Four-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time World champion Mo Farah returns to the Chicago Marathon on October 13th to try and defend his title from 2018.
Farah is the reigning world champion in the 10,000 meters and has the option to race at the upcoming IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar. He has won the last three gold medals in the 10,000 meters at the world championships. However, Farah has shifted much of his focus to the roads since 2018 and could contest the 26.2-mile distance at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Farah has not raced on the track since winning the Zurich Diamond League 5,000 meters on Aug. 24, 2017, so a return to the oval would be his first in more than 25 months.
Last year in Chicago, Farah ran 2:05:11 to win his first World Marathon Major and also set a European record in the process. In his most recent marathon, he missed a personal best by 28 seconds and finished 5th at April’s London Marathon.
Sports Illustrated spoke with Farah over the phone on Tuesday to revisit his race in London, discuss his training and race plans ahead of Chicago. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
SI:How’s training coming along and how different is it from your preparation for the London Marathon?
Mo Farah: It’s going well. I think for me it’s about understanding my body on what I can do and can’t. It took me a while to win medals on the track and understand racing. I’ve been in Flagstaff for about four weeks now. We’ve been enjoying training with lots of hard work, lots of miles and lots of intervals. I’m getting stronger than I was last year. I think each year if you build on each marathon and get stronger, you’re going to come out on the other side.
SI: What’s your training set up look like for this build-up? Are you going to remain at altitude in Flagstaff until the race?
MF: At the moment, I’ll be here and my next competition will be the Great North Run. After competing there, I’ll come back after a day or two. I’ll do something similar to last year. Just come back and put in the work. Three days before the race, I flew into Chicago and it worked for me so it’ll be nice to do the same thing again.
SI: You’ve now been working with coach Gary Lough for most of your marathons. What’s his training philosophy boil down to for you?
MF:I’ve got a lot of respect for marathon runners and what they can do. At the time I finished on the track, I thought that I could just go into the marathon and it was going to be less work. It’s something different and something that I’m enjoying. At the same time, a lot of work goes into it. Gary and I got along well. We understand each other. I think that’s one of the big things. He’s a great coach, who has different things that he tries in terms of training. He’s got a lot more experience than most people because he’s coached someone who is a world record holder.
SI: You mention world record holders and you just had a first-row seat to competing against the men’s world record holder, Eliud Kipchoge. How does racing against someone like that affect your own respective race plan? In 2018, you pretty much followed him and hung on for dear life at the London Marathon. This time around, you kept him in your sights but stuck to your own race plan. Do you have to be more reactive to his moves?
MF:If you compare what Eliud’s run and I’ve run, he’s so much more and run so much faster than me. It’s important to me in that marathon to just run my own race rather than get carried away. For me, even though I’ve run 2:05, I was still overall disappointed with that position and time. I believe if things had gone well, I could’ve gone faster. In fact, I only really slowed down in the last three miles. You hit the wall and you die. That’s what happened. I was running 30 seconds slower per mile. That’s a minute and a half within just the last three miles. It’s something I learn from, understand and respect. That’s why I signed up for Chicago. I want to see what I can do.
SI: Right. And it’s a little different in Chicago because now you’re the one with the target on your back.
MF: Yeah. I had that all throughout my track career. Everyone is gunning for you. If you have an off day, you’re going to get beat because there’s a lot of people out there to get you. I enjoy that as well though. It gives you some confidence to have that among other athletes. In the marathon, a lot of things can change. This year, I’m more excited than ever to run against one of the most stacked fields – more than ever.
SI: One more thing on racing Kipchoge because you can provide us with an interesting perspective. He’s the greatest marathoner ever and when he flips the switch, it’s game over for everyone else. There was a guy who literally did the sign of the cross while next to him during a race. You were typically that athlete on the track for some other athletes. Put us in your shoes during the London Marathon and when he turns on that next gear and what goes through your head when it happens to someone like you?
MF:(Laughs) You have to be honest with yourself. You have to know what you’re capable of. If you take a step back and look at the fact that people asked, ‘How did Mo win so many medals? What did he do?’ I learned the way of racing well and controlling races throughout my track career. It wasn’t about one race. The same thing in the marathon. I look at it as going in with my own game plan and knowing what I’m capable of. Going into London, I thought ‘Eliud can’t come back and run what he did in 2018 or at least run that hard.’ He proved everybody wrong. Early on, he went out faster and I set my own pace. Looking at what he’s done in his career, yeah, he was OK at the track and he didn’t win as many gold medals as I or Kenenisa has. But in the marathon, he’s gone into it from Day 1 finished second and then never lost a marathon. His average is about 2:03 for his career. When he ran what he did in London, there’s nothing else you can say. It’s different. He had his race and I had mine.
SI: Looking ahead. Let’s clear the air. What’s your status for 2019 world championships in Doha?
MF:(Laughs) My main focus right now is the Chicago Marathon and defending my title. But, on the other hand, I am privileged that I am the reigning champion (in the 10,000 meters) and have that place.
SI:Do you know if you have a deadline to make a decision?
MF:I don’t think so. I’m the world champion so I’ve got the spot and it wouldn’t take anyone else’s place.
SI: You’re keeping everyone in suspense. Has it been weird watching all of these 5,000 meters and 10,000 meter track races from afar? At the same time, there are some new young stars like Yomif Kejelcha and Selemon Barega who ran the fourth and seventh fastest times of all-time in Brussels last year. So it’s like you left at the right time.
MF: (Laughs) It’s just nice to see young guys cracking on and not being afraid of anyone. That’s what it feels like watching from the backside. These guys are not afraid anymore and they’re going for each other. I think that’s what athletics is all about. You can’t say one athlete is going to dominate. Barega is a great athlete. Yomif is also very good. I also think Mo Ahmed from Canada might surprise people. The Ingebritsen brothers (from Norway) are good. There’s a lot of people. Athletics is moving forward a little bit.
SI:It feels like the void you left behind on the track has been filled with a variety of athletes. In the sprints, there are also a few athletes trying to follow in Usain Bolt’s footsteps. In a recent conversation I had with him, he agreed there’s no need to look for ‘the next Usain Bolt’ and just let them all make a name for themselves.
MF:Yeah. I think that’s really important. Sometimes it’s nice for them to be themselves, enjoy it and take part in the sport. Over time, you learn what works for you, how you beat people and use that to build your character. For the moment, you have to let them be themselves.
SI:How strong is your commitment to running the marathon at the Olympics in 2020?
MF:The marathon is different. You have to take it one marathon at a time. Get through the next one and allow your body to recover. What’s going to happen between now and 2020 is a long way. You’ve got to be injury-free, focused and keep learning. I think I’m going to do as many marathons in the next year and I think that’s a key.
SI: You also have time to try and figure out what it takes to beat Kipchoge in 2020, if he returns to defend his Olympic gold medal. I remember watching your world championship race videos looking for answers on the best practice that the competition could execute you. Slowing the race never worked. Trying to take your kick out early didn’t either. What do you think the answer is right now vs. Kipchoge?
MF:What’s it take to beat Eliud?! Run 2:02...Actually 2:01. It comes down to the fact that he can run so much faster than anyone else. Eliud is great. If he can run that fast, it gets the rest of us thinking, ‘If he can do it. We can do it.’