in his career? Yes, he said laughing, one more 3,000 win at the 2014 world indoors in Poland. "So I can have four wins. I'd like to defend that title and that's the end of it." He says he doesn't want to commit to competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics at age 41, but "wants to be involved. I may not be a runner, but I'm going to be in Rio."
Lagat, who ran 3 miles from home to school growing up, plans to compete in the New York City Marathon one day. "To do 26 miles would be great. I'd do it in New York." He says it would be for charity and basically "just for fun." This year, NYRR has dubbed Sunday's half marathon "More than a Run" and expects the event will raise $4 million for charities. Lagat's goal is to feed off the crowd near the finish because "noise is really good," stay relaxed and "run past the line, like a cheetah."