From also-rans to Olympic glory

In the space of one Olympic cycle, Mo Farah and Galen Rupp have gone from international up-and-comers to all-conquering Olympic superstars.But how did they do it?

Mo Farah (Mark Shearman)

The phenomenal one-two in the Olympic 10,000m by Mo Farah and Galen Rupp shows what can be achieved with hard work, determination and a cunning plan. As recently as the Beijing Games four years ago, Farah failed to make the 5000m final after finishing sixth in his heat in 13:50.95. Twelve months earlier, at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, Galen Rupp trudged home more than one-and-a-half minutes behind Kenenisa Bekele over 10,000m with a mere 28:41.71.

What a difference four or five years can make. On a super Saturday night in the Olympic Stadium, Farah and Rupp destroyed the best that Ethiopia and Kenya had to offer with a tour de force of distance running that could, if repeated in the 5000m, knock Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins off his BBC Sports Personality front runner perch.

Beijing was a turning point for Farah. I remember speaking to him for Athletics Weekly after he won the mile at the Great North Run Weekend at the end of that season and he was clearly rattled by the Olympic disappointment and vowed to take his running more seriously than ever.

He had been guided by ultra-experienced, no-nonsense distance coach Alan Storey and was part of Craig Mottram’s training group. But Farah and his manager Ricky Simms realised that he needed to learn from the best, so he began to increasingly spend spells living with Kenyans both in Teddington and out in Kenya itself as he ramped his training up.

Then came the big move to join Alberto Salazar’s group in mid-winter 2011. Some people were dubious, including myself. Despite being a bona fide marathon legend, Salazar had a slightly shaky record as a coach and Farah seemed to be doing pretty well anyway after having won the European 5000m and 10,000m double in Barcelona in 2010.

So Farah decamped to America with his young family. It was a gamble for sure – but Farah must have had total confidence in the plan for it to culminate in global gold in 2011 and 2012.

Now, the world of distance running will be more desperate than ever to tap Salazar’s brain for the secrets to his coaching success. The brain-sucking process starts on Sunday lunchtime when a HydroWorx media event with the US coach near St Pancras in London is expected to be packed.

His short-term success with Farah has been tremendous. But let’s not forget he has coached Rupp for a decade or more, with many of their sessions based in Oregon, where Salazar is based as a Nike coach.

A few clues can be found, though, with some of Salazar’s comments from the past. He has said: “We’re very thorough. We have a plan and any plan, even if it is a bad plan, is better than no plan at all. Absolutely no stone is unturned.”

In a past interview with the Telegraph, Salazar explained there were three reasons for Farah’s improvement: greater body strength from weights sessions, better structure to his workouts and increased pace of his training runs.

“He used to run all his mileage very slowly,” Salazar said. “His average pace was probably 6:45 per mile. Now the average pace that he and Galen run is about 5:45, and that’s 17 to 20 miles a day. They sometimes do 20 miles and go 5:30 pace, and that isn’t a particularly hard day.”

In addition, Salazar has been keen to sharpen Farah and Rupp’s finishing speed in the run-up to the Olympics. He has also employed aqua-jogging, plyometrics and an almost obsessional interest stride mechanics and running style.

Credit, too, should go to UKA, as the governing body’s head of endurance Ian Stewart put Farah in Salazar’s direction and has masterminded the UKA and London Marathon-sponsored training camps in Kenya and Font Romeu – the latter venue in the French Pyrenees being the altitude camp they used on the eve of these Games.

Such hard work and attention to detail led to such a turnaround in form that Farah and Rupp became the first non-African medallists in the Olympic men’s 10,000m final since Salvatore Antibo of Italy in 1988. The last British medallist in the event, meanwhile, is Mike McLeod, the silver medallist from 1984, while the closest Britain has come to claiming this title was back in 1920 when James Wilson won bronze just five seconds behind Paavo Nurmi. And of course Brendan Foster, a friend and big fan of Farah, won bronze at the 1976 Olympics – Britain’s only athletics medallist – period – at those Games incidentally.

Rupp was following in the footsteps of Billy Mills, the last American to win a medal in the men’s 10,000m when he won the gold in 1964. Although Salazar, ironically, did not succeed at the Olympic Games – he missed the 1980 Games due to the boycott and was then 15th in the 1984 marathon after starting as many people’s favourite.

So this medal will be valued immensely by Salazar. And Rupp paid credit to the coach when he said at Saturday’s press conference: “He is meticulous. There is no stone unturned.

“I remember talking about this (Olympic success) with him in high school. He said this is going to take a long time. We’re not going to take any short cuts. And there are definitely going to be some bumps in the road. I’m really indebted to him. He’s like a father figure to me – not just in running but life.”

Farah agreed with Rupp’s sentiments and the duo headed back to the track at gone 11pm to do some circuits of the grassy in-field in preparation for the 5000m later this week. No stone unturned indeed.

» For more on Salazar’s coaching philosophy, keep your eyes out for a feature in Athletics Weekly soon.

2 Responses to “From also-rans to Olympic glory”

  1. Willie Campbell says:

    Amazing result, but would they have beaten Kenenisa Bekele when he was at his best? Now that would have been an even more mouthwatering race!

  2. alex_800 says:

    Just four years ago they would have called you crazy for even suggesting that a Briton could win the Olympic 10,000m. Those who watched the race yesterday were privileged to witness history in the making. It was all very surreal indeed.

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