A Detailed Look at Mo Farah’s Wild Dominance Under Alberto Salazar

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By James Rogers

Mo Farah made a monumental move in January 2011. No, not a strategic in-race move to break away from the pack, but rather a career-defining resettlement from Great Britain to the United States.

The then-27-year-old Farah committed to the Portland-based Nike Oregon Project (NOP) and its head coach, Alberto Salazar. In this group, Farah would train primarily with Galen Rupp, who has been under Salazar’s guidance since his high school days. Rupp was 24 years old at the time, and he would soon realize the importance and advantage of having Farah by his side for thousands of miles. 

Without delay, Farah dismantled the British and European records for the indoor 5,000 meters, running 13:10.60 on February 19 in Great Britain.  

“I’ve really enjoyed working with Alberto,” Farah said after his record-setting 5K in February 2011, per Simon Hart of the Telegraph. “I’m starting a new life there, so it’s not going to be easy, but he’s a great coach, and the four weeks of training with him and Galen worked out really well.”

This would be just the start of something extremely special.

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Since joining the NOP, Farah has become the distinct class of the 5K and 10,000 meters.

The Olympic Games and IAAF World Championships serve as track and field’s premier stages. Athletes across all events establish training regimens and schedule races based on those two gargantuan meets. A professional runner’s ultimate goal? Take home an Olympic and/or Worlds medal to his or her home country.

As basketball players’ careers are defined critically by championships (or rings), Olympic and Worlds medals have a strong say in ranking running’s all-time greats. Show up, deliver when it counts and get rewarded.

Here’s a look at Farah’s fierce onslaught at running’s two biggest showcases since moving to Portland and Salazar:

  • 2011 World Championships 5K: 1st place, 13:23.36
  • 2011 World Championships 10K: 2nd place, 27:14.07
  • 2012 Olympics 5K: 1st place, 13:41.66
  • 2012 Olympics 10K: 1st place, 27:30.42
  • 2013 World Championships 5K: 1st place, 13:26.98
  • 2013 World Championships 10K: 1st place, 27:21.71
  • 2015 World Championships 5K: 1st place, 13:50.38
  • 2015 World Championships 10K: 1st place, 27:01.13
    • Note: World Championships occur every two years; Olympics every four.

What can you take from this? Other than claiming seven of a possible eight gold medals (his lone non-gold is a silver), Farah has appeared in every possible World Championships and Olympics since uniting with Salazar, an indication of long-term health. Also, Salazar has morphed Farah into a tactical-racing mastermind. You’ll notice those above times aren’t eye-popping compared to world records and Farah’s personal bests (PB). This is because of championship-style racing, and it’s necessary to have the gear to kick home, and kick hard, in races like these.

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Salazar’s fine-tuning of Farah’s devastating closing kick in both the 5K and 10K has made the 32-year-old the undisputed favorite if he’s still with the lead group with a lap or two remaining. Listen to what Salazar said in an August 2012 article by John Brant for ESPN.com: “In the Olympic 10,000, after 24 laps of covering surges and dodging elbows, the winner is going to have to run the last 400 in about 52 seconds.”

Farah’s final lap of his 2012 Olympics 10K victory? 53.48 seconds. One week after his 10K triumph, Farah came back and took 5K gold with a 52.94-second close. (Oh yeah, and four days after the 10K, he had his 5K prelim in order to clinch a spot in the 5K final.) Salazar was on point with his claim, which was made prior to the London Games. A 55-second last lap—a terrific final 400 meters, to say the least—would have you struggling for, and probably missing, the medal stand.

If you need further proof of the need for a blistering kick in high-profile races, Farah closed his 2013 World Championships 5K win in 53.52. In his most recent World Championships 10K in Beijing, he closed in 54.15. His 2015 World Championships 5K gold was won with a 52.6-second last 400 (and a 1:48.6 final 800).

It’s clear: Farah has been on a maniacal, jaw-dropping tear when it most counts. But have his PBs, like his closing kick and championship-racing strategics, drastically improved under Salazar, too?

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Let’s first take a look at Farah’s notable track PBs pre-2011 (i.e., pre-Salazar):

  • 1500M: 3:33.98 (2009)
  • 3K (Outdoor): 7:38.15 (2006)
  • 3K (Indoor): 7:34.47 (2009)
  • Two Miles (Outdoor): 8:20.47 (2007)
  • Two Miles (Indoor): 8:20.95 (2008)
  • 5K (Outdoor): 12:57.94 (2010)
  • 5K (Indoor): N/A
  • 10K: 27:28.86 (2010)

Clearly, he entered the NOP with far-from-mediocre performances; he just didn’t have any visits to global medal stands.

