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Stirring 5000m Win Lands Lagat on 5th Olympic Team

AT 41, LAGAT EARNS FIFTH OLYMPIC TEAM BERTH WITH STUNNING 5000M WIN
By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom

(c) 2016 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(Used with Permission)

EUGENE,
OR (09-Jul) — The first time Bernard Lagat went to the Olympics, the
world was getting over the drama of Y2K, George W. Bush was President
of the United States, and ‘N Sync topped the music charts with “It’s
Gonna Be Me.” Lagat himself wasn’t even an American citizen yet, still
representing his home country of Kenya after graduating from Washington
State University.

Sixteen years later at the age of 41, Lagat
secured a spot at his fifth consecutive Olympic Games by winning the
Olympic Trials 5000m here in a thrilling spring in 13:35.50, raising
the stars and stripes with pride. It took a last lap of 52.82 seconds
to give Lagat his eighth national title at the distance.

“I was
just telling myself, ‘Keep going, keep going, you can make it, you can
do it’ and I kept telling myself that over and over again,” said Lagat,
eyes wide with son Miika and daughter Gianna by his side. “When I
started passing all the guys I was like, ‘Really it is happening!'”

Joining
Lagat on the Olympic team are Nike Oregon Track Club Elite’s Hassan
Mead (13:35.70) and the U.S. Army’s Paul Chelimo (13:35.92). Both are
first-time Olympians and weren’t yet 10 years old when Lagat made his
first Olympic team.

As expected, the race came down to a
furious sprint over the final two laps. Yet few anticipated Lagat, a
two-time Olympic medalist, could prevail over the likes of younger
stars Ryan Hill, Ben True, and Mead. Using the underdog mantra as
motivation, Lagat had something to prove in front of 22,847 spectators,
the largest audience in Hayward Field history.

The pace went
out slow in 75 seconds for 400 meters, a walk in the park for the
16-man field. Portland’s Woody Kincaid and Saucony’s Brian Shrader
wound up surging on the fourth lap, dropping an unexpected
sub-60-second lap to open 7-second sizeable lead. All of the main
contenders stayed patient; they knew that Kincaid and Shrader’s 20
meter lead would shrink at some point, and neither athlete had the
Olympic Games qualifying standard of 13:25.00.

The duo led
through 3000 meters in 8:25.73 yet were tracked down, and dropped, by
Galen Rupp in the subsequent laps. The pride of the Nike Oregon Project
held the lead comfortably through 4500 meters.

While the pace had become quicker, all the other favorites were winding up the sprint and anticipating a killer last kilometer.

“I
think nobody really wanted to expend themselves and be the one to reel
him in because they knew six other guys would be sitting on him,” said
Ben True of the strategy to wait and wait and wait some more.

Finally
with 450m left the bubble burst and all hell broke loose. Rupp held the
lead at the bell by eight steps on Chelimo, Mead, Eric Jenkins and
True. Lagat was back in sixth, tucked between the lanky Mead and ahead
of Hill.

The pack overtook Rupp down the backstretch; he
wouldn’t be a factor in the finish, taking ninth in 13:41.09. Chelimo’s
surge to the front was grueling, gaining the pole and gapping Mead,
True, Lagat, and company.

Lagat, Chelimo’s elder by 16 years,
kept one gear in his pocket coming around the Bowerman Curve and into
the homestretch. With 50 meters left, Lagat and Mead went by Chelimo’s
right shoulder and crossed the line first, separated only by 2/10ths of
a second. Chelimo just held off the final charge by Eric Jenkins,
outleaning him by just 6/100ths of a second.

Lagat’s wheels, as
old as they may be, had carried him to victory and a fifth Olympiad.
It’s all thanks to training under James Li with spry, motivated
youngsters.

“I train with young guys, and I don’t believe I am
old. If you believe you are old, then I am going to run like an old
man,” he said, drawing a laugh from the media. “I am with Sam Chelanga,
Stanley Kebenei, all these young guys, Lawi [Lalang] and Stephen Sambu.
They push me every single day and you know when I train with them, at
the end of the day, they tell me ‘Man you make us really feel bad.’
Because, you know, I don’t give up. I train hard with them and that is
what you guys saw today.”

Lagat said he never doubted himself
and not once thought he was too old to make it to Rio. DNF’s in the
5000m at the Prefontaine Classic and in the 10,000m here last week were
reasons for some to doubt his ability. Lagat said that in both cases he
left the track sick to his stomach with disappointment, a feeling that
quickly turned to motivation.

“I said I’m not going to end
running in Eugene that way. This is Track Town, and I can’t really
leave that image with everyone. This is the image I wanted to leave. I
was super excited when I won the race,” he said.

Even Mead, who qualified for his first Olympics in second, was blown away by Lagat’s ability.

“I
liked my position even with three laps to go, with two laps to go,”
Mead began. “I was trying to hold off Lagat a little bit but man! Hats
off to him.

“I can’t put it into words man. The man’s
inspiring. I thought I was going to win and he came out of nowhere.
Trying to hold him off, I couldn’t hold him off. What he is doing is
brilliant,” he said. “It’s brilliant for the sport.”

For as
much as Lagat’s sprint was inspiring, the heartbreak and despair for
top athletes such as Hill and True was devastating. The pair knew their
kicks were strong, yet they simply could not find that extra gear when
it mattered most. True was fifth in 13:36.40 while Hill was sixth in
13:38.36. Eric Jenkins took fourth by a hair, 13:35.98 his time.

“I’m
just really bummed,” said True. “I really thought that I could make the
team, I really thought I could do well in the Olympic final. I still
think I can run some real good 5000m times and compete on the Diamond
League circuit. But it’s just heartbreaking not making the team. It’ll
be another four years until I get a shot and that’s a long time. I’m
just bummed.”

Hill was equally disappointed.

“I knew
there was going to be a lot of shenanigans going on just cause everyone
had different motives coming in,” said Hill, the IAAF World Indoor
Championships 3000m silver medalist and defending 5000m national
champion. “Some wanted it to go slow and some wanted to go fast.
Everyone threw their best shot out there and I think I ended up trying
to play all of the shots and it kind of wore me out by the end.”

Bernard
Lagat’s son, Miika, wasn’t even sure his dad could pull off the win.
Watching from a stairwell track-side, he bounced back and forth trying
to see what happened on the final lap.

“I was kind of nervous,” Miika told RRW in a quiet voice. “It was kind of crazy. I’m very happy he won.”

PHOTO:
Bernard Lagat wins the 2016 USA Olympic Trials 5000m at Hayward Field
in Eugene, Ore., making his fifth Olympic team

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