Culture

Inside Lane: Moh Ahmed Says “You Can’t Just Sit Still.”

Canada’s most decorated distance runner on why he’s training harder than ever before, motivational trash talk among teammates, his Olympic goals, and the transformative power of anger.

Moh Ahmed was sizzling hot coming into 2020. 

Last September, at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Canada’s most decorated distance runner finally mounted the podium on a world stage snagging a bronze medal in the 5000m in 13:1.11. (His best time in the event, 12:58.16, is the nation’s record.) A few days later, he placed 6th in the 10,000m, besting his own Canadian national record with a time of 26:59.35. 

Mohammed Ahmed of Canada (right) poses with bronze during the medal ceremony for the Men’s 5000 Metres during the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.

Though COVID-19 has pushed the Olympics back to 2021, his gaze has not for a moment unfixed itself from another top-three finish on that stage. As he and his teammates have come to see it, it’s another 12 months to better themselves and expand their physical limitations before the Games. 

Ahmed, 29, who grew up in St. Catherines, Ontario and ran for the University of Wisconsin, now lives in Beaverton, Oregon, just a ten minute drive out of Portland, where he trains with Nike’s elite Bowerman Track Club coached by Jerry Shumacher.  Even without a racing season this year, the team has not backed off on their arduous training regimen.

 “The workouts have been as if the Olympics are in August,” says Ahmed. “We’ve really been pushing.” 

That’s not to say Ahmed hasn’t felt disappointment over the loss of what he hoped was to be a momentous year for himself, or felt distress over the immense tragedy this year has brought that spreads far beyond race cancellations and the Olympic postponement. Coronavirus has claimed the lives of nearly 90,000 people in the United States. And in the middle of it all, the running world has been called to reckon with racism inherent within American life through the delayed exposure of yet another national tragedy wrought by white supremacy: Ahmaud Arbery’s murder

PodiumRunner talked to Ahmed about his grueling workouts, how he’s keeping his competitive edge sharp through the pandemic, his goals for 2021, and the transformative power of anger and words. 

PodiumRunner: How did your workout go today? 

Ahmed: Not bad, not bad. It’s been rainy and windy for the last like four or five days. We’ve kind of been rolling, kind of kept things the same. In some ways that’s been helpful, kind of having a routine. Trying to hit some good workouts. That’s what we’ve been doing and when it comes to quarantine. I mean the city’s still shut down, but it seems like it’s starting to seem more normal. Yeah it’s a crazy time, but at the end of the day you have to kind of make it normal, you know? It seems like people aren’t as anxious and nervous as they were at the beginning and that has been kind of helpful.  

PR: What are you training for right now? The Diamond League just announced that it has moved some of its races to late-summer and fall. 

Ahmed: It’s kind of hard to say what we’re training for. It’s really weird, like once everything shut down it was just kind of like, okay, what are we training for? And you have to kind of make up something. You kind of have to be like, okay there’s murmurs a bit. There’s potentially opportunities in August and September, maybe July. So, that has kind of been keeping us up. That has been how we can kind of mentally stick with it, honestly. 

The other thing is, you can’t just sit still. In these months, you can’t let them get away from you. It’s like days for you to get better. It’s days for you to work on whatever you can work on. You gotta keep training somehow, you can’t just literally take four months off. Or else, how much work are you leaving for yourself to do when things get back to normal? So for us, obviously we have our eyes on the summer of 2021. We don’t know what will happen or what will transpire from now until then, but for us we’re really just trying to get better. It’s really kind of a development year. 

PR: What has your training looked like given the uncertainty?

Ahmed: The thing is this; we have this unreasonable coach [laughs] and he didn’t back off the training. As everything was going on [with COVID-19], while things were getting worked out, we’ve done some of the hardest workouts of our lives within these last five or six months. 

Obviously we’re kind of frustrated and we’re kind of, you know, overwhelmed and we’re kind of trying to get a sense of normalcy. And the one way that we can do that is go at workouts. There’s a competitive vacuum and we’re trying to create that within our practices. The group hasn’t been training together. Things aren’t normal as we knew it. I’ve been training with one guy, two guys, everybody else has been separated into smaller groups. And we’re like doing our runs and training elsewhere. 

But we have a WhatsApp group, we have group chats, and we do the workouts every Tuesday and Friday and there’s a little bit of competitiveness that we try and create. We try to put it out there at the beginning of this quarantine when we realized, alright we’re not going to be able to workout together. 

It’s kind of a weird group where we never really back off. We’re training 365 [days a year]. Over these last few weeks we kind of went at it. We’ve been really pushing. We’ve been trying to get motivated and stay hopeful for opportunities down the road. 

