After eighth place in London, Mo Farah vows to stick with the marathon. But, asks AW’s editor, is it a wise decision?
Most runners only have one thing to say when they just finish a marathon, especially if they are first-timers or have had a bad run. “Never again!” they grimace, as they hobble off for a hot bath and a cold beer.
Not Mo Farah. Despite finishing a disappointing eighth in his debut in the Virgin Money London Marathon on Sunday, he insists on returning to conquer the 26.2-mile distance. “I will be back – one hundred per cent,” he said during a post-race interview four hours after he had crossed the finish line in an English record of 2:08:21.
Slumped in his seat with a large baseball cap balanced on his head and a goatee beard on his chin, he looked more like a disc jockey just about to spin some records than a runner who had earlier enjoyed (or rather endured) a spin around the capital. The drawn expression on his face, though, together with the painful-looking and trademark post-marathon shuffle, was a better sign of how he’d spent his morning. “At 17-18 miles, I started feeling bad,” he said, describing how a race to catch the breakaway lead group turned into a battle for survival as he eventually finished almost four minutes behind the winner, Wilson Kipsang of Kenya.
Before the race most pundits were sitting on the fence when it came to the big question of “how will Farah fare?” A British record looked likely, most felt, but it was hard to tell exactly where he’d finish.
Yet after Sunday’s event, opinion seems sharply divided. In one camp there are those who believe he should return to the successful sanctuary of the track as soon as possible. In the other camp are those who reckon it was not a bad debut and the marathon is worth persisting with.
Farah certainly agrees with the latter. “I’m not going to finish on a down like this,” he said. “I’m disappointed, but I’ve already won track titles in the world champs and Olympics – and that’s as big as it gets – and the marathon is a challenge.”
The 31-year-old was quick to point out that he was not the only athlete who had, as he described it, “a bad day at the office”. The world and Olympic marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich finished behind him, while course record-holder, Emmanuel Mutai, and the fastest marathoner in history, Geoffrey Mutai, were only a few seconds ahead.
The training “hiccups” he had mentioned briefly a few days earlier might also have been a factor, but when quizzed about them on Sunday he refused to expand. “I don’t want to make excuses,” he said.
Then there were the tactical elements to the race which did not fall in Farah’s favour. Initially, it looked like Farah’s plan of holding off the early pace was a masterstroke as the leaders whizzed along at world record speed. Yet soon the Briton was left running alone, with the pacemakers a frustrating 50 metres ahead of him. It was a far-from-splendid isolation that forced him to work hard in the middle section of the race whereas the sizeable lead group could work together and shelter from the breeze.
Those who advise him to get back on track, literally, point to the incredible 3:28 1500m ability from last summer and his back-to-back Olympic and world 5000m and 10,000m double. He has, they argue, found his niche as a near-invincible athlete in those championship-winning events. Chasing an impossible dream over the marathon is foolish and instead he should target the defence of his Olympic titles.
On the flipside, those who suggest he should stick with the marathon point to the fact Haile Gebrselassie was a well-beaten third after hitting the wall in his first marathon in 2002 and yet later broke the world record. Similarly, Paul Tergat lost his first five marathons before breaking the world record at the distance.
Ultimately, the most crucial opinion will be that of Farah’s coach, Alberto Salazar. Amusingly, the American’s best marathon time of 2:08:13– set when winning one of three New York City titles – is marginally quicker than Farah’s time on Sunday, although the course in 1981, when Salazar set the mark, was 148 metres short.
Indeed, if Sunday taught us anything then it reminded us how tough the times set by Eighties icons like Salazar really are. On the UK all-time rankings, for example, Steve Jones’ 2:07:13 and Charlie Spedding’s 2:08:33 were both set in 1985, while Richard Nerurkar and Paul Evans ran 2:08 in the mid-1990s.
Going further back in time on the UK lists, Geoff Smith clocked 2:09:08 on a slow New York City course in 1983, Ian Thompson ran 2:09:12 to win the Commonwealth title in New Zealand in 1974 and Ron Hill ran 2:09:28 to win Commonwealth gold in Edinburgh in 1970 despite passing 10km in a suicidal 29:24 (2:04 pace).
As a coach who straddles both that vintage period and the sports science-dominated era of today, Salazar will no doubt hold a detailed inquest into how Farah’s race unravelled on Sunday and I’m sure they will come up with the best possible future plan. Meanwhile, a former RAF technician from Wales will leave London this weekend with a wry smile on his face in the knowledge his UK record lives to fight another day.
» See the April 17 issue of Athletics Weekly for in-depth coverage from the Virgin Money London Marathon