Midway through the men’s Olympic Games 10,000-metre final on Saturday, Mo Farah tripped on the heel of his training partner Galen Rupp and fell to the track. “At that moment I was thinking, my race is over,” the Briton said afterwards. “I had to dig deep.”
Rupp, a US runner, diligently paced Farah back to the front of the pack. From there, the reigning champion produced his trademark “kick” — a sudden sprint that opponents cannot match — on the final bend. He crossed the finish line first, arms aloft.
The victory puts Farah in the pantheon of great distance runners. If he wins his next race — the 5,000m which takes place next Saturday, he would join Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele in winning eight world and Olympic titles over the two distances.
Bekele may be the superior athlete, as the world record holder over both the 5,000m and 10,000m. Farah’s times do not match Bekele or another Ethiopian, Haile Gebrselassie. But if he is not the best runner, Farah appears to be the best racer — or, as he puts it: “I’m more of a ‘win’ guy than a ‘run fast times’ guy”.
Why can’t Farah be caught? The style of modern distance track races suit his strengths. Much of the race serves to whittle down the competitors to a small pack who settle matters with a sprint finish.
His training is fierce. It entails running at least 120 miles over the course of a week, with no days off. Monday to Saturday bring a morning run of up to 16 miles and a shorter afternoon “recovery” run. Sunday is hardly a day of rest: one run, but marathon length, only a minute slower than competition pace.
To finish, Farah practices his kick, running flat out when he is most fatigued, to tune his body to produce a quick finale after completing distances of more than 10,000m.
Physiology matters too. For decades, people from nations around the Horn of Africa have proved themselves uniquely suited to distance running. Farah was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, before moving to London as a child.
He hones this by pushing himself at far higher altitudes than those on offer in London — the theory (contested by some scientists) being that acclimatising to the thin air improves efficiency in pumping oxygen to the muscles. Before Rio, he trained in the Pyrenees, Kenya and Ethiopia on tracks between 8,000 feet and 10,000 feet above sea level.
Yet much of this gruelling work is standard fare for elite distance runners. Thus races come down to who has the superior kick. Since 2011, that has been Farah.
His stated aim has been to race the final 400m in about 53 seconds. When Kenya’s David Rudisha broke the world record in the 800m during the last Olympics, his final lap was run at 51.63 seconds.
On Saturday, Farah could only manage a closing lap of 55.37, slow by his standards. “I was tired, because you do get tired mentally,” Farah said. “I was thinking about winning the race rather than run a ridiculously fast last lap. It’s not that easy.”
His training has also been disrupted in the recent past. Last year, he withdrew from an important race in the UK after saying he was “emotionally and physically” drained following allegations, always strenuously denied, that coach Alberto Salazar had supplied banned supplements to Rupp early in the American runner’s career. The US athletics authorities began an investigation, but no charges have ever been brought and Farah was not implicated in the matter.
Opponents, endeavouring to make it less easy still, have adopted new tactics. They force a faster pace from the start, in a bid to tire him, or break away altogether to try and render his kick redundant.
All of these strategies were in evidence in Rio’s Olympic stadium during the 10,000m. Yet, tumble notwithstanding, Farah won and performed his “mobot” celebration for the cameras. Sportsmanlike, he followed this up by crouching down to where Kenya’s Paul Kipngetich Tanui lay collapsed on the ground and shook the silver medallist’s hand.
Rupp finished fifth, unable to keep up with his friend. Next weekend it looks like other strong runners such as Caleb Ndiku of Kenya and Hagos Gebrhiwet of Ethiopia, will lose to Mo again in the 5,000m.
“You might as well not even run if that’s your mindset,” said Rupp. “He’s not unbeatable. It’s just a matter of executing.”
This article has been amended to correct the altitude at which Mo Farah trains and to remove a line which said Rupp would be running in the 5,000m next weekend. He is in fact competing in the Marathon.
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