ATLANTA -- June 29, 2018 -- When Lopez Lomong was 6 years old, armed rebels burst into a church in his tiny Sudanese village, abducting him and others in their brutal quest for child soldiers. The frightened young boy, imprisoned in a rebel camp, watched other children die and every day waited to become the next. Indeed, his parents presumed him dead.
But Lomong had escaped, spending 10 years in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya. “You have to be strong, to be able to get that half peel of banana or expired canned food,” he said in a 2014 video. “We all fight for that, and that was our life.” Often he would run the 18-mile perimeter of the camp, just to feel as if he had some control over his life. It was there, on a black-and-white TV powered by a car battery, he watched Michael Johnson win gold in the 2000 Olympics. I want to run in the Olympics, he thought, improbably. And I want to wear USA on my chest.
Eight years later, after coming to the United States as one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” Lomong was the U.S. flag-bearer at the 2008 Olympic Games, where he competed at 1500 meters.
“I’m looking forward to tonight, to go out there and represent my country and raise that flag proudly,” he said hours before leading Team USA into the Olympic stadium.
Now, the two-time Olympian is looking forward to his first AJC Peachtree Road Race, where he will make his 10K road debut and, should he be victorious, hoist another American flag for winning the USA 10 km Championship.
“Peachtree is an incredible event, one that anybody would want to be part of,” said Lomong. “It’s one of America’s amazing events. I said that before I hang up my shoes, I want to race a Peachtree.”
At the 49th running of the July 4 race, the 33-year-old Lomong will be chasing his fifth U.S. crown, and second of the summer after upsetting race favorite Shadrack Kipchirchir on June 21 to become the first man ever to win national titles at both 1500 and 10,000 meters.
It was only the second 10,000-meter race of his life. After an off-kilter three years of battling hamstring injuries and a grief-filled 2016 when he lost his father and two brothers, Lomong came into 2018 hoping to come back and do well in their memory. Without an Olympics or World Championships on the schedule this year, he also wanted to do something different this year. The 10,000 seemed like a fun challenge. Sort of.
“It was painful,” he said of that Stanford effort. “For the next 36 to 48 hours, I was so sore. I thought, ‘this is not right.’ I didn’t think this was going to be the thing for me.”
But running USA championships races are the thing for this immigrant, who became a proud citizen in 2007. “It is something I cannot take for granted,” he said of the privilege. A student of the sport, he watched videos of track championships at the distance to learn about positioning and patience, and he will seek out similar videos of past Peachtrees before re-running those races in his head during the long flight from Portland, Oregon to Atlanta.
If he wins here, he will become the first man to win U.S. titles at 10,000 meters on the road and track in the same year since Abdi Abdirahman in 2008.
If he doesn’t, he won’t consider it a wasted trip, by any means. In 2009, Lomong was in Atlanta to visit a sponsor and kept hearing chatter on the streets, people asking each other whether they planned to run the Peachtree that year. One day I’ll run here, he thought. Then his interest grew after two-time Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat heaped praise on the event after competing last year.
“It’s a USA championship, so it would be amazing to win,” he said. “But even to be a participant is massive. It is my honor to come and run the streets of Atlanta. I put it very close to my Olympics.”
Photos by PhotoRun