Time means everything to a runner.
Every step equals another second ticking away, every race another chance to beat the clock.
And every season can rob a bit more spring from the legs.
Bernard Lagat understands all of this. Still, at the relatively advanced age of 37, the veteran distance runner shows a wry smile when asked if it’s time to quit.
“You know what?” he said. “I’m still enjoying it.”
Maybe because he is still winning.
Although many of his contemporaries are fading away, Lagat remains a star on the American track scene, extending his career to extraordinary lengths by going longer, not faster.
Switching his focus away from the 1,500 meters — in which he won his first Olympic medal more than a decade ago — the naturalized U.S. citizen ranks among the early favorites in the 5,000 meters at the 2012 London Games.
“My endurance gets better as I get older,” he said. “I can handle the distance.”
Luck and genetics have surely played a role in his longevity, but other factors should not be overlooked.
This is a genuinely happy man, often smiling, eager to chat, his peaceful demeanor suited to the rigors of distance running. Just as important, he came to the sport relatively late.
Though Lagat had a fairly typical Kenyan upbringing — he ran more than a mile to school each morning, then ran back to the family farm in the afternoon — he was not among the fastest or most determined boys in his country.
Only after enrolling at Jomo Kenyatta University College of Agriculture and Technology did he begin to take track seriously. Even then, his times were barely fast enough to qualify him for a scholarship to distant Washington State.
So, while contemporaries ground away on the international circuit, Lagat laid the foundation for a delayed career.
Washington State coach James Li played a key role. Competing against larger, more established programs, he put his athletes on a training regimen that emphasized quality over quantity.
“When you have 10 good runners you probably can afford to hammer them,” said Li, who is now at Arizona. “I couldn’t afford to do that because if my one guy got hurt, we weren’t going to be very good.”
A measured routine suited Lagat, who won four conference championships and several NCAA titles.
“A lot of times, coaches need to be careful about what they do,” Li said. “I’m not a factory. I cannot manufacture champions. The best thing I did for him was that I didn’t push him too hard or mess him up or ruin him.”
Well into his 20s, just finishing with college, Lagat began to hit his stride.
Racing for Kenya, he won bronze in the 1,500 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He also took silver at the 2001 world championships.
Through the years, he and Li stayed together and followed their original plan, limiting the amount of miles Lagat ran each week. His agent was careful about entering him in a reasonable number of races each season.
“That is a formula that has worked and I will never change it,” Lagat said. “I train just hard enough to keep me in good shape.”
Living in this country since 1996, he became a citizen in 2004. Three years later he gave the U.S. its first world championship at 1,500 meters and also took gold in the 5,000, the distance that would soon become a priority.
As the runner approached his late 30s, he found that “the training I could do, I could not have done in college.”
The longer distance felt comfortable and those legs still had some miles in them. But questions about age and declining skills arose after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which he failed to qualify for the 1,500-meter final and faded to ninth in the 5,000.
Struggling with an injury at those Games, Lagat now says he never doubted his ability to rebound.
He proved it with silver medals in the 5,000 at the 2009 and 2011 world championships. More recently, he won his third indoor world championship at 3,000 meters, outracing the likes of Britain’s Mo Farah and Kenya’s Augustine Choge.
“He’s one of my great athletes,” Choge told reporters after that race. “I know he has been there for a long time and he has been really improving year by year.”
Now comes a chance to avenge the disappointment of Beijing and achieve the one result missing from an otherwise historic career.
“In the Olympics, I don’t have a gold medal,” Lagat said. “When I wake up every day, I know this is what I want.”
But don’t think of London as his swan song, his one last gasp. He has been running for a long time and doesn’t feel the need to stop now.
“I’m having so much fun,” he said. “I don’t see any end in sight.”