Commentary

ESPN The Magazine: For love of country

Updated: August 2, 2007, 2:03 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

He runs alone sometimes, out on a high Arizona plateau where towering timber opens onto mountain meadows. Herds of elk graze amid the splendor of the Coconino National Forest. "I see them all the time," Bernard Lagat says. "I try to scare them and make them run."

Lagat is about the least threatening person you'll meet. At 5'7'' and 134 pounds, he's a perfectly mannered gentleman with a perpetual look of knowing amusement. And yet for the past 10 years, he has been one of the top runners in the world, part of the line of Kenyans who've dominated middle- and longdistance events since the 1960s. In 2000, he won the 1,500-meter bronze at the Sydney Olympics. In 2001, he clocked 3:26.34 at a meet in Brussels, the third-fastest time ever. In 2004, at the Athens Games, he lost to Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj in one of the most thrilling races in Olympic history. Now the 32-year-old Lagat is looking ahead to next summer in Beijing, where he could medal in either the 1,500 or the 5,000.

Bernard Lagat
Patrick GiardinoLagat met his wife, Gladys, at Washington State and have an 18-month-old son, Miika.

But when he races later this month at the world championships in Osaka, Japan, he won't be clad in the blood-red singlet of Kenya. Instead, for the first time in major international competition, he'll don the red, white and blue as a new citizen of the USA. "I have worn the American uniform, and it feels good," he says. "If I win, it's not going to be a former Kenyan winning. It's going to be Lagat the American."

Winning in Osaka or Beijing, he says, will be payback to a country that not only gave him an education, a family and a lucrative career but also had his back during his darkest days. And Lagat already has left a mark on a talented young crop of U.S.-bred runners, by showing them how to reclaim a corner of the sports world. "When I'm done," he says, "I would like nothing better than to say the mile is back in America."

The finish line of the 1,500 at the U.S. nationals in June looked like an old Benetton ad, the top three runners forming a perfect cross section of the U.S. The winner in Indianapolis was 24-year-old Alan Webb, the onetime golden boy who is finally starting to prove his potential. Next came Leonel Manzano, who was born in Mexico and grew up in Texas, an aw-shucks 22-year-old college kid with an impressive kick. And in third was Lagat, the U.S. record-holder in the 1,500 indoors (3:33.34) and out (3:29.30), who was running the metric mile just two days after winning the 5,000. He qualified for worlds in both events.

The U.S. hasn't produced such a lineup of milers since Steve Scott was the gold medal favorite at the 1984 Olympics. The trio is part of an American distance renaissance that's been brewing since the turn of the millennium. "The parents of this generation of 16-to-26-year-olds experienced the first running boom in the 1970s, and these kids grew up running with them," says USA Track & Field CEO Craig Masback.

The sport was also bolstered by the 1996 Olympics, which sparked a resurgence in high school track and cross-country, and by a big increase in immigrants from countries where running is more popular than basketball or football. The 1,500 is by its nature a "melting pot event," Masback says, and the U.S. team reflects that. "Alan is that kid jogging with his father. Manzano came up through the high school and college ranks. And of course, Bernard immigrated here and made a better life. What's more American than that?"

Growing up on a family farm in Kapsabet, Kenya, Lagat ran a mile and a half to school each day, then home for lunch, back to school, and home again at dismissal. For all that, he was little more than a mediocre runner by his midteens. As his faster peers turned pro, Lagat entered Jomo Kenyatta University near Nairobi in 1996. After a coach there spotted Lagat's talent and contacted several American schools, Washington State took a chance. Within a year, Lagat was winning Pac-10 meets en route to a title-filled NCAA career.

Shortly after arriving at WSU, Lagat started talking with coach James Li about bigger goals, such as making Kenya's 2000 Olympic team. Over the next three years Lagat improved, but Athens still looked like a long shot by the summer of 1999, when he turned pro, forfeiting his final year of eligibility. Agent James Templeton signed him not for his speed on the track but for help supervising a group of young Kenyans who were racing on the European circuit. "He thought I'd be a good influence," says Lagat, whose best 1,500 was a lessthan-world-class 3:34. "But to be honest, he didn't think I was any good."

I was expecting people to boo, to say, 'There's the druggie.' But they cheered so much. For months I'd been wondering, Why did this happen to me? I was contemplating quitting. But they welcomed me like they would an American. I almost cried.

Lagat on the days after being exonerated for doping

And then Lagat broke out, running 3:30.56 at a meet in Zurich that summer.

Victories piled up as his times dropped, and he was soon ranked No. 4 in the world by Track & Field News . As a newly minted star, Lagat could have carved out a new life in Europe or returned to Kenya a wealthy celebrity. Instead, he stuck with what got him to the big time. He returned to WSU at summer's end and eventually earned degrees in management information systems and decision science. He hired Li as his personal coach and a year later won bronze for Kenya in Sydney.

Except for his lack of a beer belly, Lagat is the picture of the comfortable suburban dad. On a brilliant, blue-sky afternoon in mid-May, he's dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and is sitting with his wife, Gladys Tom (they met at WSU), on tumbling mats at a gymnastics center in Flagstaff, Ariz., watching their 18-month-old son, Miika, roll around on blue padded ramps. Running fast has given Lagat a good life. He drives a Lexus and owns a four-bedroom home in a gated community in Tucson, with a TV room decorated in Cougars maroon and a recently retiled master bathroom. "It took me a year to finish," he says, "but I did it myself!" He moved to Tucson in 2002 after Li took a coaching job at the University of Arizona.

