With his great rival Kenenisa Bekele pulling off his marathon debut in such terrific style last week at Paris, breaking the course record with a staggering 2:05:04, despite a sore hamstring, and the incredible hype that surrounds him every time he dons a race number, it was no surprise that hopes were high when Mo Farah lined up for the London Marathon. Too high, as it turned out.
Britain’s most successful distance athlete lined up against four of the fastest marathon runners in history – with rumours circulating of a planned victory, a course record, and even – ludicrously – of an attempt to break two hours for the first time, but it was not to be this time.
Coach Salazar’s tactics, as ever, seemed spot on, with Farah to run with the slower of the two lead packs; ensuring no burn-out, and affording the sprint-finish specialist the time to build pace in the second half of the race. However, the pace makers had already slowed off the intended pace by the six-mile mark, and later pulled ahead without their designated athletes, leaving Farah with a lot of work to do by himself, and running a shatteringly uneven pace.
The double World and Olympic champion’s distinctive loping style was cheered around the course by a fantastically vocal crowd, who did all they could to recreate the winning conditions of London, when Farah took on other stellar fields to come through victorious. But a marathon debut is incomparable to the conditions of a rehearsed track race, and the nation’s expectations were simply unrealistic.
Farah’s furthest training run at race pace had been 20 miles, and he admitted that he wasn’t sure how the full distance would go. There were serious concerns that the distance would simply be too much for him – especially in the aftermath of his collapse after the New York Half Marathon earlier this year – and yesterday the step up proved colossal.
Farah’s finishing time will have disappointed him, as the very least he expected of himself in the race was breaking Steve Jones’ 29-year old British record, and he finished 68 seconds outside of this, in 2:08:21 – almost 4 minutes behind Kipsang’s winning time and course record of 2:04:27.
The disappointment for Farah will be deeper than merely missing the record, as the 31-year old is used to, and – admits to being addicted to – winning and controlling races, so being out of touch with the field was a real struggle.
The fields of most races are reluctant to go out hard with Farah in their midst – playing right into the man’s hands, and allowing him to conserve energy and unleash an even more devastating final lap – but this stellar line up knew that they had the edge here, and so were never going to permit Farah to have his way in a slow-paced race.
It would have been really something to achieve – the sixth fastest 1500 runner in history stepping up to, and winning, a distance almost thirty times that length, especially against the line-up assembled for London, which, every year, is the strongest field in the world. The crowd appreciated the bravery it took him to come to London, and Farah’s commitment to performing in front of home audiences is one factor that has contributed to his enormous popularity, but it certainly sentenced him to a lower final placing, and a much less auspicious start to his marathon career.
But is that the right thing to call it? A marathon career? After the race Farah asserted that he would “do another marathon. It could be in six months’ time, next year or in a few years,” but there is no doubt that he now needs to return to his Nike training base in Portland, to have a real think about what he wants to do next, and – hopefully – it won’t be another marathon.
With Glasgow and Rio fast approaching, as well as a home IAAF World Championships in 2017, Farah has several options available to him, but the best choice certainly seems to be returning to the track for the next two summer seasons, whilst he is still in peak form, and has the pace in his legs for the 5,000 and 10,000.
Farah’s fastest times over both distances were set in 2011, and neither are particularly fast. Obviously – they’re world title-winning times, and British records – but he is placed 31st and 15th, respectively, on the world all-time lists, so it would be fascinating to see him leave the marathon, for now, and have a go at running some thrilling times. This would be risky, as he would need to go out hard at the front, abandoning his usual race tactics, but – as his 1500m time in Monaco last year attested – when Farah goes eyeballs out at a distance, the times he can produce are spectacular.
After Rio, perhaps, the track great can return to the marathon, in which he doubtless has enormous potential, but an athlete’s endurance peaks at a later point in their careers than their raw speed, so let’s see Farah win some more track titles first.
After Sunday’s race, Farah will definitely be feeling deflated – much more so than his ever-optimistic post-race interview suggested – but his incredible ability and potential isn’t, and never has been, in doubt. As we have come to expect of our distance star, he chose the very hardest race possible for his debut, gave it his all, and is now looking for the next challenge.
Let’s hope Farah’s next marathon – when it comes – is more reminiscent of the victories we have come to anticipate and love.