Lopez Lomong Is Defying Age Conventions

“Grandpa” Lopez Lomong was the U.S. flagbearer at the ’08 Olympics in Beijing. (GIANCARLO COLOMBO/PHOTO RUN)

TRACK & FIELD is no different from any other sport. There comes a time, usually around age 35, when an athlete must quit. Retirement is not an option but an inevitability. There are exceptions: Tom Brady and Nolan Ryan come to mind; in tennis, Serena Williams and Roger Federer; in swimming, Dara Torres.

And in running, Bernard Lagat. Says USATF double champ Lopez Lomong, “He set a bar. Obviously, Bernard Lagat has been really good for this sport for a long time.” That is because Lagat had such an uninterrupted series of successes. He was a double NCAA champion at 24, an Olympic silver medalist at 25, a double world champion at 31, an Olympic finalist at 41.

That is not Lomong’s story. He hasn’t run in an Olympics or World Championships since ’13. At 34, he could have been thinking about what was behind rather than what is ahead. After all, the former Lost Boy Of Sudan was a 2-time Olympian, U.S. flag-bearer, inspiration to a generation. His legacy was secure.

“I don’t want to walk out of the sport and say, ‘I wish I’d got this,’” he says. After his Des Moines double, Lomong is not walking anywhere. He is running into history—and perhaps even into the medal mix at the World Championships?

He won the USATF 10,000 on Thursday in 27:30.06, closing in 55.59. He won the 5000 on Sunday, closing in 53.34. Such speed can put a runner in contention in championships. Other contenders—notably Ethiopians and Kenyans—might have to consider a punishing pace to avoid Lomong at the end. In the 5000, he outkicked Paul Chelimo, silver medalist from the Rio Olympics.

Lomong doesn’t have the Doha 5000 Q of 13:22.50 but has planned all along to concentrate on the 10,000. His younger self would not have believed it. He had never run a 10K on the track until a 28:21.37 in March ’18 at Stanford. “It was terrible,” he recalls. “I finished 2nd, and I was like, ‘Forget it. I don’t want to do it any more.’” (see Lomong’s video interview after that race here)

He reconsidered, winning a tactical 10,000 in 28:58.38 for his first national title at that distance later in the year. Shadrack Kipchirchir would not allow that in Des Moines, leading the field for most of the race, but Lomong never let him separate. Bowerman TC coaches Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert prepared Lomong for that… and any other tactic, for that matter.

“We practiced all the scenarios in the last 17 weeks,” Lomong says. “We just both said, ‘We can drop 62 or 60, and we still feel like not breathing too hard.’” He felt so good afterward, in fact, that he was eager to run a heat of the 1500 the next day. His coaches advised against it, and Lomong conceded they were right.

But he had never won the 5,000 and resolved to add that to his résumé. He became the first to win a 5K/10K double since Galen Rupp in ’12, first ever to win national 15/5/10 titles in a career, and first in more than a century to triple at comparable distances.

(Alex Grant won once at 880y, 4 times in the mile, twice in the 2M, once in the 2M steeplechase and twice in the 5M between 1899 and 1904.)

Doubling only underscored how fit Lomong was a dozen years after he was an NCAA 1500 champion. Says Dobert, “You have a very long gap between U.S. Champs and World Champs. And yet we don’t typically race a lot. Between championships, for sure. We use that time to get in better shape and go to altitude. When we’re at altitude, we don’t like to race a lot. So when we’re at the championships, it’s nice to let our athletes race. He was on board with the doubling, we were on board with doubling.” Lomong acknowledges he aims at doubling in Tokyo.

Hamstring and iliotibial band injuries plus sciatica sabotaged recent seasons. Chiropractor John Ball treated those issues, allowing Lomong to train with younger Bowerman teammates. He calls himself the “grandpa” of the group but says he is fueled by their young energy. “When you’re injury-free, you can maximize your training. And that’s what I did,” he says. “I’m eating well and sleeping well and doing everything I can to win these kinds of races.”

Few have ever had the range to run 1:45.58 for the 800 plus 27:30.06 for 10K, as Lomong has. His other PRs include 3:32.20 in the 1500, 3:51.45 for a mile and 13:07.95 for 5000. “That’s amazing. I didn’t think about that,” he says. “It’s something I celebrate about. I just put my head down.

“In the World Championships, we’ll see what I can do. I’ll go back to the drawing board and see how I can go back and be competitive.”

He says “speed was always there,” but it has taken years to develop the endurance on display in Iowa. He says he is motivated by supportive fans and a long-held desire to represent the United States: “I don’t want to walk out of this sport like, ‘Man, I wish I could have done a little bit better.’ I could leave something to this sport.” ◻︎

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