LOUISVILLE, KY (16-Nov) -- Lawi Lalang, the defending NCAA Division I Cross Country champion from the University of Arizona, smiles as he speaks to a reporter here today. The lanky Kenyan from the village of Chebaon in the Rift Valley is talking about Bernard Lagat, the two-time Olympic medalist who, like him, is coached by James Li. Lagat, he says, has told him a secret.
"Sometimes we train with them," Lalang says of Lagat and his Olympic teammate Abdi Abdirahman. "Every now and then when I am training I remember one thing that he told me. He told me like this: you need to keep something inside you when you are just practicing. Knowing that, you'll just take it out during the race."
Like Lagat, Lalang is a game-day athlete. At last year's cross country championships he comfortably beat the field by 14 seconds. That set up a dominating year in 2012 where he set an NCAA 5000m indoor record of 13:08.28 at the Millrose Games (just behind Lagat's American record of 13:07.15), won both the NCAA 3000m and 5000m indoor titles, and took third in the 5000m at the NCAA outdoor championships. He also clocked personal bests at 1500m (3:36.77), mile (3:55.09i), 3000m (7:44.48i), and 5000m outdoors (13:18.88).
His fall cross country season has been no less impressive. He won the Wisconsin adidas Invitational in Madison on Oct. 27, setting a course record 23:03 for the 8-kilometer distance, then won the Pac-12 conference and NCAA West Regional titles. He's clearly confident, but realizes that the race is a long way from being in the bag.
"It's going to be tough because there's a lot of tough guys out there," he says. "But, I'm ready to go with them and fight for it. At the end of the day the winner will come out."
Lalang is one of seven children (he has three brothers and three sisters). His older brother Boaz is also coached by James Li, and won silver medals at 800m at both the IAAF World Indoor Championships in 2010 and the All Africa Games in 2011. Lalang ran in high school in Kenya, but he said he did not receive any formal coaching. All of his development, he said, took place in Arizona.
"I was not well-trained because I didn't have a coach," he explained. "I was just talking with my brother and he was giving me some guidelines in what to do. The only think I was doing was some long runs and some tempo runs, but I didn't do anything like core (training) or lifting."
The last man to successfully defend his title at this meet was also a Kenyan, Sam Chelanga, who won in both 2009 and 2010 for Liberty University. Interestingly, Lalang will have to beat two other strong Kenyans --his Arizona teammate Stephen Sambu and Texas Tech's Kennedy Kithuka-- to duplicate Chelanga's feat. He thinks he can do it.
"I'm really confident," he said. "It's a matter of going there and doing your best. I think I have a chance."
PHOTO: Lawi Lalang before the 2012 Division I NCAA Cross Country Championships (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)