Ahmed competing in the Men’s 5000 meter final during the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.

PR: What are your goals looking at the Olympics, now next year? 

Ahmed: You know, I was like getting up to go at everybody, honestly. Really, over the last four or five years since I’ve been pro, I’ve been trying to be a contender at the world stage. I felt like I was knocking at the door for three, four years there. Then, last year, I was able to crack the podium. I felt like I was motivated, I was in a position to kind of repeat that. To be top two, top three, go for the win. 

So that’s really what I was hoping for for this year. Obviously, things have shifted. But the hopes are the same, to just go out there and go at everybody and anybody and try to compete with the best in the world, and hopefully next summer I can be either an Olympic champ, or medalist, or a combination or whatever. 

PR: Are you focusing on the 5k rather than the 10k? 

Ahmed:  I think both. Yeah, I’ve had more success over the 5k over the last little bit, but I like to characterize myself as a versatile athlete. I don’t like pigeonholing myself into just one event. I try to be as competitive as I can and to present myself with as many opportunities as I can to medal. And my aim, before things got shifted, was to double with both of them. So, I don’t know what that would entail. I don’t know what one I have a better chance of medaling in. But for me personally, internally, I’m telling myself that I do have the ability to medal at both. 

PR: How have you and your teammates been staying motivated in the COVID chaos? 

Ahmed:  Well, I’ve been talking a lot of trash with my teammates [laughs]. I’ve been trying to find motivation. Honestly, I was getting really, really up [for the Games]. And then everything happened. You become overwhelmed, you kind of get frustrated, and all those kind of feelings. You feel all the different types of emotions. I’ve tried calming my mind and trying to do, like, positive self-talk. I try and not be negative. It’s easy to kind of say, ‘This was my year! God dang it, that opportunity has been taken away from me.’ You’ve got to look at the positives and say, ‘This year could have been my year, but next year can also be my year. And the year after that, and after that.’ I tried to stay as positive as I could. 

And then, fortunately, Jerry keeping the workouts the same, giving us hard workouts kind of kept our motivation growing, like we’re gonna get better. You know, getting up for something. And then a little bit of that trash talking here and there, and that has been helpful. I’ve been trying to watch some T.V. shows. I’ve never watched “Breaking Bad” so I’ve been watching that. I’ve watched a bunch of movies that I’ve never watched. I’ve been watching “The Last Dance,” that has been fun. I’ve been listening to music, lots of podcasts. I’ve been reading a little bit. 

PR: What have you been reading? 

Ahmed: At the beginning of the pandemic I read To Kill a Mockingbird once again… I read The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, Between the World and Me, Long Live Freedom!, Water Dancer, as well. The Optimist.

PR: I wanted to switch gears and talk about this recent national tragedy, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The running world has been under criticism for not addressing racial issues inherent within sports, and I was wondering if you would like to speak on that at all? 

Ahmed: I can just kind of talk from my perspective, being a young, black male. It’s very, very difficult. I try and not focus on that, because the reality of it is that it could have been me. There’s been so many times where walking down the street people are looking at me weird or whatever. I’ve been conscious of racial profiling here and there. Obviously, as a running community, for sure. We do need to address that. It’s through speaking that we try and make some sort of change. It’s not something that we can change tomorrow, it’s a long struggle. And, obviously, as a society in America, that has been the reality for one hundred plus years. 

For me, being a young, black male, yeah, I’ve faced those kinds of things. I know I’m going to face those things down the road. It’s part of my reality.

It’s very, very sad. I’ve been trying to not think about [Arbery’s murder], it’s hard not to think about it. Especially because of how overwhelming of a moment that we are living in right now. Especially during the pandemic, where there has been an immense amount of loss. Yeah, it makes you sad and angry when things like this happen, I think it’s not just us as a running community that needs to shine a light on this. But the only way that we will get better is if we write it, if we talk it. 

I’m a big Maya Angelou fan, and I saw this a while ago, but that [2006] interview on iconoclast with Dave Chappelle… She just kind of talked about the power of anger and addressed how to use anger in a positive way. You have to acknowledge it. When a situation like this happens, you’re gonna be angry, you’re gonna be affected. She said something like, ‘If you don’t get angry you’re either a stone or you’re too sick to be angry.’ She said you have to write it, you have to talk it, you’ve gotta speak it. You’ve gotta do something with that anger, channel it in a proper way. 

As a society, that’s what we need to do. We can’t become so overwhelmed, or so desensitized to these things happening so often, because they are happening so often, that you kind of forget about it and you don’t look at it. We do have to just keep talking about it and keep seeing these things that are happening consistently. It’s only though work, especially of the young, that these things can be addressed. 

Parts of this interview have been redacted for editorial purposes.