From Kenya to London: Mo Farah’s hardest race

Matt Majendie, up in the hills of Iten, talks to the double Olympic champion as he puts in the miles for his marathon debut

The road to Iten, Mo Farah’s Kenyan training base for the next 10 weeks, is a bumpy one. Large potholes eventually make way for a dusty track up to the High Altitude Training Centre, which Farah first visited in 2008.

Either side of the track are wooden huts with corrugated-iron roofs; a stray cow crosses the road at a snail’s pace, Farah himself emerging moments later at the side of the road alongside a group of runners. At what is known as the home of champions, as a double Olympic and world champion Farah slots in comfortably.

For Farah the motto here is simple: “Switch off, eat, train.” It is a simplicity that the Londoner, bedecked in an Arsenal shirt on transfer-deadline day, revels in. It is here in this vast expanse, where paragliders overhead share the vista with long-distance runners on the ground, that he insists he works twice as hard as anywhere else in the world.

It is a day off, which in Farah’s world means a mere 10-mile run, during which local children excitedly shout his name as they run alongside. In an average week, though, he clocks up 130-plus miles on his route into the unknown: a first stab at the London Marathon.

The 30-year-old argues that running the marathon is like learning to walk again. “It’s just like driving a car. You could drive it at 50mph and you would get there quicker but you are just driving at 25 and holding the steering wheel on some bumpy road. Your legs and your body feel like that.”

And he adds: “It’s going to be harder than London [2012], harder than Moscow [the World Championships], it’s going to be one of the hardest races of my life. The London Marathon is not about taking on a few guys, they get the best of the best.”

He lives and breathes training, the commitment to this latest challenge highlighted by the family sacrifices. He has already been in Kenya for two weeks, and when he is eventually reunited with his wife and three children he will not have seen them for three months.

The marathon is not quite an obsession, more a dream, but a dream he has had for as long as he can remember. He first raced in a mini-marathon aged 14, coming second.

Last year, he ran half the London distance, but in April there will be no half-measures. It is a race that director Hugh Brasher, without overstating matters, described as the “most long-awaited marathon debut of all time”. Farah will take on, among others, the world-record holder Wilson Kipsang and Olympic and world champion Stephen Kiprotich. In fact, the only big name missing is Kenenisa Bekele, who pipped Farah to the Great North Run victory in a thrilling race last year.

A year on from Farah’s first major foray on to the streets of London, he insists he will not be as nervous but, despite his inexperience, is well aware of the expectation. “If I don’t [win],” he says, “it will be like, ‘What’s happened to Mo?’”

But otherwise he wants the local public to help him against the more experienced marathon runners. “I’m hoping if my rivals are going to intimidate me, the crowd can do their bit and intimidate them,” he says. “Having the crowd is amazing and that’s what carries me to the line. Imagine if 75,000 people in the stadium [as in London 2012] are just shouting your name, what would it be like if you’re on the street, where people don’t have to pay anything, they’ve just come to watch you?”

The minimum requirement is Steve Jones’ British record of 2hr 7min 13sec, but the expectation is significantly greater. If he were to take Jones’ 29-year national record, Farah would hold the British record at every Olympic distance from 1500m to the marathon.

“It’s hard but I have to do it. It’s London,” he explains. “I could easily sit back and say, ‘Dave [Bedford, one of the race organisers], I’m going to stay at home and train.’ But it’s something I must do. I believe I can run 2.07 but the next level is how do you get close to 2.03 [world-record pace]? It will take time but it’s about learning. Every race on the track I learnt something – it will be the same for the marathon.”

His training has undergone a complete overhaul – more miles, longer workouts, fewer speed sessions, even adapting his running style, currently seen as too bouncy for the rigours of the marathon.

Also, he wants to learn from everyone he can. “I’m asking a lot of people, ‘How does it feel, what’s the hardest part?’ and just trying to understand,” he says. “It’s about being sensible but you have to have the confidence. As an athlete you never think about defeat. If you think that, you will never be champion.”

Even so, it promises to be a bumpy road ahead.

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