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Lagat adds star power to Millrose Games

Eight-time Wanamaker mile champion Bernard Lagat poses after

Eight-time Wanamaker mile champion Bernard Lagat poses after a news conference in New York. (January 26, 2010) Credit: AP

This may not be the best time, given the economic climate and populist anger, to be throwing around descriptions of Madison Square Garden's "banked" track and the Millrose Games' "Chairman of the Boards."

But Bernard Lagat's presence in Friday night's Wanamaker Mile not only serves as a stimulating event for the sport but also encapsulates less troubled times for a meet that has been slipping from its status as special to something increasingly rare.

Lagat, the 35-year-old Kenyan-born American, is attempting to surpass the record seven Wanamaker Mile victories established by the aforementioned CEO of indoor track, Eamonn Coghlan, in the 1970s and '80s when Millrose sellouts were standard procedure. In doing so, he is dealing again with the Garden's tight, steeply inclined 11-lap-to-the-mile track - a running surface typical of the bygone winter track circuit that once filled basketball/hockey arenas throughout the Northeast.

These days, the Garden/Millrose scene is unique.

"The track is really close, the fans are really close," Lagat said. "It's really loud. It's hard to pass. That's the lesson I learned [in his first Millrose in 2001]. You have to be careful not to be in an awkward position, especially on the last lap."

Plus, there is the matter of warming up. Because the arena is filled with runners, jumpers and even throwers (in the shot put) all evening, and the Wanamaker Mile is the last event on the schedule, the milers have no opportunity to get a feel for the track. "You don't even have a chance to practice," Lagat said. "We only get on the track during introductions for our race."

It helps, he said, that he is not a big man - 5-8, 134 - and it is his recollection, from his first experience, that while "it's only when you're running that this one [track] seems like a little too small, but the steep banks did not affect me at all. I don't remember much about it except I was running a good time and having fun."

He has gone under four minutes in six of his seven previous victories, with a Millrose record of 3:52.87 in 2005 that brought him the Fred Schmertz Trophy as most valuable Millrose athlete. (The trophy still sits in his Tucson home.) For Friday's race, Coghlan and former mile stars Jim Ryun and Marcus O'Sullivan will be in attendance.

And, though Ethiopia's Deresse Mekonnen, who out-kicked Lagat for the silver medal in last year's 1,500 meters at the outdoor world championships, withdrew from the Wanamaker on Tuesday because of visa problems, he was replaced by reigning Olympic 1,500 champ Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia.

Lagat edged Bekele in the 2006 Wanamaker, "but I am taking this seriously," Lagat said. "I want to be the athlete to win an eighth time. There are guys in the race who have beaten me. But, it's not fear for me, it's uncertainly. And I like that."

Married, with two young children, Lagat has been hearing for some time that his career could be winding down. After winning both the 1,500 and 5,000 at the 2007 outdoor world championships, he came up empty in both events at the 2008 Olympics, hobbled by a bad Achilles. (Now an American citizen, his two Olympic silver medals in the 1,500, at the 2000 and 2004 Games, both were won when he competed for Kenya.)

"When you get older," he said, "they always say, 'That guy is about done.' It's the reality of track and field. You have one bad year and it's, 'Oh, he's done.' But I feel strong. I will stay until 2012 [for the London Olympics]. People will say, 'Man, this guy's crazy. He wants to go to a fourth Olympics at 37?' "

His only concession to advancing time, in a sport that applies the competing measures of 100ths of a second and the four-year Olympic cycle, is that he now is turning his focus to the 5,000 meters. His 1,500 races, from now on, will be speed work for the longer distance.

"And, after 2012, why not try something else, maybe the marathon," he said. At least he won't be running that in a room better suited for basketball or hockey.

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