The promise came shortly after Mo Farah had crashed into the steepest of walls, limbs screaming and pride shredded from the loneliest of trudges towards the finish of the 2014 London marathon. “I will be back,” he insisted. “I want to know that I can run a great marathon as well as achieve medals on the track.”
On Sunday, the most successful British athlete of all time intends to make good on that pledge. While Farah recently turned 35, there is a growing confidence in his camp that his fledgling career as a road-runner can soar to unexpected heights.
His first goal is Steve Jones’s British marathon record of 2hr 7min 13sec, which has stood for 33 years. However, if the weather gods are kinder than forecast, Farah will also aim to better the European record of 2:05:48. This week, he boldly predicted he could run 2:04 or 2:03 in the future, which would lift him into the marathon stratosphere.
Such talk would have seemed impossible when Farah was struggling home in eighth in 2014, teeth fixed in grim rictis as he crossed the line in a modest 2:08:21. “It was horrible from 17 miles out,” he said. “We went under a bridge and I remember thinking this is hard. I was gritting my teeth and felt so wet and heavy – and the further I went the heavier I felt. Everyone talks about hitting the wall. I felt like I did that day.”
So what has changed? As Farah points out, retiring from the track last September has allowed him to focus fully on the marathon. A new coach, Gary Lough – who guided his wife, Paula Radcliffe, to the world marathon record – has freshened up training and without the pressure of being the biggest beast on the track he feels a weight off his shoulders. “I needed to get that excitement back too,” he said. “It was the right time for a new challenge.”
Three months’ hard training at 10,000ft in Ethiopia has also done wonders for Farah’s confidence. Some of his long runs are said to have been hugely impressive with his training partners needing to sub in and out after failing to keep pace, and – contrary to expectations – he got on well with Lough.
Yet there were a few dicey moments. One day he was 17 miles into a run with his training partner Abdihakem Abdirahman when a pair of wild dogs started hunting them down. “All we could hear was a noise – cha-cha-cha – of them pounding on the road,” said Farah. “I looked back and there were two dogs, who were so close. They were coming for my skinny legs.”
What happened next would hardly have met Barbara Woodhouse’s approval. But out of fear and necessity, Farah and Abdirahman started hurling rocks at the dogs until they retreated.
The Guardian also understands there were times when Farah and his team were told to stay in his camp at the Yaya Athletics Village, about 30 minutes north of Addis Ababa, because of the ethnic tensions inside Ethiopia.
On another occasion, one drug tester was so inexperienced he kept failing to find a suitable vein to take blood from one of Farah’s running partners, leaving him sore the next day.
However, while training has gone well it would still be a surprise if Farah made the podium given he finds himself facing one of the toughest fields ever assembled in London.
The warm favourite is Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic champion and holder of the fastest time over 26.2 miles (2:00:25) – although as it was achieved in a Nike-sponsored race where, among other things, pacemakers were subbed in and out, it does not count as an official world record.
It is understood that Kipchoge was intending to ask for pacemakers to get to halfway in 61 minutes, giving him every opportunity to go under Dennis Kimetto’s IAAF-approved record of 2:02:57. However, the weather may scupper those plans.
The Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second fastest man in history over 26.2 miles, is also said to be in great form while last September another Ethiopian, Guye Adola, recorded the fastest debut in a marathon when he ran 2:03:46 behind Kipchoge in Berlin. Given their pedigree it will surely be sensible for Farah – who is thought to reach halfway in around 61:45 – to let them go and attempt to pick one or two of them off later in the race.
Whatever happens, Farah deserves credit for throwing himself into the marathon deep end. Retirement must have crossed his mind. It would have let him spend more time with his twin loves – family and football – and avoid the persistent questions about his relationship with his former coach Alberto Salazar and his friendship with the controversial Somali Jama Aden – both are under investigation by anti-doping authorities.
Instead, he is back testing himself again, ready to learn from what happened four years ago. “In his mind this is his first serious attempt at the marathon,” Radcliffe said. “He maybe underestimated it a bit in 2014. This time he has come in really serious about what he wants to achieve.”
Yet the marathon is different: the standard higher, the need for pain tolerance greater. On the track Farah was also able to perform a startling act of mesmerism – while his opponents knew and feared his devastating kick, they appeared powerless to prevent championship races dawdling along, lap after lap, until Farah devoured them at the finish. Over 26.2 miles those old spells will not work.
There are some who question whether Farah, who had the capacity to run 3min 28.81sec over 1500m – a time surpassed by 10 athletes – can really also run a marathon time for the ages and history pages. If he can, the plaudits and, inevitably, the suspicions, will grow in tandem.
But that will not bother Farah. On Sunday he will be back on familiar turf, close to the scene of his glorious London 5,000m and 10,000m triumphs, hoping to recreate the magic of six years ago.
So how will he do? The former 10,000m world record holder Dave Bedford, who was responsible for putting together this year’s elite field, probably knows more than most, yet even he is unsure. “There is more at stake for Mo this time,” he said. “That’s the reality of it. He is a quality athlete, but none of us, frankly, have an idea what will happen.”
That, surely, makes what lies ahead even more intriguing and alluring.