London UKAthletes’ agent Ricky Simms was standing close to the 200m line, clutching a black backpack as the men’s 3000m got underway, the last action on day one of the Samsung Diamond League meeting in London's Crystal Palace stadium the weekend before last.
“So what’s he going to do then?” Simms was asked. “He’ll just run the last 200,” answered Simms dismissively, before pausing. “Well, that’s what he’s supposed to do anyway, but you never know with Mo.”
Mo Farah did precisely as he’d been told, fulfilling his manager’s predictions with a devastating last half-lap timed at 25.2 seconds. It was an awesome burst of speed that had the Palace crowd on its feet roaring in delight and admiration, and took more than four seconds out of Kenya’s Gideon Gathimba, a 3:50-miler made to look ludicrously pedestrian in Farah’s wake.
“Today was just to see where I’m at, to try a different strategy and go hard at the end there,” said Farah afterwards, as he retrieved his training shoes and warm-down kit from the bag on Simms’ shoulder.
Heading to Daegu as double world leader
Where Farah is at is worth repeating – the Briton is currently the world No. 1 over 5000m and 10,000m thanks to two superb performances in Monaco and Eugene, respectively, in which he not only beat the best in the world but also smashed his national records.
In Oregon, Farah ran a perfectly planned and executed race to defeat one of the greatest 10,000m fields ever assembled, taking Mohammed Mourhit’s 12-year-old European record as well as Jon Brown’s 1998 British record as he crossed the line in 26:46.57. Behind him nine of the runners broke 27 minutes and 14 of the 20 finishers posted personal bests as Farah outkicked his rivals from the front over the last three laps.
In Monaco, he was equally brilliant, running with cool assurance until he hit the front just before the bell, then holding the rest at bay through a last lap of 53.73 – “the rest” including former World champion and renowned sprint finisher Bernard Lagat. Farah knocked nearly five seconds from his own British record in 12:53.11.
In that sort of form, some hoped he might go for another record in London – he already holds the British indoor mark for 3000m – but Farah was content to work on his kick, as instructed by Alberto Salazar, his new US coach, and duly delivered his tenth victory in a row with a display of finishing speed to spread dismay among his prospective opponents at the upcoming IAAF World Championships, Daegu, Korea (27 Aug to 4 Sep).
Watching Farah’s stunning turn of pace it was hard to believe this is an athlete once thought to lack a sprint finish and a killer instinct. “I’ve been looking forward to competing in Crystal Palace and it’s fantastic to be here with so many people looking up to me,” he said.
From modest beginnings
Farah is Britain’s latest hero of the track, with a special place in the hearts of those who hanker for a return to its distance running glory days. It could be quite a burden, but this smiling, humble young Muslim appears to take it all in his stride.
Much of Farah’s back-story is now well-known – the journey from his birth and early years in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, to infancy in Djibouti, to west London, aged eight, where he was spotted by Alan Watkinson, a physical education teacher, running around the school grounds, playing football.
Watkinson dragged the shy teenager with rudimentary English to the local athletics club in Hounslow, bribing him with promises of football games. Farah was soon smashing the club’s junior records, winning seven schools cross country titles, and three mini-London Marathons.
In his first international, aged 16, he finished fifth in the junior race at the 1999 European Cross Country Championships. Two years later he won the European junior 5000m title and a silver at the European Cross Country Championships. In 2003 he won a 5000m silver – behind compatriot and good friend Chris Thompson – at the European Under-23 Championships.
But niggling injuries in 2004 and 2005 meant he struggled to convert his junior promise and his career stuttered until 2006 when Farah emerged as a contender for the European 5000m crown.
In Gothenburg, however, Farah was outkicked by Spain’s Jesus Espana, losing the gold by 0.09s. The silver was his first senior international honour and seen by many in Britain as a triumph. But Farah’s manager at the time castigated him for lacking a winning mentality.
Lesson learned when training with Kenyans: ‘It’s just pure hard work’
Farah admits now his attitude needed to change. That year he started living and training with a group of Kenyan runners in Teddington, south west London.
“I made some big changes in 2006 after living with them,” he later told Spikes magazine. “Just watching them train, eat, rest and focus on their training.
“Before that I used to train hard but maybe go out with my mates to the cinema and not eat, sleep and train as I should. All those Kenyans were so easy-going and humble.”
The lesson he learned was simple, but effective. “It’s just pure hard work and graft,” he says. “Nothing is easy, you know. Just keep training. You have to make sacrifices.”
By the end of that year he was the European Cross Country champion, Britain’s second ever, and the following season he finished sixth over 5000m at the Osaka World Championships. But after failing to make the final at the Beijing Olympics he gave himself another wake-up call, spending much of the following winter training among the world's top Africans in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Again the results were swift as Farah stormed through the 2009 indoor season, twice breaking the British 3000m record and winning European indoor gold over that distance in Turin, a title he retained with calm confidence in Paris this March.
Next move, relocation to Oregon
He finished seventh at the Berlin World Championships, but his real stride into international prominence came in Barcelona last summer when he banished the bad memories from Gothenburg by winning both 5000m and 10,000m golds, becoming only the fifth man and the first Briton to do the distance double at a European championships.
Despite that breakthrough, Farah’s next step up, to become a genuine world contender, required another change of tack. So, in February this year, he moved with his wife Tania and six-year-old daughter Rihanna to Oregon where he joined Salazar’s training group.
There he benefits, not only from the attention of one of the world’s most renowned distance coaches and a bunch of highly-talented US training mates, but lots of “extra bits”, such as a psychologist, a running analyst, and innovations like an underwater treadmill.
“Alberto is a great coach and he has an amazing team with him,” Farah told Runners’ World last week. “He has made adjustments, but slowly. I've always been good with my nutrition and diet, so there hasn't been any problem with that.
“The shift has been to start using psychologists and doing extra bits on the side like training with an underwater treadmill.
“I've always been confident, but once you start winning, it really whets your appetite for more. Winning in Barcelona gave me a lot more confidence and now I have Alberto as a coach, I know I'll still be up there with the guys with one or two laps to go.”
As Farah proved so emphatically in London last weekend, if that’s the case, he’ll be hard to beat. Indeed, with Kenenisa Bekele’s return so uncertain, Farah is fast being installed as favourite for at least one Daegu title.
He says: “I’m definitely going to give 110 per cent in the 10k and then see what happens. I’ll see how the legs are, then go for it in the five.
“I'm confident I can get close to a medal, but you never know. I'm not going to say, ‘I'm going to get gold.’ It's not as simple as thinking I'll run the fastest time and take gold, it never is, it's a very tactical race.
“In the last two World Championships I placed sixth and seventh and I was half a second or a second from a medal. Hopefully, I've learned from my experiences and now I can go in with more confidence.”
As Ricky Simms might say, “You never know with Mo.”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF