By Chris Lotsbom
NEW YORK (17-Feb) -- For American Lopez Lomong, winning the NYRR Wanamaker Mile last night here at the 106th Millrose Games was something special and dear to his heart. Earning the victory in his home state, Lomong saw the race as a way to honor his family and those who have supported him since moving to New York as a South Sudanese refugee in 2001.
"I just wanted to come here and run a race that would give back to my family," said Lomong, 28.
Settling into the pack after the gun sounded, Lomong executed his pre-race strategy to perfection. Prior to toeing the line, Lomong's coach Jerry Schumacher had told him to let the race come back to him, knowing it would likely be on the faster end through the first 1000 meters.
"The race was going to be tactical. I knew it was going to be very quick so I just wanted to sit there," he said. Content running in fifth place through halfway in 1:54.88, Lomong moved up to the shoulder of race leader Ryan Gregson and World Championships bronze medalist Matthew Centrowitz before unleashing a penultimate lap of 28.2 seconds to take the lead.
Holding off the charging Centrowitz down the homestretch, Lomong earned the victory in 3:51.21. Breaking Bernard Lagat's meet record of 3:52.87, set on the 11-lap-to-the-mile track at Madison Square Garden, came as somewhat of a surprise.
"I just wanted to come here and run a great race, not break records," said Lomong, who became a U.S. citizen in 2007 and carried the USA flag at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Lomong's race --his first ever at the New Balance Track & Field Center at the Armory-- was something he said he'd cherish for a long time, reminding him of what hard work in training can do.
As a high schooler in Tully, N.Y., some 180 miles northwest of New York City, Lomong never got the chance to race at The Armory's famed 200m banked oval.
"I never got the opportunity to come here because I was never that good," he said.
Now, he is a two-time Olympian and plenty fast to earn an invitational into the Wanamaker field.
"I have to give credit to my coaches and my teammates who have helped me this year," he said. "They helped me a lot. At the end of the day to come here and win this race, it's not just for me.
"This year I'm stronger," said Lomong, who noted that he has worked both on speed and strength running since placing tenth in the 5000m final at the Olympics.
Reflecting on what it means to join the illustrious list of Wanamaker Mile champions --a group that includes the likes of Bernard Lagat, Eamonn Coghlan, and Marcus O'Sullivan-- Lomong compares it to the feeling he gets when putting on the USA vest.
"At the end of the day we still work very hard for that," he said. "Somebody else is going to come and break the record. For me I see the bigger picture to be able to go out there and put the USA on my chest and do well."
PHOTO: Lopez Lomong shows off his NYRR Wanamaker Mile trophy with New York Road Runners professional athletes consultant David Monti (photo by Justin Britton of Flotrack; used with permission)