EUGENE, Ore. – Eyes bugging out, tongue wagging, legs kicking like few legs that wizened ever had kicked, the old man realized what he’d done and collapsed. Bernard Lagat’s mouth twisted the way one’s mouth twists when tears are nigh, and he lay on the Hayward Field track he’d just torched for the final time a big, messy puddle of triumph. He wasn’t supposed to be able to do this. No one ever had.
Lagat is 41 years old, which for any elite athlete is retirement-home age and for distance runners might as well be hospice. So to see him Saturday evening, over the final 400 meters of a 5,000-meter race passing a 24-year-old and a 30-year-old and another 30-year-old and a 25-year-old and finally a 26-year-old to take a lead he wouldn’t relinquish and clinching a berth in his fifth Olympics, was to see a man defying his failures and his weaknesses and the biggest handicap he somehow again put on pause: his age. Lagat will be the oldest American ever to run at an Olympics.
“I don’t believe I’m old,” Lagat said. “Because if you believe you’re old, I’m gonna run like an old man.”
When he crossed the finish line in 13 minutes, 35.5 seconds, two-tenths ahead of Hassan Mead and less than a half-second before the third qualifier in the 5k, Paul Chelimo, Lagat was incredulous. He’d bombed out the previous year at the Prefontaine Classic when he was sick. He didn’t finish the 10,000-meter race on the first day of U.S. Olympic qualifiers eight days earlier. And now he had kicked like so many of those millions of previous strides, only better, finishing the final 400 in a crackling 52.82 seconds that none of his competitors could match.
This wasn’t Kobe dropping 60 to end his career or Jeter walking off his final game at Yankee Stadium because the Rio Games beckon before Lagat retires from track racing, a decision he made over the winter. Still, it was one hell of a penultimate act, and quite the difficult one to follow.
The prospect of Lagat making his fifth Olympic team wasn’t entirely farfetched. Early in training, Chelima told him: “You’re going to make it to Rio.” Chelima followed up Saturday reminding Lagat that “age is just a number,” which was cute and all but undersells the wonder of Lagat.
After winning bronze and silver medals in the 1,500 meters for his native Kenya, Lagat was naturalized and began competing for the United States, where he had moved after going to college in 1998. He struggled in his first Olympics for the U.S. in 2008 and finished fourth in the 5,000 in 2012. The best time in the world this year is below 13 minutes, so Lagat has some time to shave between now and Rio.
Until then, he gets to enjoy the fruits of his achievement, something that started almost immediately in the aftermath of his win. After leaving his son, Miika, and daughter, Gianni, disappointed with his showing at the Prefontaine last year, he promised a better result. Especially because of Gianni’s request. “My daughter,” Lagat said, “tells me, ‘Daddy, I want you to make it to the Olympics so I can go watch gymnastics.’ ”
She’ll get to see Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles and the rest of the stars representing the United States. Her dad will be among the most popular, certainly, reinforced before the race when the passionate fans at Hayward lionized him and afterward when his peers couldn’t stop congratulating him.
As he waited next to the stage where he later would collect his gold medal, Lagat entertained a parade of people. Friends wanted selfies. Gianna wedged herself into them, clutching her plush Clifford the Big Red Dog. Others just needed a hug. Sprinter Justin Gatlin, who won the 200-meter dash and will also run the 100 in Rio, pulled Lagat close, then let him go to make a point.
“It’s all here,” said Gatlin, pointing to his heart. “It’s all here.”
Sanya Richards-Ross, the three-time Olympic sprinter who retired at 31 after the trials, embraced Lagat after delivering a fair assessment of his day. “The race of his life!” Richards-Ross said.
If not the apex, it was close. Lagat hung in the middle of the pack as Galen Rupp, who already had qualified in the marathon and 10,000 meters, surged to a lead he held going into the last lap. In the 10k, Lagat had made his move too early and faltered. His coach, James Li, told him to hang, hang, hang and then show the sort of speed that made him the post-Hicham El Guerrouj king of the 1,500.
“It was not really about the last lap,” Lagat said, and, yes, the 4,600 previous meters were important strategically. The last lap is what all the racers will remember, though, because it’s when Lagat made the rest of the field look old.
“I thought I was gonna win for a second,” Mead said.
“I tried pushing, but my legs gave up,” Chelimo said.
Both looked ahead and saw a familiar silhouette: shaved head, gray tank, black shorts, winning again. The rest of the world had a much better view of Bernard Lagat, of his wild eyes and his frothing tongue and especially his magical legs that made age a number second in consequence only to the 13:35.50 that sent him to Rio.