By Bob Ramsak
STUTTGART, Germany –- When he effortlessly kicked past Ethiopian Abreham Cherkos to win the 3000m at last Saturday’s Sparkassen Cup in Stuttgart, it was abundantly clear that this was not the same Bernard Lagat who struggled at last summer’s Olympic Games.
“Yeah, I have my speed back,” said Lagat, who was hoping to succeed Hicham El Guerrouj as the Olympic champion at both the 1500 and 5000m. But it wasn’t quite in the cards for the Kenyan-born American, who captured both world titles the year before in Osaka.
“It was unfortunate what happened in Beijing. I developed an injury training in my summer home here in Tübingen, and it was really hard for me to train hard. So everybody was in good shape at the Olympic, and I was not.”
Lagat won both events at the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June, but in Beijing he didn’t advance from the semi-finals in the 1500m, and was never a factor in the 5000m, finishing a distant ninth, nearly 30 seconds behind winner Kenenisa Bekele.
That experience, he said, is now in the past.
“I’m getting my speed back, and I can train without any problems. I’m hoping for good things for Berlin.”
For now, Lagat said he’s planning to defend both titles in the German capital in August. As the reigning champion, he’s given automatic entry by the IAAF, while national rules simply require that he compete at the U.S. Championships without the added pressure of finishing among the top-three. The United States could field four athletes in both the men's 1500m and 500m in Berlin.
Training and competition-wise, he said, “Nothing is going to change this year. I’m hoping to run both events, but I’ll have to make a realistic judgment when it’s closer to the World Championships. If the 1500 is going better, I’ll choose that. If the 5000 is going better, I’ll run that.”
And with two solid races behind him this indoor season, and three to go, Lagat believes he’s right on target for August.
“I won in New York and knew I was in good shape,” he said of his record-equaling seventh victory in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games on Jan. 30. “I’ve been training really well, and my coach has been brilliant. Even before coming to New York, I knew that I was in better shape than last year.”
He added that while his 7:35.41 run in Stuttgart’s Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle wasn’t indicative of that form --his target was his own American record of 7:32.43, which ranks him as the fifth fastest in history-- it did show him that things are progressing nicely.
“I felt really good. I could have gone faster. I was thinking, ‘Should I take it?’ But with two kilometers to go, I decided to just reserve my energy and to run for the win. Then the pacing was a little short. I saw 5:07 at two kilometers, and to get it back was a little late. I was hoping for 5:03 or 5:04. I was hoping to get the American record but I missed it my a lot.”
Although the record fell out of reach, he knew the victory wouldn’t. Cherkos made his move at the bell, moving to the front but just a stride ahead of Lagat.
“I knew I was going to pass him. When you have that confidence you don’t panic. I actually let him go so I could catch him in the end.”
He’s taking that confidence on the road, first to Liévin, France, for tonight’s Meeting du Pas-de-Calais, where he’ll start as the favorite in the mile. He’ll face Frenchman Mehdi Baala, who at 30 will be making his debut over the distance, either indoors or out. Baala too displayed good form on Saturday with his runner-up finish in the 1000m clocking 2:17.29, just shy of his 2:17.01 national record.
“I’m looking forward to Liévin,” Lagat said. “Hopefully we can run fast.” After that, he’ll head to the Aviva Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham, England, on Feb. 21, where he’s been assured of a fast race. Meet organizer Ian Stewart "has promised me that he’s going to make it really fast,” Lagat added. Then he’ll wind up the indoor season with a memorable first in his career, his first appearance at the U.S. Indoor Championships, set for Boston on Saturday, February 28.
“I’m really excited about that,” he said.
PHOTO: Bernard Lagat prior to his 3000m race in Stuttgart on Feb. 7, 2009 (photo by Bob Ramsak, Race Results Weekly)