After two-time Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat won the Wanamaker Mile last year for the sixth time, he immediately shifted his attention to the 2009 race where a seventh victory would tie him with Irish legend Eamonn Coghlan for the most Wanamaker titles in meet history. As his manager, James Templeton looked on, Lagat issued --and accepted-- his own invitation to the 2009 Millrose Games.
"We'll share the Chairmanship of the Boards," said Lagat of Coghlan. "I'm confirming it. Right now, it's official."
Templeton winced, then smiled. He knew that Lagat had to fulfill his destiny at the Millrose Games where he has become the meet's biggest current star.
"To get those seven wins, that's something huge," said Lagat in a telephone interview from his home in Tucson, Ariz., on Monday. "Seven years is long in running. It would mean a lot to equal Eamonn Coghlan."
Lagat, the 2007 world 1500m and 5000m champion, won his first Wanamaker Mile in 2001 beating defending champion Mark Carroll of Ireland and Laban Rotich of Kenya. He was beaten by Rotich the following year, but was again the winner in 2003, topping Rotich and Russia's Vyacheslav Shabunin. In 2004 he bypassed the meet, something he regrets now because he could be running to surpass Coghlan's record on Friday instead of merely tying it.
"At this point in my life I'm disappointed with 2004 because I didn't come there," said Lagat while his son Miika was peppering him with seemingly random questions in the background. "It's something that I still feel kind of mad, angry sometimes."
Lagat returned to Millrose in 2005 and gave his best-ever Wanamaker performance. Beating both Rotich and Alan Webb, Lagat powered to a meet record 3:52.87, an extraordinary mark on Madison Square Garden's tiny and rarely used 145.5m track.
"Setting the meet record was by far the best," Lagat recalled. "I didn't feel like I was hurting a lot." He added: "Running 3:52 on that track made me feel as if I was prepared for that year. I knew I was going fast, but I was not struggling."
That performance set the stage for three more consecutive victories. He beat Olympic medalists Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia and Rui Silva of Portugal in 2006, world championships medalist Craig Mottram of Australia in 2007, and Mottram and Commonwealth Games champion Nick Willis of New Zealand in 2008. Willis, now the reigning Olympic 1500m bronze medalist, will be Lagat's chief rival this year, and Lagat is looking for a little payback after Willis narrowly defeated him at the Continental Airlines Fifth Avenue Mile last September on Manhattan's East Side.
"Yeah it's going to be fun to run again with Nick," said Lagat. "He's a good competitor, still young." He paused and added, "I'm not ready to lose races, really."
The Wanamaker Mile will close the program at the Millrose Games, and the athletes don't get to touch the track until they go on the Garden floor to be introduced to the crowd. The only warm-up they get on the track itself is the half-lap stride-out during the introduction. This gives Lagat a distinct advantage.
"I want to just go in there with the feeling that this track is mine," said Lagat. "I feel I own it; the track is mine."
Growing up in Kenya, and even attending university in the United States, Lagat had no special tie to New York City. But New Yorkers love a winner, and Lagat has become a crowd favorite. He got warm applause the first time he won, and his relationship with Big Apple fans has only grown stronger.
"I wouldn't have expected that, getting a warm reception every time that I come," he marveled. "I really have come to have a good appreciation of the meeting itself. That is quite a history. It is nice times that I've been running in New York."
STATISTICAL SPOTLIGHT - Lagat's Wanamaker Mile Victories:
2001: 3:58.26 (beat L. Rotich and M. Carroll)
2003: 4:00:36 (beat V. Shabunin and L. Rotich)
2005: 3:52.87 MR (beat L. Rotich and A. Webb)
2006: 3:56.85 (beat K. Bekele and R. Silva)
2007: 3:54.26 (beat C. Mottram and C. Lukezic)
2008: 3:57.51 (beat C. Mottram and N. Willis)