‘I want to be up there’

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Mo Farah’s emergence this year as a world-class distance runner has put an interesting spin on the old adage “If you can’t beat
’em, join ’em”. Because Farah did join ’em – and has now started beating ’em.

The “them” in question are the all-conquering Kenyans, who achieved an extraordinary collective distinction this year – that of producing more than 500 individuals who have run the marathon in sub-2hr 20min. Contrast that with the paltry dozen Britons
who have done the same in 2006, and the extent of the decline in British distance running in recent years is crystal clear.

Farah, who last Sunday won the European cross-country title in Italy and runs in the Brussels 9km cross-country event tomorrow, was almost an example of that decline. As recently as 18 months ago he was in danger of inclusion in that long list of talented youngsters who do not quite make it at senior level. That he is now in the running for success at world level is only the most recent chapter in an extraordinary odyssey for the 23-year-old.

Though his father is British, Farah was born in Somalia. When he was four, the family decamped to neighbouring Djibouti for five years, before coming to Britain in 1992. The original idea was that after visiting his father, he would go to the Netherlands, to join his grandmother. But a quickly forged alliance with a cousin of the same age saw Farah staying with his aunt in west London.

Farah is well aware of the series of happenstances that have brought him to the threshold of fame. He recognises the debt he owes
to people such as coach
Alan Storey, manager Ricky Simms and, initially, to his school sports teacher Alan Watkinson.

“He took me to the local [running] club a couple of times when I was about 12, but he saw I wasn’t up for
it – the only way I could
run was if I had a football. So he said, come early and you can have half-an-hour kickabout before we go to the club. It took six months before I got into it.”

Farah got into it so much that he won five English Schools cross-country and track titles in six years. But injuries blunted his transition to the senior ranks and he admits his lifestyle was not conducive to the pursuit of excellence. “I was known as a bit of a party animal,” he says.

The choice between the nightclub and the athletics club came when his form suffered so badly that he dropped to 75th place in the world cross-country championships. Simms and Storey suggested that he leave the student accommodation at St Mary’s College, Twickenham, the centre for Britain’s distance-running hopefuls, and move to a nearby house that is the London base
for several of the world-
class Kenyans.

“It was amazing,” says Farah. “There was an Olympic champion, Noah Ngeny; a world champion, Ben Limo; Micah Kogo, the world’s fastest 10,000m man this year, and Mike Kigen, who finished fifth in the world cross-country.

“But they’re humble people, they don’t pretend to be anything good. That’s what did it. Living with them, learning from them. It was a big shock. Athletes live differently to normal people – eat, sleep, train and rest. At the start, they weren’t sure of me; now they see me as one of them, because I work as hard as them. They say I run like a Kenyan.

“Also, I went out to Australia three months before the Commonwealth Games, and trained with Craig Mottram [the Australian 5,000m world and Commonwealth medallist]. Just seeing what he does blew my mind. I said to myself, ‘I don’t train as hard as this. How can I ever compete against these guys? If I want to be as good as him, I’ve got to do this
and more.’”

By last summer Farah had been dragged by his housemates to 13min 09sec for 5,000m, becoming Britain’s second-fastest ever at the distance. He then came within a stride of winning the European 5,000m title in Gothenburg.

A month later he amazed everyone, himself included, by winning England’s Great North Run Mile, beating Ivan Heshko of Ukraine, one of the world’s best middle-distance runners.

Three weeks ago, after one of his now-regular training stints at altitude in South Africa, he paid his friend Kogo the ultimate compliment – beating him to win the Dunkirk cross-country race. This propelled him
to then dethrone five-time European cross-country champion Sergey Lebid and win the title.

The appetite is now running full bore. “I definitely want to do the Birmingham indoors [European Championships in March], because it’s at home. Then there’s the world cross-country in Mombasa but that’s not
the biggest target. My aim is to make the team for 5,000m in Osaka [the world championships in August].

“But London’s the biggest thing in my mind, the Olympics in 2012. I’ll be 29, but I need Olympic experience, so I need to go to Beijing 2008. I’m excited. I don’t just want to be the best in Britain, I want to be up there.”

If Farah maintains his new-found dedication and drive, his wish might well be granted.

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