LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As Bernard Lagat pounds the familiar back roads near his home in Tucson, Arizona, on another day of intense training, he suddenly hears a faint warning voice behind him.
“Car! Car!” cautions the small voice, unmistakably belonging to Lagat’s two-year-old son Miika who is watching from the roadside with his mother, Gladys.
Whether it is his coach James Li preaching pace or young Miika warning him about oncoming cars, double world champion Lagat is taking it all in, absorbing everything in preparation for August’s Beijing Olympics.
“There’s always something new to learn,” the Kenyan-born American Lagat told Reuters. “I can never sit back and relax, I have a long way to go before the Olympics.”
For the last decade, Lagat has been one of the world’s top middle-distance runners but, in many ways, he considers himself still a student in the sport.
“You have to approach each race, each training session with an open mind and try to take something away from it,” the 33-year-old said.
Lagat has already taken plenty away from his career on the track. He won a silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and a bronze at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
Last year in Osaka, Japan, he became the first athlete to win the 1,500 and 5,000 at the same outdoor world championships. He is also the U.S. indoor record holder for the 1,500, the mile and the 3,000.
Lagat, who became a U.S. citizen in 2004, has a resume that would make most runners envious. However, he has never rested on his laurels and the key to his sustained excellence has been his ability to keep evolving through each competition.
At last month’s Adidas Track Classic in Carson, California, he produced his trademark late kick to win the 1,500 after the race had to be restarted because of an early crash involving three runners.
Rather than lament the delay and possibly lose concentration, Lagat relished the disruptions as a unique opportunity.
”I was glad it happened,“ he said. ”You don’t want anyone to get hurt but it’s a situation you can grow from. When something like that happens you have to recoup again real quickly.
“I’ve been in a few collisions before. It doesn’t happen often but you have to always be prepared.”
The favorite for the 1,500 and a contender for the 5,000 in Beijing, Lagat has been working hard on his running patience which was on full display in Carson where he kicked into high gear for the final 200 meters, breaking away from the pack to win in 3:35.14.
Lopez Lomong, a 23-year-old Sudanese-American who finished fourth despite falling early on after being pushed from behind, regards Lagat as a mentor.
“He’s so well prepared and he knows everything about racing -- every turn and every part of the track,” Lomong said. “I use him a lot as a benchmark because of his running ability and when I ask him questions he always gives me straight answers.”
In his final preparations for Beijing, Lagat will spend most of his time putting himself through endless drills including running 10 miles at a 55-minute pace. He will also enjoy family time with his wife and son.
Most of all, though, Lagat will keep on learning as much as he can.
“In racing, you have to be smart and use tactics,” he said. “For me, it’s all about patience. I have to learn how to ration my energy, but I‘m a quick learner.”
Editing by Clare Fallon