One of the two distance runners, the one born in Somalia and raised from age eight in west London, will race the Olympics at home. Mohammed (Mo) Farah will circle the track and hear a sound unlike anything he's heard before, initially in the 10,000 meters on the first Saturday night in August and then seven days later in the 5,000. He will feel a nation's passion, sprung not just from patriotic medal lust but from a cultural love of the long run, an affair gone fallow for decades and now revived by this 127-pound wisp of a man with a shaved head and a small tuft of black hair that clings to the point of his chin, like a little climber on the underside of a cliff.
This is an article from the Feb. 27, 2012 issue
On that Saturday night he will give Great Britain its first real chance at a gold medal in track and field at the London Games, and its first ever in a flat track event longer than 1,500 meters. He will understand what Cathy Freeman felt in Sydney 12 years ago when she won the 400 meters in her home country, sprinting through a torrent of noise. "Of course, Cathy ran for 49 seconds," says retired British triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, who won a gold medal on the same night as Freeman. "Mo will be running for 27 minutes."
The other of the two distance runners, the one who was born in Oregon and lives there still, will race the Olympics far from home. Galen Rupp will circle the track in relative anonymity except to the track fanatics who understand his quest and follow it in corners of the Internet, alternately praising his performances and criticizing the training regimen that produced them. He will be a tall, blond American surrounded mostly by tiny East Africans, and he will be trying—along with Bernard Lagat—to break a U.S. men's Olympic medal drought in the long track events that approaches five decades.
They will shake hands before the start and wish each other luck, because while they seem to share almost nothing, they in fact have shared more than most brothers. Thousands of miles on trails in New Mexico and France. Hundreds of lung-searing interval laps on tracks in Oregon and Utah. A passion for soccer, both on the pitch and on PlayStation. Meals, hotel rooms, plane rides; a hometown, a coach, a goal.
They came together in the winter of 2011. Former marathon record holder Alberto Salazar, 53, who had coached Rupp since he was in high school as part of the Nike Oregon Project, had been asked by British intermediaries if he would consider adding Farah to the NOP stable, which has included several other world-class distance runners. "I was leery," says Rupp, 25, of the idea. "I think we've got the best training program in the world, with Alberto's coaching and Nike's resources. And now we're adding one of our chief competitors. I said to Alberto, 'Why are we bringing this guy in?'" They talked in a cafeteria on the Nike campus, and Salazar sold Rupp. Farah, with career bests of 27:28.86 for 10K and 12:57.94 for 5K, was on the cusp of world championship medals and needed a professional environment. Rupp needed a consistent and talented training partner in his own events. At the end, Salazar said, "We're doing it."
In January 2011, Farah moved to Portland with his wife, Tania, and daughter, Rhianna, now six, and the runners bonded while spending weeks on end away from home. Rupp, a former soccer player, saw Farah wearing an Arsenal sweatshirt and told him he was a Manchester United fan. "Mo told me that's like rooting for the Yankees," says Rupp. "We went back and forth. He was like the guys I hung with in college."
"We just clicked," says Farah, 28. "We never talk about running. We do enough of that."
They ripped through an arduous training campaign, which Salazar plotted on sheets of white legal paper and kept in a wrinkled manila folder. Farah averaged roughly 120 miles per week in the heaviest cycles; Rupp, because he is younger, just over 100. They did 20-mile altitude runs together at 5:25-mile pace. They did eight 1,200-meter repeats on the Brigham Young track in an average of 3:09, with two minutes' rest between. They did 15 repeats of 200 meters in 25 seconds each on a high school track in Park City, Utah (elevation 6,900 feet), with just a 100-meter recovery. And they sacrificed. One afternoon at altitude (6,070 feet) in Font Romeu, France, Rupp suffered one of the asthma attacks that have bothered him for years. He begged Salazar to let him stay and pace Farah through the last parts of his intervals. "I've felt lousy and dropped out of a workout too," says Farah, "but I'll stay and pace Galen."
They cashed in late in the 2011 season. Farah was nipped at the line by Ethiopia's Ibrahim Jeilan and settled for silver in the 10,000 at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, but came back to outkick Lagat of the U.S. for the gold in the 5,000. Rupp took seventh in the Daegu 10,000 and ninth in the 5,000 but was competitive until both races quickened late. Farah dropped his 5K personal best to 12:53.11 and his 10K a massive 42 seconds to 26:46.57. Rupp crushed Chris Solinsky's year-old U.S. record in the 10K, dropping it from 26:59.60 to 26:48.00, making him the 16th-fastest man ever at the distance and by far the fastest non-African-born runner.
