By Chris Lotsbom
NEW YORK (14-Mar) -- For Bernard Lagat, Abdi Abdirahman, and Dathan Ritzenhein, a familiarity with one another has helped each succeed on the national and world stage. At a press round table on here this morning, the trio talked openly about their relationships with one another, how their friendships have developed into a special connection that serves as motivation each time they toe the starting line.
Lagat, the oldest member of the group at 38, first met Abdirahman when he was at Washington State University. As a sophomore in 1997, Lagat developed a rivalry with Abdirahman (running for the University of Arizona) in cross country, culminating at the NCAA Championships. There he beat Abdirahman by four spots and 21-seconds (Abdirahman is quick to point out that he beat Lagat the following year). From there, a friendly rivalry was born.
"We've been friends for almost 15 years, so we have a great relationship," said Abdirahman, 36. "He's one of my closest friends, one of my best friends."
Through the years, the pair have trained together in Arizona, always staying close. So close that Lagat's children sometimes call Abdirahman Uncle Abdi.
"Abdi is like another son," said Lagat. "He's a great man, a great training partner. He gives me advice and he doesn't hide it."
While Lagat and Abdirahman were completing their collegiate careers and making their way into the professional ranks, Ritzenhein was completing high school in Michigan. As a teenager, Ritzenhein made an impression on Abdirahman.
"I met Dathan when he was in high school," said Abdirahman, doing his best to think back through all the memories. "I was his team captain at Foot Locker Team Nationals in Orlando. Since then we've just kind of filled the relationship from there."
In college, Lagat would also follow Ritzenhein's career as he competed for the University of Colorado, often facing Lagat's brother Robert Cheseret (who raced at Abdirahman's alma mater, Arizona).
"I was following these young guys, seeing how they were doing and they were remarkable athletes," recalled Lagat. "Having him be my teammate for Team USA and seeing him do what he's been doing, it's really good to know Dathan as a good athlete."
Beyond the race finishes, though, the three have shown just how much they care for one another, as if they were all one big family: Lagat the father, Abdi the son, Ritzenhein the baby brother.
Throughout Thursday's NYC Half press conferences, the three tossed complements each other's ways. For instance, knowing Ritzenhein had battled injuries over the last five years, Abdirahman complemented his attitude and character, something Lagat reiterated by touching upon just how great of a father figure Ritzenhein is to his two children.
"I'm glad to see the runner he became and to see him grow as a person, while I know at the same time he's been on a roller coaster," said Abdirahman, talking of Ritzenhein. "He's just a great guy, a guy who never gave up."
"It's a small world, running is. You make friends along the way," said Ritzenhein. "These guys have been guys that have always been supportive. They're a little bit older than me so I've looked up to them as role models."
Ritzenhein described that with this brotherhood comes motivation --or as he called it, a synergy-- to match each others' times. After he set the American record at 5000m, Ritzenhein received a congratulatory message from Lagat. The following year, Lagat broke Ritzenhein's time.
"That's the kind of things you don't get in other sports. It makes running a close knit group of people," Ritzenhein, 30, said, speaking of the motivation.
On Sunday, the three Americans will toe the line in Central Park ready to compete together, all vying for the NYC Half title and its $20,000 first-place prize.
After sharing bits of advice --especially with Lagat, who will be making his half-marathon debut-- the group showed their competitive sides. Like all families, each individual wants to win.
"I'm looking forward to it," said Lagat.
PHOTO: Abdi Abdirahman, Dathan Ritzenhein and Bernard Lagat share a light moment before the 2013 NYC Half (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly).