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This Is England: Exclusive Interview With Mo Farah

Briton Mo Farah has broke through in a big way this season. Photo: PhotoRun.net
Briton Mo Farah has broke through in a big way this season. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Great Britain’s first sub-13:00 5,000-meter man takes us through his recent record-breaking performance.

Interview by: Duncan Larkin

Until recently, one would have to go back to the days of Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram, and David Moorcroft to find a British distance runner worth keeping an eye on in major international track competitions. But when Mo Farah crossed the finish line of the 5,000 meters in 12:57.94 at the Diamond League meeting in Zurich last week, everything changed. Farah’s time was the first sub-13 minute performance ever posted by a Brit, breaking Moorcroft’s mark of 13:00.41 from 1982. Farah’s been riding an incredible wave of momentum this season, as he took home double gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the European Championships earlier this summer in Barcelona, joining the likes of legends Emil Zatopek and Salvatore Antibo as the only runners ever to pull off such a feat.

Now confident that he can mix it up with the likes of Tariku Bekele and Micah Kogo every time he takes to the track, Farah has big expectations for his future in the sport. All but assured of a spot on the British squad that will compete in 2012 Olympic Games in his backyard of London, the 27-year-old Somali immigrant hopes to stand atop the medal podium in front of the hometown crowd. Competitor.com caught up with Great Britain’s first sub-13 minute 5,000 meter man and got his thoughts on his recent record-setting performance, the importance of spending some time training with Kenyans and his goals for next season, 2012 and beyond. 

Competitor.com:  You just broke Dave Moorcroft’s 5,000-meter record. You’ve been having an incredible season. Did you expect to break the record in Zurich?

Mo Farah:  No. I sort of knew the difficulties to get ready for a major championship, to peak at a major championship, and then carry it through. There are obviously a lot of emotions in all that–mentally and physically–and I sort of knew if I carried myself well leading up to Zurich, I’d go close to it. I wanted to run under 13 minutes, but I didn’t know how far under 13 minutes I’d actually go if I did it. I’m just glad with how it worked out.

Zurich was a high-quality race. Do you think running with that kind of competitive field helped you?

Oh yeah. That helped a lot. That was a major race. The guys in it were just unbelievable. All the Diamond League meets this year have been incredible. We had Bekele’s brother and then Chris Solinsky all mixing in. It just shows that if you get the right amount of training, you are fit, and get there at the right time, anything can happen. But yeah, it was a good field.

Now that you have the 5,000 record, what are your goals for the rest of the season and then looking out to 2012?

I’ve always been asked the question when I was going to go under 13 minutes for the last four years or thereabouts, because I’ve been running 13:05 and 13:07. So I’m glad I broke that, because then there will be no more questions asked about that at the press conferences. [He laughs.] What you want to do is just stay injury-free and stay focused so that you can get stronger each year. If you can get one year without an injury, you will be able to be stronger than what you were last year. It just gives you good confidence leading up to the World Championships next year. I was seventh in the World Championships last year. I hope to improve from that. We’ll see how it goes. But this year does give me a good base. I have confidence now and am not afraid to mix in, in order to do well there. And then 2012 is not too far away. So what about the 2012 Olympics? I know that I have a good base and that I’m getting stronger each year. I’m really looking forward to it.

Can you attribute anything specifically to your successful season or was it just consistently being able to run injury-free that did it?

Yeah, I think it’s being injury-free, but it’s also about being happy. I have my family around me. I have the right people close by to talk to. As an athlete, you just have to keep working and working. Sometimes it doesn’t come through. But it will come through as long as you believe in it.

So confidence has a lot to do with it for you now?

Oh definitely.

Do you feel like a different runner nowadays?

I still feel like the same Mo runner.  It’s just that this year, I’ve managed to do things right. That’s the big difference. People see you winning, but they don’t see all the ups and downs and all the bumps that come with it. I definitely feel different with how I apply myself. I’d say I’m a lot more confident…because I believe in myself. And that’s the biggest thing, really.

So going into the next World Championships cycle, are you going to keep doing the same things in your training or will you tweak anything?

I think as an athlete you have to change things. Look at all the things I’ve achieved this year. But I don’t want to stay on the same level. So you do have to tweak. It’s all good now, but there will come a point where you have to change things. You have to say, “What am I doing and how am I doing it?” That’s an important thing.

At one point in your career, you decided to live and train with Kenyans in Teddington (an area of London). Do you consider that move pivotal to your career?

Yeah it was. That opened my eyes as an athlete. I said, “Look, these guys are the best. What are they doing? What am I doing?” You have to question yourself sometimes. I asked myself, “Why am I not as good as them? What am I doing wrong?” I knew that I had talent, but didn’t know what was going wrong. It shows that the lifestyle I was living, what I was doing, wasn’t suitable. I wasn’t getting much recovery. I was going out with my mates. It wasn’t eat, sleep, and train. It definitely opened my eyes as an athlete. You always get told what can get you to the next level, but if you see it, if you experience it, it’s a different story.

So you’re saying you’re not jumping naked off the Kingston Bridge anymore? [In his youth, Farah, a partier and prankster, used to jump naked into the Thames River after a night on the town.]

[He laughs.] No I’m not. I’m past all that. I’m married now. Life is good. I’ve learned that if you want something, you have to work hard for it. I’m glad that I’ve worked hard for what I’ve achieved.

You’ve hinted that your partying and staying out late early in your career might have prevented you from becoming the best athlete you could have been. Would you advise young runners to take things more seriously in terms of off-the-track behavior if they want to run better?

Yeah. I’d definitely say so. It’s not just about running. It’s about a lot of things. You have to balance it. There will be a time to go out and relax with your mates, but you can’t mix in your priority with that. So I’ll say again that if you want something, you’ve got to work hard. It’s not about working hard for one month or two months. You have to stay with it the whole time. There are no shortcuts; that’s what I’m trying to say. You can’t have both lifestyles. You have to choose what you want.

Besides the lessons of eat, sleep, and run that the Kenyans taught you, what else have you learned from them?

Just like appreciation. Those guys work hard. They don’t have a nice house like where I live with my family about. They live up in there in the mountains and just run. And that’s why they are so strong.

Any thoughts about moving up to the marathon or half marathon?

Not yet. I’ve set a target with the 5K and want to take it as far as I can. And then I want to go as far as I can with the 10K. I want to move up slowly. I ran a 10-mile race last year in Portsmouth, which I won. Now that was a long way. I was asking myself then if I could go that far–up to the half marathon. Now that is a long way. You have to get your miles in to race that distance. You have to get your head around it. I’m just getting used to the 5K and 10K, so I don’t see myself moving up yet.

You mentioned having to move up in mileage if you wanted to go after the half marathon or marathon. What kind of mileage are you running to prepare for the 5,000 meters?

I’m doing about 90 to 100 miles a week. If I were to do the marathon, I think I’d have to put in 150 miles a week. I don’t know. I’m not an expert in the marathon. Or does it mean longer rests? I don’t have a clue. The marathon is a whole different game. It’s different training than the 5K or 10K.

As far as male distance runners go, the United Kingdom has struggled to keep up with the world in terms of quality. Do you look at yourself as a role model and inspiration for young British runners?

Yeah. I was successful as a Junior and have definitely kept improving. I do think that kids my age definitely see me as a role model. I think it’s nice to see that I’m an old-time kind of guy who just works hard. But we’ve had other people to look up to like Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram, and other guys who were out breaking world records and becoming Olympic champions. It’s hard to live up to that, but I believe we can. I see us improving over the last decade in athletics. I see us getting back again. After the European Championships, there was a sense of team atmosphere—the atmosphere was amazing with the people congratulating me when I came home, saying, “Well done.”

You talked about your time as a junior. As a young runner, Alan Watkinson talked you into running. At that time, you wanted to be a professional footballer [soccer player]. Had you not listened to him, had you stuck to football, do you think you’d be doing the equivalent in football with what you are doing with your running: playing for Arsenal or some other Premier League team?

Oh no. I was never as good in football. Alan having me pursue running was one of those decisions I can’t forget. And that’s what we need: people who will work alongside athletes—people who will support schools and kids. I will be doing that in any way that I can help.

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Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.