Lopez Lomong Couldnt Turn Away From the Sport That Saved Him

    as the rain poured down on his car in portland, oregon, lopez lomong sat inside, wondering if he should stop running. It was the winter of 2016 and he had just finished another track workout. the two-time Olympian had been dealing with injuries for years. he stayed healthy enough to compete, but lomong hadn’t been able to make championship teams. and he was devastated by the loss of his father and two brothers who died within a couple of months of each other in his home country of sudan.

    While sitting in his car, he reviewed the reasons for quitting:

    Reading: Lopez lomong 2016 olympics

    I did two Olympics. many people only made one.

    I ran all these times. maybe not as fast as i wanted but still good.

    at the same time, lomong couldn’t shake a feeling that stood out from the rest.

    Your feet lifted you from death. you’re here because you want to be able to tell that story and how you came to be a runner.

    As a 6-year-old boy, Lomong realized the power of his feet when he was kidnapped to be a child soldier in Sudan’s brutal civil war. Desperate to escape, Lomong and several other boys fled the prison camp and ran 40 miles to a refugee camp in Kenya. Remembering the race that saved his life so many years ago, Lomong knew what he needed to keep trying.

    The sun rose soon after.

    again a champion

    Three years after sitting in his car and thinking about quitting, lomong raced the best outdoor championships of his career at age 34.

    On July 25, 2019, he won the 10,000 meters in a Drake Stadium record. With a 55-second final lap, the Bowerman Track Club veteran crossed the finish line in a time of 27:30. His closest competitor, Shadrack Kipchirchir in second place, was 17 seconds behind, more than 100 meters away.

    Three days later, lomong won the 5000 meters again. Down the stretch, he edged out Olympic silver medalist Paul Chelimo to reach the finish in 13:25.53, half a step ahead of Chelimo, who finished in 13:25.80. lomong had won his first u.s. title at the event.

    “I was so happy to cross that line and be champion again and be on that podium. It’s wonderful,” he told runner’s world.

    for the first time since 2013, lomong earned a spot on the united states team. On October 6, she will represent the United States in the men’s 10,000m final at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar.

    His resurgence followed years of struggle: battles with injuries, self-doubt and loss. lomong got through it with the support of his wife, brittany morreale, and the bowerman team, and by discovering a new motivation to run.

    “[The difficulties] made me a better athlete, they made me a better person,” he said. “It just made me respect the sport we’re in.”

    managing pain

    lomong was a refugee in kenya for 10 years. In 2001, she brought it to the United States. through catholic relief services and adopted by tully, new york, natives rob and barb rogers. At 16, Lomong barely spoke English, but she learned quickly and found her groove on the track and cross country teams at Tully High School.

    after winning several state championships, lomong earned a scholarship to compete at northern arizona university (nau). In 2007, Lomong joined his parents in Sudan, where he also met his younger brothers Peter and Alex, born after he was taken away by rebel soldiers. In 2009, he helped bring them to the United States. peter and alex are currently standout runners on the track teams at nau and ohio state, respectively.

    When lomong made the 2008 olympic team in the 1500 meters, his teammates honored him by voting him to carry the flag at the opening ceremony in beijing. Since then, he has been featured in multiple news accounts and two documentary series. His life is the subject of the upcoming film Running for My Life, due for release in spring 2020 and based on Lomong’s best-selling autobiography of the same name.

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    lomong’s impressive speed was well known during his college years at nau, where he won ncaa titles in the 1,500m and 3,000m indoors. but during the 2007-08 seasons, he began to experience pain in his left hamstring. For many years, Lomong continued to compete while managing injuries with physical therapy and recovery treatments.

    “Every time I ran 800 or 1,500 meters, I kept breaking it,” he said. “We couldn’t just stop. we had to train and we had to run.”

    Through the cycle of injuries, Lomong made the Olympic team in 2008 and 2012 (in the 5,000 meters), and ran the 1,500 meters with a best time of 3:32.20 in 2010.

    “I think my prs in the 1500 and 800 are bad in the hamstring. I was just pushing myself and trying to run well,” lomong said.

    During the 2014 indoor track season, his hamstring problem caused pain all over his body: sciatica, Achilles tendon problems. “It was a disaster,” Lomong said.

    By 2015, the injury cycle had taken its toll. Lomong finished sixth in the 5,000 at the usa. uu. outdoor championships and was unable to make the team for the world championships in beijing. after being part of the usa team. uu. at the world championships in 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013, he was forced to stop playing.

    “It was terrible,” he said. “I just went somewhere and disappeared. I didn’t want to see it.”

    the olympic year 2016 was full of worse heartbreaks: his father and two brothers died as a result of a tribal conflict in sudan. By the time Lomong lined up to compete in the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials, he was in mourning and doing his best to honor his memory by winning his third Olympic place. but he finished tenth in the 5,000 final, far out of contention.

