Lagat chases history at the Garden

(photo by Errol Anderson)

By Christopher Hunt

Bernard Lagat barely remembers his first Wanamaker Mile win at the Millrose Games in 2001. What he does remember is being enchanted by New York City and Madison Square Garden so much so that he didn’t even realize that the track would be, well, umm, weird.

“I was getting overwhelmed by the city, not even thinking about the race,” he said at a Millrose Games press conference Tuesday. “So I came into the race not knowing anything about the track. It wasn’t until we were running where I was like, ‘Wow, this one seems a little too small.’”

He had been so intoxicated by the Manhattan lights that he missed one of the Millrose Games’ most unique qualities, its 11-lap-to-the-mile track. But nine years and seven Wanamaker wins later, Lagat practically owns the track at the Garden --the same track that he will aim to break Eamonn Coghlan’s record for most wins Friday at the 103rd Millrose Games.

Lagat is still enchanted. But he’s not simply taking in the experience. He is the reason many people bought a ticket. Lagat is part of the experience.

Now he will have one of his toughest races for his historic run. Deresse Mekonnen of Ethiopia withdrew from the race but was replaced by 2008 Olympic 1,500-meter champ Asbel Kiprop. Then there’s Great Britain’s Andy Baddeley, who looked strong running 3:55.64 to win at the New Balance Games Saturday and beat Lagat at the Fifth Avenue Mile.

“I really want it so bad,” Lagat said. “I just want this eighth one. I’m glad Asbel is here. Andy Baddeley is here. They are going to make it go fast. I like running under pressure and when I look at these guys, they’re not easy guys. They have beaten me before. Sometimes you have that, not fear, but uncertainty that I might lose today. Am I really going to win today? That drives me crazy in a race. But I think I like that.”

It’s not just that Lagat likes the pressure. He loves that the crowd is so close to the track and that they cut the lights and sing the national anthem before the race introductions. He loves the drama of it all. He loves that they run the Wanamaker Mile last and that no one will leave until he breaks the tape.

“The fact that people stay all the way into the last race is really important,” Lagat said. “It’s really special. They always make the mile one of the last events, if not the last one. Sometimes you find people leaving early. But they always wait until the last minute and that makes it special. When we get those people that are still there from when the event starts until the last event. You still have those people so the noise is incredible. “

And people will stay because they want to see him make history at the world’s oldest indoor track meet at the World’s Most Famous Arena while some of the world’s greatest milers like Jim Ryun and Marcus O’Sullivan and, of course, Eamonn Coghlan, “Chairman of the Boards” watch him.

Lagat said that he will concentrate on the 5,000 from now on. But he still has one more big mile to win. And he’s done it everyway possible in the Garden, including when he came back on New Zealand’s Nick Willis after Willis blew by him before the bell lap. But his favorite is when he broke Coghlan’s Wanamaker mile time record in 2005.

The night before Lagat spotted the Fred Schmertz Trophy in a hospitality room and asked Howard Schmertz how he could take it home.

“All you have to do is break the record. Run fast,” said Howard, the legendary meet director emeritus and whose father the trophy is named after.

“So if I run the record, I will get that?" Lagat asked.

Then the next night he did what seemed almost ridiculous, blew the doors off Kenya’s Laban Rotich and ran 3:52.87.

“To run 3:52 was really hard because of that track,” he said. “Knowing it in your head really put some limitations mentally. But I just went for it. I wasn’t even sure I was on the record but then in the middle of the race I knew it. We were going so fast.”

A year later, Lagat wasn’t even sure he would race. His son Miika was born and his wife had complications during birth. He said he only committed to the race a week ahead of time, sleep was a gift instead of a routine and he was lucky if he hit 30 miles through his training week. He still beat Ethophia’s Kenenisa Bekele by almost five seconds. Then he outkicked the brash Australian Craig Mottram in 2007, did it again in 2008 and survived Willis’s sneak attack last year.

Lagat says, at 35, he is in similar shape to his record 2005 race and knows that when the lights shine on the Wanamaker Mile at the end of the night, Lagat and his run at history -- that’s the show.

“To win seven we all know is a great achievement and I was able to do that last year,” he said. “This is now what makes me come back. I just want to be that athlete that has won eight of them. I don’t take that lightly.”

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