Friends not foes, top marathon runners find common ground ahead of New York

Mexico's Juan Luis Barrios (left) and American Bernard Lagat have competed against each other at the highest level, but that doesn't keep them from training together for the New York Marathon. GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/GettyImages

Bernard Lagat is a five-time Olympian, an American record holder and five-time world champion in distances from 1,500 to 5,000 meters.

He's also a fine foodie. Come dinner time, that means a lot to Juan Luis Barrios.

"Lagat is the chef," Barrios says. "He's really good in the kitchen."

Since August, Lagat, Barrios, a two-time Olympian for Mexico, and Abdi Abdirahman, a four-time U.S. Olympian, have been training partners and housemates in Flagstaff, Arizona, as they get ready for Sunday's New York City Marathon. There the trio will find a strong field including Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor, who is the defending champ.

Flagstaff is a magnet for distance runners who want to reap the benefits of running at altitude (just under 7,000 feet). It's also a place where the variety of roads and trails is almost endless, and runners can drink in the clean air and gorgeous scenery of northern Arizona, just a short drive from the Grand Canyon.

The three have found they have similar easygoing personalities and taste in food. Lagat and Barrios often yield to Abdirahman when they go out to eat, though, because when he finds a restaurant he likes, he sticks with it. Lagat jokes he's "a snob" and playfully suggests his friend won't even go anywhere for coffee but the one little spot he has visited for years.

For Lagat, Barrios and Abdirahman, Flagstaff stays also mean time spent talking, eating, going out for coffee and watching TV before and after long days of training. Lagat, who will make his marathon debut at New York at the age of 43, calls Barrios and Abdirahman his brothers. He and Abdirahman, 41, first met when they competed against one another in the Pac-12 in the late 1990s and have been training together in Flagstaff since 2002. All three became friends in 2012 when Barrios made Flagstaff his base before the London Games. "I have the same conditions for training, altitude," says Barrios, 35, of his home in Mexico City. "But I don't have these kind of training partners."

Most nights the three get together for dinner. Many times that's when Lagat -- who credits his wife with expanding his repertoire of recipes -- will cook. "My specialty actually is barbecue," he says. "Chicken, beef, everything, even fish. So, I'm good at that."

But, he waves off Barrios' praise. "Juan, this guy is a good observer," Lagat says. "He's observed my barbecue and then the following time he says, 'I'm going to try it,' and it comes out fantastic."

Flagstaff has come to be a home away from home, where Lagat and Abdirahman -- Americans born in Kenya and Somalia, respectively -- and Barrios form a family. It's where Lagat, a fan of news and politics, can keep the TV tuned to CNN (unless Barrios can wrestle away the remote for soccer), and they talk about friends, family, food, the places they've traveled and running.

But not too much running. "If the topic always revolves around running, it would be really boring," Lagat says. "That is the unwritten rule. When we are relaxing, nobody talks about running."

So, when it came to training for New York, there was no other choice but Flagstaff.

Lagat has a history of success, but it has come on the track, in the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 meters. He's a marathon rookie and is leaning on his two friends to make the transition to 26.2 miles. Both are accomplished marathoners after transitioning from the track.

Barrios has run New York twice, with a best of 13th in 2014 in 2:14:10. In February, he set a PR of 2:10:55 in placing 12th at Tokyo. Abdirahman, a four-time U.S. champion at 10,000 meters, qualified for the U.S. Olympic marathon team in 2016. He finished third at New York in 2016 (in 2:11:23) and seventh in 2017 among six starts there and has a career best of 2:08:56 at Chicago in 2006.

Because the three each have specific training regimens (and Abdirahman has a different coach), they run together only two or three times per week, usually on long-mile days. Even now, after training together since August, Lagat says he still has a lot to learn from Abdirahman and Barrios about the marathon, but says they are "like an open book." He asks them constantly about when to eat and take fluids -- something he's not accustomed to doing on the track. He learns the most on long runs.

"I've got good speed, and when I start my long runs ... these guys will be like a quarter of a mile behind because I'm hammering it because I'm feeling good," he says. "You know, 'This is easy. I'm feeling good.' ... But these guys know how to run a long distance. Before long, maybe about the eighth mile, they are up with me and then the next thing, I'll be history. I'll be the one gasping for air, just trying to catch up with them.

"And of course when we finish the run, Abdi is going to be on my case, 'Why do you start the run that fast?' But it's good fun."

On race day in New York, Lagat says his friends will still be helping him. He hopes to keep them in sight, watching their pace, when they attack, when they hang back. After training with them so long, he can read their rhythms and body language. That, he says, will give him cues.

He, of course, wants to succeed in his marathon debut, but he wants them to excel, too.

"Juan Luis is my best friend and I see Abdi, my best friend, and we are doing one thing together at the same time," says Lagat. "We want the best thing for our teammates."

And, of course, Lagat will make sure they have a delicious meal after -- even if Abdirahman has the last word on the restaurant.