Double Olympic, world and European track champion Mo Farah returns to his racing roots as he prepares to contest his first cross country race since 2011 at the Great Edinburgh XCountry
Posing for photographers in Holyrood Park on Friday, Mo Farah looked relaxed and confident ahead of the Great Edinburgh XCountry on Saturday. “I’ve got a good feeling about 2016,” he said.
The focal point of the year will be the defence of his Olympic 5000m and 10,000m titles in Rio in seven months’ time. But he begins his racing campaign by returning to his first love of cross country and his first race on the mud for five years.
Farah’s face first became familiar to Athletics Weekly reporters at the English National and English Schools cross country championships in the late-1990s. In more recent years, his coach, Alberto Salazar, has steered him away from cross country due to fear of injury and last year he was due to race in Edinburgh but was forced to withdraw due to a bout of flu. But this weekend’s Great Edinburgh XCountry fits perfectly into his current plans.
On Friday, Farah was dressed in a GB red, white and blue tracksuit top, matching Nike trainers, camouflage pants and sporting a wide smile, but he is likely to turn up to Saturday’s race wearing a hat, long-sleeved top and gloves, plus size 12-15mm spikes due to a grim weather forecast of yet more rain on a part of the world that has been soaked with never-ending downpours for weeks. Such is the water-logged nature of the turf on Holyrood Park, some of the course has even been slightly altered in recent days to avoid the worst ground.
“I’ve got a good feeling about 2016”
The conditions might worry the Farah camp slightly. In January 2010 he was beaten by Ricky Stevenson and Steve Vernon on a snow-covered course in Edinburgh. If this was a road race, Farah would surely breeze to victory, but slippy, treacherous ground creates an element of unpredictability and, in addition to Farah’s 2010 defeat, Kenenisa Bekele and Asbel Kiprop are among those who have been humbled at Holyrood Park in recent years. Saying that, only a fool would bet against the multiple world and Olympic champion from winning.
“I’m in much better shape than I was at this stage last year,” said Farah. “I have four kids and due to that I often pick up an illness at this time of year. But I’m not ill and I’m here and looking forward to racing!”
Inevitably, Farah was quizzed on Friday about the ongoing, drug-related cloud that hangs over athletics. It is a topic that is impossible to avoid – and likely to dominate the news again in coming days when WADA releases its next report focusing on the IAAF – and as Farah patiently answered the questions a copy of The Times newspaper was coincidentally on the table in front of him with the latest doping-related headline quite literally in his face. “There should just be a fair playing field for everyone who is competing,” he said. “I don’t know what happens in other countries but I know we don’t take stuff.”
Looking ahead, after this weekend Farah will travel to Ethiopia for a six-week training camp before returning to race a spring half-marathon in New York, Lisbon or Cardiff – the latter being the venue for the IAAF World Half-marathon Championships.
“I went to Ethiopia last year and liked it,” he said, on the decision to pick Addis Ababa over Iten in Kenya. “It’s a little higher than Kenya, with lots of grassy fields to run on and a new track.”
After that, he will probably open his track season at the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon before building up for Rio. “I have been running 110-115 miles per week recently,” he said, “and in Ethiopia I will step that up a little while doing more quality sessions. There is a fine line between training hard and over-cooking it, though, which is what I did in 2008.”
“I’m in much better shape than I was at this stage last year. I have four kids and due to that I often pick up an illness at this time of year. But I’m not ill and I’m here and looking forward to racing!”
On Saturday he leads the British runners in Edinburgh against a United States squad and European team. Opposition for Farah in the men’s 8km race includes Alemayehu Bezabeh of Spain, the European cross country silver medallist in Hyeres last month, plus American Garrett Heath, who has an unbeaten record at Holyrood Park after winning the short-course 4km race in 2014 and 2015. “I’m unbeaten on the course so far and over 4km,” Heath smiled, “but I enjoy courses like this with lots of mud so I’m looking forward to the race.”
In addition, Farah will face Kirubel Erassa, who won the junior men’s race at the Great Edinburgh event in 2012 and who flew in on Thursday from Atlanta for the race, only to find out for the first time he was racing the double Olympic champion. “I didn’t realize I was racing Mo. I guess I won’t win now!” he laughed.
A busy timetable also includes a women’s elite race, junior events, international 4x1km relay and inter-district races, plus the Pure Gym Great Winter Run over 5km. These will feature runners such as Steph Twell, Fionnuala McCormack, Callum Hawkins, Ross Millington and Heath, who all joined Farah for the photo shoot and interviews on Friday.
That means thousands of runners will be racing in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano that dominates Holyrood Park. All eyes will be on Farah, though, to see just how impressively he erupts into action at the start of Olympic year.
» See the January 7 edition of AW magazine for a two-page preview to the Great Edinburgh XCountry, while the January 14 edition will include in-depth coverage