The first man to run a sub-four-minute mile was 25-year-old English runner Roger Bannister, who achieved that time in 1954, three years after declaring it his goal.
That makes Arizona freshman Lawi Lalang’s talent all the more impressive.
Lalang, who arrived at Arizona last spring, beat Bannister’s time by 0.27 seconds as a 19-year-old. It was his second career race, and his 3:59.13 time came with virtually no formal training experience.
“I just don’t see people beating him,” said head cross country coach James Li. “He’s obviously very, very talented and I think he’s coming here and really for the first time in his life, he’s having really systematic and solid training,”
Lalang made his cross-country debut this fall after being in the United States for just 10 months. Prior to his arrival, Lalang graduated from Emining High School, an academically rigorous boarding school in Kenya. He ran past the competition this cross-country season, winning all three of his races for the Wildcats before taking the Pac-12 Conference Championship race on Saturday.
Lalang first gained national recognition in Minnesota at the Roy Griak Invitational, a 31-year-old course, when he broke the course record by 22 seconds in his first 8,000-meter race. At the inagurual Pac-12 Championships, Lalang broke the conference record for the distance set in 1969 and beat his opponent by eight seconds.
“During the spring track season, he broke some freshman school records. This year he is due to break some really big records,” Li said.
“We got really lucky with him.”
Lalang first realized he was good enough to compete his sophomore year in high school when he began getting offers to run from American colleges.
Boaz Lalang, Lawi Lalang’s older brother, ran for Rend Lake College in Illinois before pursuing a professional career alongside fellow Kenyan world-class runner Bernard Lagat. Lagat’s younger brother, Robert Cheseret, is also a former Wildcat runner.
Li trained Robert Cheseret and now coaches Boaz Lalang professionally.
“My brother has really inspired me,” Lawi Lalang said. “He motivates me to run faster and train harder.”
Lalang chose to pursue running when Boaz began training with Li. Boaz suggested that Li come to Kenya to see his brother run.
“The first time I ran for coach Li, I was really nervous, I had no real training,” Lawi Lalang said. “I came in third in that race. I kept thinking he would take the guy who came in first, but he saw me run with my brother the next day and I proved myself.”
Lalang came to Arizona in January 2011 and participated in track and field races with virtually no training. He only had the summer to prepare for the fall 2011 cross-country season.
“He’s fast even for Kenyan standards,” Li said. “I have not seen someone in college running as well as he is and I’ve had a lot of Olympic-level athletes over the years. He’s very exceptional, this one is for real.”
Li has been traveling to Kenya for 17 years looking for cross-country athletes. Lalang is the youngest of three Kenyan athletes currently running for the UA.
“Eventually he can compete and the highest world level,” Li said. “Depending on how he runs in the spring, if he runs Olympic qualifying times, which I really fully expect him too, he will return to Kenya and run the Olympic trials.”
As a student at Arizona, Lalang is studying physiology; he hopes to pursue a career in medicine.
“Right now we have a lot of Kenyan athletes who can do well and run well but after some time there are injuries and they lose their careers. I just want to study, know everything about my body and if I return to Kenya I can help these athletes,” Lalang said.
Lalang allows his acccomplishments to speak for him.
“When I used to run in high school my teachers and peers used to say, ‘This guy is wasting his time running on the field. I don’t see him going to the U.S.’” Lalang said. “I never listened or thought to quit because I knew I would make it.
“I know people are talking about me,” he added. “There are always people who support you and people who are against you.”
Next up, Lalang can make his mark at the NCAA West Regional Championships on Nov. 12 before the Nov. 21 NCAA Championships. As track and field season approaches, he is looking to improve his speed in shorter distance races.
As quickly as his rise has come, Li is being careful not to overwork the freshman. Lalang followed a strict summer training schedule in which he gained muscle weight through lifting every day and running about 80 miles a week.
“We have to be careful and keep a balance with someone who is ascending quickly,” Li said. “In the running and even sports world, he is the biggest buzz right now and deservingly so. What he did this fall is really remarkable.”