This is the work that brought them to their roles for 2012, Rupp the American medal hope, Farah not just a serious gold medal contender but a vessel of British pride. They sat recently in the Albuquerque condo complex where they live during certain training cycles and measured their upcoming year. "I don't envy Mo," said Rupp. "He's going to have a bunch of people cheering for him, but all that stress. It's nice sometimes to just train and not have all that external stuff."
Farah has a chill mien that suggests he'll keep the pressure at bay. "When I'm in London, I won't go near the stadium," he says. "It will be there on the night of the Olympics. You can't put all that pressure on yourself."
Says Dave Bedford, a former 10,000-meter world-record holder, director of the London Marathon and a card-carrying member of the fraternity of once-proud British distance runners, "How Mo handles the pressure, and maybe more important how he stays away from it, will be a massive factor in whether he succeeds or not."
Farah has handled pressure before, of a much different variety. He was born in 1983 in Mogadishu, where his British-born father had gone on vacation and met his mother. The family left Africa in '91 and settled in a Somali community in west London. Farah enrolled in Feltham Community College, a public high school, at age 11 and came under the tutelage of P.E. teacher Alan Watkinson. "Mo struggled academically, and he got into some scrapes, largely because of language issues," says Watkinson, 47. "But he received a great deal of support, and he was a very good, natural all-around athlete. Of course, he was dominant at distance running."
At 12, Farah finished ninth in the English Schools cross-country championship and won five cross-country and track titles in the next three years. In the middle of that stretch he spent time at an elite training camp in Florida. "That's when I learned the benefits of being an athlete," says Farah. "We trained, and we went on the rides at Disney World, we got ice cream in the canteen. I liked all of that." He would run successfully on the fumes of that enthusiasm until 2005, when his agent, Ricky Simms, moved Farah into a training enclave with a group of Kenyans in the London suburb of Teddington. There he was exposed to serious, full-time training.
Half a world away and three years behind, Rupp entered Central Catholic High in Portland as a promising soccer player. He had been selected for the Oregon Olympic Development Program and made the high school varsity in ninth grade. But it was a conditioning session designed by Salazar (the school's cross-country coach) that foreshadowed Rupp's future. He ran 10 sprints of 200 meters at between 30 and 31 seconds with little rest in between, a respectable showing for even a sub-two-minute 800-meter runner.
That was the end of soccer. Rupp graduated from Central Catholic in 2004 with two state cross-country titles and, after enrolling at Oregon, would win an NCAA cross-country crown in '08 and five titles on the track in '09. He also made the U.S. world championship teams in '07 and '09 (last year was his third worlds team) and the '08 Olympic team.
But through it all Rupp attracted controversy. He trained with Salazar in high school and college, availing himself of Nike's infrastructure (while paying for it) and prompting an NCAA inquiry into his eligibility in 2005. (He was cleared.) There were also grumblings in the running world that he was benefiting from Nike's money in other ways. In fact, Rupp says his parents and grandmother paid $95,000 to support his training (to preserve his college eligibility), and when he turned professional and signed with Nike in the summer of '09, he paid them back in full.
There were rough patches. "People were saying I was using steroids when I was 15," says Rupp. "They'd say I'll burn out in three years. It was hurtful at times. But no regrets. Things have gone pretty well."
Salazar will ask a little more of both men in the Olympic year. Farah's mileage will increase to 125 per week, with another 20 on a HydroWorx underwater treadmill, adding volume while minimizing injury risk. "I don't want to say that last year was enough," says Salazar. "Because there are so many great East African runners, and several of them are going to run 140 miles a week and do incredible workouts, and most of them will get injured, but the few that survive will line up in the Olympic final." Salazar and Farah won't tinker much with Mo's speed; at the worlds he closed the last 400 meters of the 10,000 in 53.4 seconds and the last lap of the 5,000 in 52.6—the kind of scorching finish he'll need in the Games.
Rupp's mileage will grow as well. Oddly, he is faster than Farah, around 10.9 seconds for a running-start 100 meters versus 11.3 for Farah. But Farah's endurance enables his late kick, and the expectation is that with continued training Rupp will eventually finish as fast. He set a U.S. two-mile record of 8:09.72 in Fayetteville, Ark., on Feb. 11 and will join Farah at the indoor worlds in Istanbul on March 9 to 11. The push to London will begin in April, a globetrotting odyssey funded by Nike that will probably conclude with six weeks in Park City before the long flight to the Games.
The two distance runners were together one evening last week in a fitness room at their temporary New Mexico home, each knocking out a short treadmill session, check marks in the endless log of workouts. Rupp wore Oregon green, Farah Union Jack red and blue. When it was done they walked together into the darkness, across a concrete patio and down a hillside covered in pebbles, laughing about nothing at all while the stones crunched beneath their feet, sound track to an unlikely alliance with a common goal.