A Somaliland-born and British international runner, Sir Mohamed Farah set a new European record to win the Chicago Marathon.
Every year in Woodstock, Illinois, the town hosts a week-long party to celebrate Groundhog Day being filmed there. A few miles to the south in Chicago on Sunday, a recurring movie also played out in front of Mohamed Farah’s eyes as he charged away from an elite field to another staggering win.
Time and again during Farah’s track career his opponents watched helplessly as a 5,000m or 10,000m race evolved into a sprint finish, a Mobot, and a medal ceremony. Over the marathon distance the rules were supposed to be different. But Farah somehow bent them to his will again.
His time of 2hr 5min 11sec – a European best by 37sec – was a striking rebuttal to those who scoffed that he was too old, at 35, to be a contender over 26.2 miles. Now all roads lead to the Tokyo 2020 Games – and the possibility of a fifth Olympic medal.
Victory was in doubt until the last couple of miles. But steadily Mohamed Farah shed his rivals until only Ethiopia’s Mosinet Geremew remained. For several hundred metres he scrutinised the strength in his opponent’s legs with the thoroughness of a physician, before applying the afterburners.
As the finish line loomed into sight, the celebrations began. The right fist pumping, then the left, all tension escaping like air from a popped balloon. Then, inevitably, another Mobot before a triumphant leap into his wife Tania’s arms.
“I was definitely comfortable from mile 24 so I knew from that point I was just testing the guys out,” he said later. “I wasn’t sure who the one guy who went with me was, so I needed to have enough left at the finish. But I definitely had another couple of gears.”
What made Farah’s performance even more impressive was its serenity. He was the last elite athlete to arrive at breakfast at 5am, eating porridge and fruit while he discussed race tactics with his coach Gary Lough – the pair agreeing they he would take his time before applying any death blow.
It meant that during the first half of the race, he stayed towards the back of a long snake of runners who stayed behind the pacemakers, protecting themselves from the wind. This was not a time for showing strength, but conserving energy.
It also proved that he was learning how to run 26.2 miles. At the London marathon in April, he had blasted through 13.1 miles in 61 minutes and paid the price. This time he reached halfway in a modest 63:06, but with plenty left in the tank. So when the mini-surges from his rivals came, as he knew they would, he remained calm – even though it meant dropping back by about 50 metres as Geoffrey Kirui tried to disrupt the field.
Gradually the 13 elite men in contention at 16 miles were whittled down. Among those to fall back was Galen Rupp, who for years trained with Farah on the 2.2-mile wood-chipped trail that encircles Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. When the going gets tough Rupp says the rosary to distract himself from the pain. This time nothing was helping.
Mohamed Farah, meanwhile, had moved to the front, although there was a minor scare when he stumbled in a ditch around 21 miles. “I put my foot in it when I grabbed my drinks bottle,” he said later. “It was quite painful for about a mile.”
With two miles left four men were still in contention – Farah, Geremew, Kirui and Kenneth Kipkemoi. It was turning into a game of high‑speed poker. But Farah knew that with his kick he held all the aces. First Kirui slipped back. Then, almost in tandem, Kipkemoi did likewise. And while Geremew had a personal best of 2:04:00 and a renowned sprint finish he was now on Farah’s territory. The pair raced shoulder to shoulder, stride for stride, until Farah kicked away to glory.
He now holds European records at 1500m, 10,000m and the marathon. That is a staggering range, the athletics equivalent of a death metal singer who can belt out a few bars of jazz and opera on the side. Inevitably such performances will invite suspicion, especially given that his former coach Alberto Salazar remains under investigation from the US Anti-Doping Agency, but Farah has always insisted that he runs clean.
And afterwards he also promised he could have “gone a lot faster” and suggested that a low 2:04 or high 2:03 was in his grasp. That is still way behind Eliud Kipchoge, who set a world record of 2:01:37 in Berlin in September. But as he recognised afterwards, the Kenyan is a different animal.
“Eliud is definitely a better athlete in the marathon,” Farah said. “He’s run more and better marathons than me. But I’m not afraid to keep turning up in the same field as him and keep testing him.”
There was no mistaking the steeliness in his voice. Farah is the most decorated track distance runner in history, with 10 golds and two silvers between the Olympics and the world championships. Now, after this, he can confidently hope for more glory days ahead.