THE TURNING POINT for Lopez Lomong came after a 2016 that was one of the most difficult years in his life. Already well known as a 2-time Olympian—and the U.S. flag bearer at Beijing in ’08—the former Sudanese refugee had struggled with injuries for several years.
Then came the news that he had lost his father and two brothers back home in a land that has been ravaged by civil war for decades.
“That made me unfocused,” he says. “I talked to my wife. There was a lot going on in my mind: ‘The training is not going well, the injury is not going away and you know, maybe this is the end of the road.’ In my heart, I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’m not that kind of person who needs to walk away. I didn’t choose this sport; this sport chose me.’ My wife told me, ‘Hey, if you still love this sport, you should go on and do it, and do it to your fullest.’
“Everything happened for a reason and these things, we’re going to get through them. I want to celebrate the people that lost their lives. I put it out there and I’m going to do it, not for me, but for them. That’s what turned it around coming into 2017.”
Working with the Bowerman TC’s Jerry Schumacher and his team, Lomong was able to use the weightroom to help break the injury cycle. Even though he didn’t make the Worlds team in ’17—he placed 5th in the USATF 5000—he was healthy and getting stronger.
Schumacher urged him to try the 10,000. “I refused,” Lomong remembers. “And he said, ‘Well, maybe you do the 10,000 in 2018.’ I refused again.” Finally, Schumacher framed it as a workout. “OK, sounds good,” said Lomong. “I don’t want to keep doing workouts by myself.”
His first effort at the 25-lapper came at the ’18 Stanford Invitational, where he placed 2nd in 28:21.37. “I got beat. I got to like, 500 to go, and I wanted to drop out. It was just so painful. I was like, ‘I don’t think I can manage another lap here.’ It was tough.
“We went back to work and then we went to the USA Championships in Des Moines [where he won the 10K title]. And I was like, ‘Oh, I won this race! Maybe I could be better at this race.’”
Lomong’s tune had changed. “I found I am still able to do well at a challenge,” he explains, “and it basically was a great thing because anything that challenges me, I always want to do better and work hard at improving.”
It was a big changeup after a career spent mostly in the 1500, with 6 U.S. Rankings at that distance and another in the 800. In ’07, as a Northern Arizona soph, he won the NCAA Indoor 3000 and Outdoor 1500. That fall he went on to show promise at the 10K, taking 3rd in the NCAA XC before signing with Nike and turning pro. The subsequent Olympic campaign found him placing 3rd in the OT 1500 after taking 5th in the 800 in his still-standing PR of 1:45.58.
In ’09 he made the World Champs 1500 final, placing 8th. The next year he hit his PR of 3:32.20. In ’12 he undertook the move to the 5000, qualifying for the Olympic final. He made the WC 1500 team again in ’13, but after that injuries came with more frequency. For the next three years he struggled.
Then came the post-Rio rebirth. The move to 10,000 over the next year and a half, he admits, was a stretch. It helped that he is a student of the sport: “I’m still kind of young in distance running, because my expertise was middle distance. What I liked about the 800 [with his 1:45 speed] is that it is all-out. It’s a speed-endurance race, which I love and I understand really well. The same with the 1500.
“Moving to 5000, well, it’s kind of slow, but the last 2K or 1K it becomes really hectic. But after watching lots of films, all of the last 10–15 years of 5000 championship-style races, I really studied what I need to do to perform really well in closing at the end.
“I’ve been studying in my off-seasons, especially in 2018 when I first ran the 10,000. I’m a student of the sport. I like to read to understand. I like to watch films. And I also like to ask a lot of questions, especially with some of the guys who have been in the 10,000 for a long time. And I also ask Jerry. So I have a lot of great tools in my toolbox.”
One key to his recent success, he believes, is that he stayed in touch with his speed while also working on his endurance. It showed at the ’19 USATF meet, where he finished off a dominating 27:30.06 victory with a 55.59 final lap. Just 3 days later he won the 5000 with an even-faster last lap of 53.34.
A month before Doha he finished 2nd to teammate Woody Kincaid in the Portland one-off, crushing his 5000 best with a 13:00.13 and moving to No. 9 U.S. all-time.
Then came Doha. He felt ready for the longer race: “It was my first championship-style 10,000, especially internationally. The first time I lined up with these African guys who are really very competitive and they are all working together as a team. The only person I had to key on was [Canadian training partner] Moh Ahmed, who won his 5K bronze medal 6 days before.
“My coach was like, ‘Just go out there, position yourself, just run the race and try to pick off as many people as possible.’ I was a little bit nervous, especially going into the tunnel. Like what if they start rolling, like maybe 26:40s or something like that? I don’t want to be running by myself in no man’s land.”
Accordingly, he decided to gamble and go with the pack, analyzing, “So I just thought, ‘If they have to drop me in the first 5K or whatever, that’s OK. It’s a learning process. I need to know what to get used to if I mean to be a good 10,000 guy.’
“If I have to line up at the Olympics next year in Tokyo, these are the same guys that I’m going to run with. I need to go back and move on from where they dropped me, where I need to improve. I need to make my workouts a little bit better to be able to do this. So I just put myself out there.
“I was there with Moh, following him a little bit, and it gets to the point where I was like, ‘Oh man, I feel awesome, I think I want to go.’ And Moh kept telling me to chill for a little bit, ‘It’s going to go, it’s going to go.’ And we got to the 7K and they started to roll.” The latter stages, he says, were “really, really tough” but continues, “When I crossed that line, I thought I was going to die because I literally took 26 seconds off my PR. And I passed so many great people, some of the best athletes in the world.”
He had stayed with the pace into the final kilometer and finished 7th with a PR 27:04.72 that made him No. 3 ever among Americans. “It was a good celebratory moment,” he remembers. “I put everything out there for my country. I ran with pride.” He ended up earning his first World Ranking in any event, No. 10.
With the 5000 coming first on next year’s OT schedule, Lomong sees no reason not to tackle both distances: “Absolutely. I’m one of those guys, I like to compete. I love to have an opportunity again to put a USA jersey on my chest. I’ll be ready when the time comes.”
With global championships scheduled each of the next 5 years, Lomong isn’t thinking of retirement any time soon, even though he will turn 36 in January. “As long as there is a challenge out there, I’m going to put myself in,” he says. “But my concentration right now is year-by-year. My dream, and all my energy is focused on Tokyo 2021 and then the 2022 Worlds.”