    “That weighed heavily on him,” said Morreale, 31.

    since 2007, morreale has witnessed the ups and downs of her husband’s running career. The couple met in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he was training with her trainer at the time, John Hayes, and she was a student at the United States Air Force Academy. They married in 2014 and she is currently serving a three-year tour of duty at a base in Japan.

    lomong and morreale try to see each other every three months and communicate through facetime. she will be in doha to cheer him on at the world championships.

    Over the past several seasons, Morreale could feel the buildup of pain and frustration her husband experienced on the track. in the summer of 2016, she asked the question “do you still love it?”

    His immediate answer: yes. No doubt.

    “I’ve overcome a lot of other things in my life,” he said. “This is a joy. I’m just going to go do this.”

    accepting its purpose

    After reestablishing Lomong’s commitment to running, the couple decided to focus on their family members who still needed help. it helped them deal with the pain of losing their father and siblings. In the fall of 2016, they decided to start the process of adopting their 8-year-old niece Angelina and 5-year-old nephew David, who currently live in Nairobi, Kenya, with their mother, Lomong’s sister.

    “We were able to cry and say goodbye, but also look towards the future generation,” Morreale said.

    The brothers currently attend an international school and are in regular contact with lomong and morreale, who use whatsapp to communicate with them every day. They are in the middle of the adoption process and the couple hopes to bring Angelina and David to the United States after the 2020 Olympics.

    “It’s given me a sense of purpose, like what I do, it means something,” Lomong said. “Watching them ask me questions, they’re growing, they’re learning, they’re motivated, they’re excited. sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.”

    in october 2018, lomong also went to sudan to help get his family members to safety in nairobi after his village was attacked.

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    Family is not Lomong’s only concern. Since 2011, he has been giving back to his home country through the Lopez Lomong Foundation, with a mission to provide clean water, education, healthcare, and nutrition to the people of South Sudan. The foundation partnered with World Vision to create Project 4 South Sudan, which has raised nearly $4 million through the Hood Relay to the Oregon Coast, according to this year, the world vision team raised over $1 million in the relay race.

    find joy in new challenges

    in his running form, lomong was inspired by eliud kipchoge’s pacing experience during his first sub-two-hour marathon attempt.

    In May 2017, Kipchoge ran faster than anyone in history when he finished Nike’s Breaking2 event in 2:00:25. The Kenyan champion averaged a pace of 4:36 per mile with the help of a team of 30 alternate pacemakers that included Lomong and American record holder Bernard Lagat, among other Nike athletes.

    seeing kipchoge’s dedication to the team, discipline while training to break the barrier, and humility throughout the process inspired lomong to commit to running in a new way.

    “He chose to take everyone to that promised land where if you work hard, if you do all the little things, you too can be successful,” lomong said.

    after stimulating the kipchoge, lomong adopted a more disciplined lifestyle for training. he changed his eating habits to a staple African diet that includes nutrient-dense foods such as ancient grains (considered to have changed minimally by selective breeding over the years). it also places a higher priority on sleep, recovery and rest between training sessions.

    after missing out on the world championship team in 2017, lomong’s coach jerry schumacher suggested that he focus on the 10,000 meters for the 2018 season. while the event proved difficult at first, the decision was a turning point turning point in the lomong race. he was healthy at last, and he found new motivation in the challenge of 25 laps around the track.

    in his debut at the 2018 stanford invitational, lomong struggled from the 7k mark and finished second overall in 28:21. but he was excited by the prospect of improving from a distance.

    Putting in weeks of 100 miles combined with hours in the gym to stabilize and strengthen his weak spots, Lomong competed in the 10,000 at the u.s. 2018. championships in des moines, iowa, and won. he competed in the nacac championships that summer and won again.

    by the u.s. of this year. championships, lomong was healthy, had confidence in his training, a fresh outlook and more enthusiasm for the sport than ever.

    “I’ve been in this game for a while,” he said. “and sometimes you go down and then you go up. it’s not a straight line all the time.”

    for lomong, who refers to himself as “the grandfather” of the bowerman group, much of his enthusiasm stems from the recent performances of his teammates: mo ahmed sets the canadian national record of 12:58, shelby Houlihan wins the 1,500m and 5,000m in Des Moines.

    “When she won, it was like she won another title,” Lomong said of Houlihan’s 5000m win that followed hers.

    woody kincaid also recently achieved the olympic standard of the 5000 meters, as did lomong and matthew centrowitz, when the trio ran 12:58.10, 13:00.13 and 13:00.39, respectively, in a special race staged in portland.

    “It lifts everyone up,” Lomong said of his teammates’ progress.

    run for others

    On October 6, lomong will compete in his first world championships in six years. this will also be the first world event in which he will compete healthy, opening up possibilities for the rider who has already achieved and surpassed so much. while the world stage is familiar territory for him, he has missed it for a long time.

    but for lomong, it’s always been about more than medals or times. running has allowed him to help people and bring hope to those who need it most.

    You’ll soon have the opportunity to chase it all once more.

    “every knock i put on my feet, i do it for [my father and brothers],” lomong said. “And I’m doing it for these kids that we’re trying to help and for the people that are still struggling around the world.”

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