Former 'Lost Boy' Lopez Lomong finds strength in long distances

For Lopez Lomong, the highlight of the 2008 Olympics came not during the track and field competition, but at the opening ceremony, for which he was the U.S. flag-bearer. Paul Gilham/Getty Images

When Lopez Lomong crossed the finish line at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational last month, he had just clocked a blazing 53-second lap to run away from everyone else in the 5000-meter field.

Thinking the race was over, he slowed to a jog and started to celebrate. The problem was that Lomong had miscounted laps, and still had one more 400-meter circuit to go.

The spectators at the Stanford University track rose to their feet and implored the 27-year-old to keep running. Startled, Lomong turned back to see the chase pack barreling down the straightaway, threw up his arms in disbelief at his mistake, and took off again. And despite the fact that he had just run nearly three miles at sub-four-minute-mile pace -- a pace that leaves many elites bent over double -- he managed to
complete the real final lap and hold off his pursuers
. Even with the pit stop, his winning time was 13 minutes and 11.63 seconds, a mark which was, at that point, the fastest in the world in 2012.

Most athletes would have found it impossible to start up again -- to find that last bit of mental and physical reserve after they had already given everything. But not Lomong.

He has asked his body to do this his whole life.

The atrocities Lomong endured and witnessed as one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," as the victims of the Second Sudanese Civil War are known, are unfathomable for those American runners for whom "hardship" is a tough interval workout. The grim story: At age 6, Lomong was attending Catholic Mass in his native country when he was abducted by Sudanese rebels. After suffering horribly at their hands, Lomong escaped from captivity and ran for three days straight to Nairobi, Kenya, where he lived in a refugee camp for 10 years.

In 2001, thanks in large part to an emotional essay he wrote to Catholic Charities, Lomong made it to the U.S., a place he now calls "paradise." Moved by his plea, officials arranged Lomong's transfer to Tully, a small town in upstate New York where he lived with his eventual adoptive parents, Barbara and Robert Rogers. With its frigid winters and celebrated lakes, Tully is the furthest thing from Nairobi. To better assimilate to his new home, Lomong chose to do something familiar, something he had done for years in Kenya: He ran.

Lomong excelled for his local high school track team, and eventually earned a scholarship to Northern Arizona University. By 2007, he was a two-time NCAA champion in track and field. Later that year, he turned pro and became an American citizen. Then in 2008, he placed third in the 1500 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials and qualified to represent his new country at the Beijing Games.

But the biggest honor was still to come. In early August, Lomong learned that the captains of the U.S. Olympic team had chosen him to carry the American flag at the opening ceremony. It was an iconic moment, a Sudanese-American leading the entire U.S. delegation into Olympic Stadium, and one that holds special significance for Lomong.

"This is a country that gives me life," he says. "This is a country that gives me their own flag. I feel like I am now an ambassador for my new country."

Lomong was living a dream, but his competitive results in Beijing were uninspiring, as he was eliminated in the semifinals of the 1500-meter event. He intends to improve upon that performance at the 2012 Games by making the final -- and contending for a medal.

But first, he has to make it to London. The U.S. Olympic trials begin Friday, and it's not altogether clear where Lomong will focus his efforts. Since he turned pro, he's been primarily a middle-distance runner, excelling in the 800 and 1500 meters. But last year, Lomong made some big career moves, in terms of both coaches and distances.

He left his coach in Flagstaff, Ariz., to join the Oregon Track Club in Eugene, where he is now under the supervision of Jerry Schumacher. And after an impressive sixth-place showing in the 3000 meters at the world indoor championships in February, when he clocked a personal best time, Lomong told his coach he wanted to move up to the 5000 meters for the upcoming outdoor season. Schumacher demurred, but finally agreed to let Lomong run an experimental 5000 at the Stanford meet. The now infamous race gave indication that his highest potential may well be in the longer event.

Lomong logged 100-mile training weeks last year -- mileage more befitting a marathoner than a middle-distance runner. This season, he has ratcheted back the volume to 85 miles per week.

"I feel really good now thanks to that training last year," Lomong says of the aerobic base he has established. Recently Schumacher has been emphasizing goal-pace workouts, and Lomong says he has been "nailing them." And though the work is grueling, Lomong's results have validated the move he made last year. "Jerry is an amazing coach," he says. "He knows exactly how to coach me. He's a genius."

At this point, Lomong says he's focusing particularly on the 5000 meters, though he is officially qualified to run both that and the 1500 at the trials. Asked about the potential for doing the 1500-5000 double in London, he is noncommittal. "There's always room for one more thing for me, so I don't know," he says. "We will have to see."

As for his Olympic medal prospects? It all comes down to being able to sprint the final lap, he says, and he likes his chances. "I can close with anyone in the world," he says. To mentally prepare for the Games, Lomong has been watching videos of past Olympic finals and thinks his middle-distance strength is just what he needs to be in medal contention. He says the disaster he avoided at the Stanford meet bolstered his confidence for the trials. "Finishing is always a great thing for me," he contends. "I think my speed as a 1500-meter runner helped me start back up again."

But no matter how Lomong fares at the trials, he will always carry with him the perspective of what it's like to really endure. "I used to run from the bullets. I used to run away from the people, the soldiers, who wanted to hurt me," he says. "This is a country that has given me so much opportunity, so everything now is a celebration of that."

Duncan Larkin is a freelance writer based in West Chester, Pa. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Run Simple: A Minimalist Approach to Fitness and Well Being."