Is Bernard Lagat about to “ruin” masters track?
Here’s how I thought world-class open runners were supposed to graduate into the masters ranks. Approaching their fortieth birthday, they become less and less competitive and more and more “inspirational.” They observe proper decorum and slow down, losing a step and then two, perhaps disappearing from the scene for a while as they try to avoid more wear and tear on bodies that have seen too many injuries brought on by too much hard training. When they emerge again, these new forty-year-olds enter open races to be pulled along by faster runners for a while, or enter masters competitions to relive that feeling of being the top dog. And all the while, they accept the generous applause that comes their way for their lifetime achievements and body of work. The fans appreciate them as track “oldies” whose presence brings back pleasant memories of past glory days.
But they are NOT supposed to pose any real threat to the young studs.
Well, obviously someone forgot to tell all this to Bernard Lagat, who turned 40 in December and is not following the script. Instead of lowering his expectations and his sights, he appears to be competing in high-profile open meets with the intention of winning races against world-class runners 10-20 years his junior.
For example, on Saturday night, Lagat came within a few hundredths of a second of winning the 3000m at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix meet in Boston. In the end, Dejan Gebremeskel had just enough to get by Lagat in the final meters, but Lagat showed a very good kick, closing in 54.05 seconds for the final 400, with a 26.22 last lap. It was a classic Lagat race, completely under control with a devastating turn of speed.
Not that he seemed too concerned about it, but Lagat’s time of 7:48.33 obliterated the previous 3000m masters world record by over 13 seconds. That would have been impressive even if the race had been set up as a time trial, but it was an honest-to-goodness race, complete with tactics and a burst of speed at the end. One has to think the time would have been a lot faster in an evenly-paced effort.
Lagat taking on the world as a forty-year-old and rewriting the record book brings to mind Merlene Ottey, the great Jamaican sprinter (now a Slovenian citizen), who holds the 100m and 200m rceords in the 35-39, 40-44, 45-49, and 50-54 age groups. To my mind, Ottey completely redefined possibilities for age-group sprinting. At the age of 44, she competed in the 2004 Olympic Games, where she set the 200m masters world record, running 22.72. No other woman has come close to that, or any of her other age-group marks. I don’t know if she’s still competing, but Ottey will turn 55 in May of this year, raising the possibility of still more records.
Lagat is a long way from that kind of longevity, but he does seem poised to rewrite the middle-distance records for his current age group and redefine the possibilities for 40-year-olds. To provide a little more context, here are some of the current Masters World Records for Men 40-44:
- 1500 – 3:44.12
- 1M – 3:58.15
- 3000 –
8:01.547:48.33 (Lagat, 2/7/15)
- 1500 – 3:42.02
- 1M – 4:01.62
- 3000 – 8:02.54
- 5000 – 13:43.15
Next weekend Lagat will be running the Wannamaker mile at the Millrose games. He’ll have his hands full racing a ridiculous field that includes Centrowitz, Willis, Manzano, Lalang, Cheserek, Leer, Jager, Casey, O’Hare, Merber, Wieczorek, and Gregorek. It’s hard to predict that he’ll win, but when the dust settles, it’s highly likely that Eamonn Coughlan’s master’s mile record will be history. And if there’s a timing device at 1500m, that record will be gone, too.
Who knows how long Lagat will go on, and how many records he’ll get around to breaking. If he stays healthy and has a pretty good year, he’ll get all of them. He might very well get the outdoor 3000 record en route to the 5000 record (remember, he ran 13:06 for 5000m last summer, which means he ran 5000m at an overall pace that would have brought him through 3k in 7:52…).
How crazy is that?
Lagat’s example might cause a lot of 40-year-olds to recalibrate their standards for excellence. I actually feel sorry for all the men in their early forties who are about to see the world records for their age group recede like distant galaxies in an expanding universe.