Bernard Lagat, the U.S. 1500m record holder and, at different points, a rival of icons Hicham El Guerrouj, Kenenisa Bekele and Mo Farah, recently chatted with the man chasing not only his own American records but also today’s great middle-distance runners from Lagat’s birth nation of Kenya.
That man is Matthew Centrowitz, who is 25 years old and 15 years younger than Lagat.
“I told him,” Lagat said, “You can actually pull this together. This year is yours.”
Centrowitz, the son of two-time Olympian Matt Centrowitz, in the 1500m finished third at the 2011 World Championships, fourth at the 2012 Olympics and second at the 2013 World Championships. He missed three gold medals by a combined 1.98 seconds.
There were no major championships in 2014, but Centrowitz is planning the new calendar around the World Championships in Beijing in August.
The man with CITIUS tattooed on his right shoulder blade has been quite fast on the track and quick-witted off of it this indoor season.
He clowns in press conferences. Three weeks ago, he debated Olympic medalist jumper Will Claye over who’s a better video-game player before the Armory Track Invitational in New York.
The next day, he ran the opening leg on a U.S. world record in the distance medley relay, a rarely contested event combining a 1200m, 400m, 800m and mile.
The week after that, Centrowitz prevailed in a 1000m at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, clocking a meet-record 2:17.00, just off the American record of 2:16.76.
In a press conference for the NYRR Millrose Games last week, Centrowitz warned Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton to worry about finding the right Valentine’s Day gift for his wife, the Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton.
After a round of laughs, Centrowitz was asked if his girlfriend was in New York for the weekend.
“Let’s get back to racing,” he said.
Centrowitz did just that on Saturday night, holding off New Zealand’s Nick Willis to capture the Wanamaker Mile at the Armory, the Millrose Games’ showcase event.
“You can tell, right now, with the confidence he has, that guy is going to do wonderful things,” said Lagat, a record eight-time Wanamaker Mile winner who finished 3.56 seconds behind Centrowitz on Saturday. “My money’s for him in Beijing. I hope he has that quiet, silent confidence. Go with confidence and then unleash everything in Beijing. He’s going to win that gold.”
Centrowitz ran for the University of Oregon and has trained with Alberto Salazar‘s Nike Oregon Project for the last three years. The group includes Olympic 10,000m gold and silver medalists Farah and Galen Rupp, among others.
Lagat, who does not train in that group, has seen Centrowitz grow.
“He matured with them,” Lagat said. “His ambition is no longer just to be the best in the country. He wants to be the best in the world.”
To do that, Centrowitz must improve his final lap — his kick — and conquer the best from Kenya.
Centrowitz is known as a strong race tactician despite his youth. Here’s where he stood going into the final lap of the 2011 Worlds, 2012 Olympics and 2013 Worlds finals:
A runner ahead of Centrowitz in all three races won the gold — Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop in 2011 and 2013 and Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi in 2012.
Kiprop and countryman Silas Kiplagat were the most formidable 1500m runners last season. Kiprop is listed at 6 feet, 2 inches, five inches taller than Centrowitz. They are the same age. Kiprop won the 2008 Olympic 1500m at 19 years old but finished 12th in 2012, slowed by a hamstring injury.
“Kiprop is a guy that is unpredictable,” Lagat said. “He can be awesome in the semifinal, and then he crumbles under the pressure in the finals. … [Centrowitz] is slowly by slowly realizing that I need that speed to run with Kiprop in the major championships to get a chance to win.”
So Centrowitz has spent more time on shorter-distance work this indoor season, outside that Wanamaker Mile.
“The best way to beat Kiprop in a race is outkicking him,” Centrowitz said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to be running away from a 3:27, 3:26 guy. So this year is all about working on my bottom-end speed.”
Centrowitz faced Kiprop and Kiplagat in the premier 1500m last season in Monaco, when Kiprop aimed at El Guerrouj’s 16-year-old world record of 3:26.
Though Centrowitz finished ninth, 3.45 seconds behind the surprise winner Kiplagat, he still cut .87 off his personal best.
“It was a weird race for me,” said Centrowitz, who ran 3:31.09. “I walked away feeling like I was capable of much faster.”
And Centrowitz said what he learned from that experience can translate to the World Championships, where the final will surely be at a less blistering early pace.
“It allows for me to run a slower race feeling a lot better, for those championship-type of races,” he said.