Lagat is also buying a home in Tübingen, Germany, his summer training site for meets across Europe. Each spring, he moves with his family to a rented condo in Flagstaff, a mecca for world-class runners, to train on gorgeous trails in cool temperatures at an altitude of nearly 7,000 feet. Sometimes he runs in groups, with friends like Abdi Abdirahman, a Somali immigrant and the U.S. champ in the 10,000, or with family members. Three of Lagat's siblings, William and Robert Cheseret and Irine Lagat, have moved to Tucson, and all race. (Kalenjin tribe members often use a version of their father's name as their surname.) Bernard usually runs distance in the morning and hits the track in the evening for speed workouts.

While watching Miika navigate the pads, Bernard and Gladys swap family stories and office tales with other parents. Lagat has some good ones. Like the story about the 1,500 in Athens. "If you are to define success in athletics," he says, "it is Hicham El Guerrouj." Throughout the 1990s, the Moroccan was the best in the world, except at the Olympics. In 1996, El Guerrouj fell in the 1,500 final. Four years later, Kenyan Noah Ngeny passed him at the finish, breaking El Guerrouj's three-year unbeaten streak. In Athens, it looked as if Lagat would be the source of El G's frustration.

Lagat accelerated around the final curve and pulled slightly ahead. But El Guerrouj, his legacy in the balance, surged to pass Lagat at the line. "I ran the smartest race I've ever run," Lagat says. "It was two good athletes at their best, neck to neck, stride for stride. What more could you ask? Can you imagine what it took for him to dig and find an extra gear to pass me? It wasn't just anybody who beat me. It was Hicham, maybe the greatest ever."

To hear Lagat recount those final strides is to feel chills and to remember that sportsmanship still exists. To hear him talk about the future is to see his drive. "Every time I run, every time I go to bed, I am thinking about a gold medal in the Olympic Games," he says. "And I want to compete for the United States. I feel I have almost a duty to run well for the American fans."

His sense of duty runs deep. Just before the 2003 worlds in Paris, an official handed Lagat a letter saying he had tested positive for the banned substance EPO, a stamina-building hormone. He was suspended pending a test of his B sample, and the ensuing five weeks were a nightmare. To Lagat, the allegation was ridiculous. He never took supplements; since childhood he'd had a phobia of needles. And he didn't need drugs. "I was running my best clean," he says. "Why would I ruin it?"

Though he was exonerated when his B sample came back negative, Lagat wondered how the public would react. He got his answer in January 2004, when he stepped on the track at an indoor meet in Boston. "I was expecting people to boo, to say, 'There's the druggie,'" Lagat recalls. "But they cheered so much. For months I'd been wondering, Why did this happen to me? I was contemplating quitting. But they welcomed me like they would an American. I almost cried."

Four months later, at a ceremony in Tucson, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen (after starting the process during his freshman year in college). But he didn't announce the switch until after the Olympics and still ran for Kenya in Athens. He finally ran his first race as an American in April 2005 at a meet in Walnut, Calif., then quickly began rewriting the U.S. record books.

Bernard Lagat
Patrick Giardino for ESPN The MagazineBernard Lagat says he feels like he has a duty to run well for American fans.

U.S. distance running has been stuck in the doldrums since the early 1980s. But a group of young runners might be ready to change that, led by Webb, Manzano, Lopez Lomong and Chris Lukezic in the middle distances and Matt Tegenkamp, Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein in longer races. Lagat has been happy to show the youngsters the way.

"Last year at my first national meet, this guy comes whizzing by, and my coach says, "That's Lagat,'" says Manzano, who won the 2005 NCAA title in the 1,500 as a freshman at Texas. "My coach pulled him over. I'm thinking, He's big, he won't want to talk to me. But he spends 20 minutes with us."

Lagat saw that Manzano had talent and urged him to focus on the 2007 nationals, telling him he could make the U.S. team. Says Manzano, "Having someone on our side who can beat the rest of the world, you start thinking, If he can do it, why can't I?"

Webb, who's had a roller-coaster career since running 3:53.43 to break Jim Ryun's vaunted high school mile record in 2001, has also benefited from Lagat's presence. "I have to raise my own game," Webb says. "It's a huge help to be able to test yourself against an athlete of that caliber."

Even when he was still running for Kenya, Lagat noticed a change in U.S. attitudes. "Guys no longer just thought, I can be the best in America," he says. "They're starting to think, I can be the best in the world."

There's one problem: The young guys following Lagat's lead could interfere with his gold medal dreams. Webb has beaten Lagat twice this summer, and on July 20, he ran 3:46.91 to break Steve Scott's 25-year-old American mile record. Lagat knows he's also racing time. "I like to write a graph of my career, and just like for any runner, soon it's going to plateau," he says. "I may not run 3:26 again, but I can still run a decent time, go 3:29, and a lot of guys will never get there."

Webb, though, might get there soon, and that could force Lagat to make a difficult decision next year: giving up the 1,500 to focus on the 5,000, as other milers have done once their speed diminishes. Lagat has never trained exclusively for the longer event, but last year in London he stunned Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele, the world record-holder, with a 52-second final lap to win in 12:59.22.

Lagat will choose between the two events next summer, based on how well he runs in early-season meets. But that's for then, which means it's not a worry now. He has punched his ticket to Osaka, a stepping-stone to Beijing, and his goals are intact. He's ready, and so are his new teammates, thanks to his example. He's free to take off into the forests, to chase gold his own American way.

It's fun shaking up the herd and making it run a little faster.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.