The Long Road
June 07, 2016
When Mo Farah claimed victory in the 10,000-meter final at London 2012, it could have been the pinnacle of a great success story. With just three laps to go, the long-distance runner launched into his trademark sprint finish, winning gold for Great Britain before embracing his young daughter, Rhianna, and pregnant wife, Tania.
But, in what would turn out to be signature Farah style, there was more to come. The runner returned to the stadium one week later to compete in the 5,000-meter final. As he took the starting block, Tania was preparing to give birth to twins. In Farah’s mind, one gold would not suffice; two babies meant two medals were needed. The race commenced and Farah proceeded to distance himself from opponents whenever they neared, in what is still considered an exceptional display of tactical performance. With another masterful sprint finish, Farah secured first place.
As his face transformed into an expression of joy and surprise, Farah threw his arms wide, embracing both the victory and the enormous roar of support from his home crowd, which was waving the Union Jack and dancing Farah’s signature “Mobot” dance. “The support I got was huge,” he recalls. “That moment was the best thing that ever happened to me. It changed my whole life; winning it meant so much. And 75,000 people shouting out your name and cheering you on, it can’t get any better than that.”
Farah understands the power of that which comes in twos — pairs, binaries and dualities. Farah was born only a few minutes behind his twin brother, Hassan, in 1983 in Mogadishu, Somalia. When the boys were eight years old, their family was preparing to move to London, where their father was living and working, when Hassan fell ill and was unable to travel. The family was forced to leave Hassan behind and when they returned to collect him months later, they found that he had been evacuated with relatives to an unknown location amidst the onset of the Somali Civil War. The Farahs returned to London without Hassan.
This separation significantly colored Farah’s upbringing in his unfamiliar home. Citing a near-telepathic bond with his twin, the athlete recalls that he could at times sense his brother’s emotional or physical condition. Farah was forced to reconcile this acute awareness of his missing counterpart with his adjustment to life in a new country, having arrived with no grasp of its mother tongue. His cousin taught him a few phrases — “Excuse me,” “Where is the toilet?” and “Come on, then!”— but everyday interactions still proved problematic, occasionally landing him in schoolyard fights or leaving him scared, isolated and frustrated.
Finding solace in football, Farah joined a local club, although he says he “never had any skills” and preferred simply to run with the ball. In fact, it was this deviation that caught the eye of Farah’s physical education teacher, who noted Farah’s effortless running style. As Farah struggled to find acceptance among his classmates and a place in his community, the teacher offered the kind of purpose and support Farah had been searching for, encouraging the young athlete to join a local running club at age 11 to ensure that he would be properly fostered.
“I don’t think I would have achieved what I have achieved without support as a youngster, but it comes to a point where you have to be able to do the right thing,” Farah confirms. “In running, there’s no one to cover you — have a bad day, have a good day, there’s no hiding, and sometimes it gets pretty difficult. Your team can do as much as they want for you, but you’re the one who has to go and run around the track and get it right. Your coach is there to guide you, but coach ain’t gonna hold your hand.”
1997 saw Farah win his first notable race: an English schools cross-country championship, followed by several more titles, which eventually led him to the European Athletics Junior Championship in the 5,000 meters in 2001, where he won gold. It was during this fruitful period that Farah visited Florida for a training camp and began to understand the potential of his sport: Each success could help carry him beyond the confines of his home city; each victory could bring him one step closer to Hassan.
To support himself while continuing to train under premier coaches and compete at a senior level, Farah worked in fast-food restaurants and as a sales clerk in a sports store. Finally, in 2003, he saved enough money to return to Somalia to locate his brother. This meeting was, according to Farah, “the best feeling ever.” Although the twins had lived vastly different lives, the brothers’ recognition was immediate; listening to Hassan for the first time in over a decade, Farah felt as though he was hearing himself.
Reuniting with his brother restored the missing piece of Farah’s spirit. He returned to London and shortly thereafter his running career began in earnest. In 2005, which he calls his “breakthrough year,” Farah moved into a house with elite Kenyan distance runners, which profoundly shifted his perspective. “I never worked as hard as a youngster,” Farah says. “When I saw the Kenyan guys, that really opened my eyes, because I was like, ‘If these are the guys that I am going to keep competing against, then I must work hard.’ Since 2005, I went head down and eat, sleep, train. That is all I have done [since].”
As the intensity of Farah’s training increased, so did his progress. In 2006, he took gold at the European Cross Country Championships and lowered his personal best from 13:30.53 to 13:09.40. But just as he had begun to experience exceptional success, Farah received a taste of the underside of elite competition: crushing disappointment. In 2008, after qualifying for the 5,000 meters in Beijing, he failed to make the final.
Ever determined, Farah saw this loss as a sign: Natural talent and hard work had taken him far, but he needed to diversify and refocus. “Nobody really knows who finishes fifth, but they will be able to tell you who finishes first,” he explains. So Farah began training better, instead of harder, via a purposeful and variegated approach that paired fewer miles with a targeted, tiered schedule leading to competitions.
This strategy, which also included the introduction of high-altitude training, remains with Farah today. “I used to think that running was just running, but as you get to a higher level it’s about doing the weights, doing your core, running different speeds,” he says. “My favorite workout has to be working on speed. I love just being able to sprint.”
By 2011, Farah was ready for his next big move — two of them, in fact: a new coach and a new home. “I knew Alberto [Salazar] was a great coach and I wanted him to coach me, but one of the conditions was that I had to move my family to Portland, [Oregon],” Farah explains. “So I made that move and I think it is the best move I have ever made in my life. It’s important to trust your coach, and me and Galen [Rupp], Farah’s training partner, fully trust Alberto. As a marathon record holder, Alberto wouldn’t have achieved what he achieved if it wasn’t for all the hard work he did. He is not just a normal coach, he is someone who has been there and done it.”
Farah is now not only one of the most successful distance runners of all time he is also one of the most disciplined. In logging close to 125 training miles every week, save for injury or “easing down” for a race, Farah estimates that he has run the distance between his birth continent and his adopted home at least twice over the course of his career.
“For me, volume is key,” Farah says. “Every week I get through, every month I get through, it’s armor. Racing is the easy part for me, really. It takes months and months of preparation, locking yourself in training camp, not being able to see your family, your kids. It hurts me sometimes, but I’m going to take it out on the track. I do think about the race, but everything happens in training.”
The dual power of a supportive, highly skilled coach and diverse, dedicated training, which incorporates cryotherapy to shorten recovery time, has seen Farah develop the ability to counterbalance lows with the determination and focus that ensures ever-greater highs. A health scare in 2014, a world-record-beating two-mile performance in 2015, a fifth world championships as well as a disappointing third-place finish in the World Half-Marathon earlier this year have strengthened the runner’s commitment. “I’m the guy who has a target on [my] back in a way. It’s pretty hard to avoid that because of what I’ve done in the circuit. The opposition knows everything about you. They study you. So, in a way, it gets harder and harder.” Still, Farah is determined to add a world record in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters to his legacy and to represent his country to the highest standard, proving once more that the world’s greatest distance runner is here to stay.
“There’s a point in your career where you stop enjoying it and you don’t want it anymore, and that’s when you have to hang your spikes up. I haven’t had that. More than ever, I want to go out and do it for my kids, for my family, for me. I want to win, I want to make history, I want to continue and I want to one day be able to impress my kids, and [for them] to go, ‘Look, Daddy was good.’”