When Bernard Lagat and Galen Rupp go head-to-head on the track, those who love track & field are united in one uniform thought: We want them to battle each other forever. Yet we know that can’t happen.
Galen Rupp, the young distance prodigy, has followed a carefully-scripted program of progressive development over the past decade that places him, at the relatively young age of 25, at the threshold of what most believe should be the best racing years of his life. His pathway of continued improvement has been wisely constructed by Alberto Salazar, a coach who knows first hand the right steps – and the wrong steps – an aspiring distance runner can take. After an exemplary collegiate career at the track and field laboratory that is the University of Oregon, Rupp stands at the dawning of his nascent professional career.
It is a different story – and a different time – for Bernard Lagat. For this savvy veteran, one of the most articulate and beloved performers in the sport, there is very little he hasn’t accomplished. An eight time winner of the Wanamaker mile, Lagat has secured his place as one of the most successful middle distance runners of this or any era. With his 1500/5000 double gold medal performances in the 2007 World Championships representing perhaps the zenith of his career, Lagat has proven time and again, year in and year out, to be a fierce competitor who can find a way to win off any race pace. And while no one can rightly say that his recent performances have evidenced any noticeable slippage, Lagat knows – we all know – that time’s winged chariot is hurrying near. Lagat’s shifted attention from the 1500 to the 5000 as his primary focus – an expected evolution for a maturing middle distance runner – is an unspoken concession to the aging process. While there is reason to expect more inspiring performances from Lagat – such as his convincing Millrose 5000 win in an American indoor record time of 13:07.15 earlier this month – the shadows are getting longer as Lagat, at age 37, enters the gloaming of his career.
Frustrated by the age mismatch of these two great runners, we conjure up silly lamentations that can’t change things: “If only Bernard were younger,” or “If only Galen had come along earlier in Bernard’s career.” But we can’t concoct some magic elixir which would more perfectly match the primes of their stellar careers. We just need to sit back and fully appreciate their spirited battles. In fact, their age difference – the very aspect of their rivalry which will limit the duration of their duels we love to witness – actually adds spice to their races against one another as we speculate, “Can Bernard outfox Galen again?” “Has Galen found that special strategy that can prove to be Bernard’s undoing?” “Is Galen getting stronger and smarter?” “Has age rendered Bernard vulnerable?”
Another chapter in the anthology of the Lagat/Rupp rivalry was written here in Albuquerque Saturday night at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships. Squaring off in the 3000, the master and the student toed the line in the final event of the evening. At the opening gun, Rupp surged to the front. There would be no dawdling tonight. Dishing out a steady diet of 31+ second laps on the 200 meter banked Mondo track, Rupp was at the point of a trio that included Lagat – closely in second – and Lopez Lomong. Floating around the oval – dropping the remainder of the 3000 field – the threesome maintained this rhythmic pace with amazing accuracy. But the race pace, as impressive as it seemed to most in attendance, was really not taxing given the recent race efforts posted this winter by both Lagat and Rupp. When the 1600 was passed in 4:11, it was clear that the tempo, which would prove to be oppressive for all but the most elite middle distance runners, lacked the punishment that would be required to take the sting out of Lagat’s patented finishing kick. To set the race up for his final push, Lagat easily slid into the lead with 700 meters to go. Lomong, moving up to second, and Rupp, now in third, gamely held on. But each had to know that they had seen this movie before. With Lagat in command, the pace increased inexorably, but not dramatically, as Bernard began to turn the screw. With 300 meters remaining, it was clear that Rupp was struggling as he began to lose contact. Lagat gapped Lomong in the penultimate lap and the outcome was clear as the bell lap sounded. Powering through the final circuit, Lagat, with no challengers remaining, uncorked a furious kick over the final 120 meters as the full house roared its approval. The stopwatch – which never lies – told the story. Lagat’s final 400 meters was clocked in 56.01 seconds and featured an eye-popping – and truly unnecessary – final 200 meters in 25.42. The message was clear: while Father Time will ultimately catch up with Bernard Lagat, it would not be at this track meet. And as the capacity crowd will attest, the performance they witnessed by Lagat suggests that such a day of reckoning is very far away.
Always gracious in victory, the 3000 meter champion lingered in the post-race afterglow to fulfill all autograph requests. Later, with the media, Lagat, gushing with enthusiasm, offered his take on the race. With his children at his side, Lagat admitted that “I wanted to show these kids that their dad can still run fast.” The victor felt this race coming. “I have felt so good all week. I ran easily for thirty minutes yesterday. And I felt so good tonight when I warmed up,” he confessed with a smile. When questioned about why no one can detect in him any perceptible loss of top end speed, the 37 year old runner, admitted candidly, “I train hard with younger runners. There is no fooling around. It is all business. I just felt so good tonight. When I got to the last lap, I said to myself ‘Why not?’ I have my ticket for Turkey and am going to Istanbul. I will return to Tucson tomorrow for 7-10 days of training and then I will head to the World Championship meet.” “You know,” he said with a quick smile, “I am the defending champion.”
At the far end of the track, Galen Rupp walked alone. He had run a courageous race over a shortened distance that – when racing against Bernard Lagat – clearly worked to his disadvantage. It was obvious that the 3000 had taken a lot out of him. But it was not possible to discern if the pained expression that etched his face reflected the race effort or the stark realization that Bernard Lagat is not yet succumbing to Father Time – and is not likely to do so any time soon.
[The writer, who can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org, has raced over 90 marathons, including the 1983 B.A.A. Marathon, where he set his P.R. of 2:31:40.]