Let’s update those PBs:

  • 1500M: 3:28.81 (2013); ER
  • 3K (Outdoor): 7:34.66 (2015); NR
  • 3K (Indoor): 7:33.1 (2015); NR
  • Two Miles (Outdoor): 8:07.85 (2014); ER
  • Two Miles (Indoor): 8:03.40 (2015); WR
  • 5K (Outdoor): 12:53.11 (2011); NR
  • 5K (Indoor): 13:10.60 (2011); ER
  • 10K: 26:46.57 (2011); ER
    • Note: ER=European Record; NR=National Record; WR=World Record

Farah has lowered each pre-2011 time, which can be partly attributed to Salazar’s belief in the importance of both weight and resistance training. Rupp is the main feature in this video, but Ken Goe of the Oregonian wrote about a day with Farah, Rupp and Salazar back in April 2013. From Goe:

Farah hadn’t seriously lifted weights before joining the Oregon Project a little more than two years ago.

“Mo is getting stronger and stronger,” Salazar says. “He was behind Galen in terms of stability and core stuff. He has progressed so much. He is really ripped now, and that is why he is kicking so fast. It’s just body strength.”

Farah and Rupp do lunges with unbalanced barbells to strengthen their hips. Much of what would be more traditional lifts are done on one leg.

Improved physical strength has played its role in Farah’s success. Rupp has obviously benefited from the Britain’s presence, but it’s not a one-way street. Farah has also benefited from having the American 10K record holder by his side.

Rupp actually has quicker PBs than Farah in the indoor 3K (7:30.16 in 2013); indoor 5K (13:01.26 in 2014); and 10K (26:44.36 in 2014). The duo’s brightest moment to date was at the 2012 London Olympics 10K: Farah stormed to gold, while Rupp followed right behind in second, claiming the first USA Olympic 10K medal since 1964.

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Yes, Rupp has a global medal, but Farah has eight—seven gold, one silver. I’m not taking anything away from what Rupp has accomplished or belittling his impact on the world of distance running; I’m just returning to the main focus of this piece.

You’ll notice in that last bullet list that Farah now has three national records, four European records and one world record on the track. Please know this, too: Back in March of this year, he also broke the European record in the half-marathon, running 59:32 in Lisbon, Portugal.

Returning to the track: Farah’s 1500-meter PB should not go unnoticed amid all his 5K and 10K accolades. He will be remembered most for his 5K and 10K glory (unless he goes nuts on the roads), but he sits at No. 9 on the all-time 1500 list with his 3:28.81 from Monaco in 2013. He has dipped under 3:30 twice in his career, the other time coming this year at Monaco when he ran 3:28.93 in a Diamond League contest.

Steve Cram, a British middle-distance legend, was admittedly “stunned” when Farah broke his national 1500-meter record in 2013. Cram now commentates for BBC Sport, and he actually called that Monaco 1500 in which Farah shattered the record. The Telegraph‘s Simon Hart reported Cram’s thoughts toward Farah’s astounding run:

“I’m just stunned. You should never become too attached to records, whatever they are, but it’s been a long time now, and I wasn’t expecting it to go in that fashion with a distance runner.

“Mo’s in great shape. I was chatting to him about a couple of sessions he’s been doing, and he was obviously ready to run fast. He ran smart. He didn’t go too hard. It makes us look a bit ordinary, doesn’t it? Maybe we should have been a bit better.”

When Cram said “us” and “we,” he was referring to himself, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett—three former British mid-distance stalwarts who exploded in the 1980s. No one really expected Farah to take down Cram’s 3:29.67.

“I just wasn’t prepared for this,” Cram continued. “We know Mo’s always going to run a couple of 1500s now and then and have a bit of a go, and if he ran 3:31, you’d think, ‘Ooh, he could get close.’ I guess if someone breaks your record, you would want it to be a double Olympic champion, but you don’t expect a 10,000-meter runner to break your 1500-meter record.”

Imagine running a 3:28.93 1500—Farah’s aforementioned time from Monaco this year—and being somewhat disappointed because you didn’t set a PB. That’s world-class metric-mile running, and Farah doesn’t even focus on the event. To put it in perspective, his NOP teammate, Matt Centrowitz, has a 3:30.40 1500 PB and caters his training toward the 3 ¾-lapper. The 25-year-old Centrowitz has two Worlds 1500 medals—a bronze from Daegu in 2011; a silver from Moscow in 2013. It’s far from asinine to claim Farah could easily be a 1500 medalist on the global stage—especially if the 1500 was his go-to event.

In another non-5K/10K event, Farah has a world record, a mark he owns with pride: “This means a lot to me,” Farah told BBC Sport on February 21, 2015, after running an 8:03.40 indoor two-mile to break Kenenisa Bekele’s former record of 8:04.34. “I love representing my country, giving something back to all the people. Unbelievable.” 

He ran it in front of a home crowd at the Birmingham Indoor Grand Prix in England. He also ran the second and final mile in 3:59.5. Oh, and second place in that race was 8:13.46, meaning Farah ran it primarily on a solo effort. 

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Distance-running pundits have to believe Farah could have made (or could make) viable charges at more world records. The problem is, he targets many high-profile races where the win is more important than the time, and by now, we know Farah thrives in said races. It’s confounding that no one figured out a way to prevent the Somalian-born from recording a triple-double:

Mo

Farah has torn up the track, and it’s expected he commits to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to defend his Olympic 5K and 10K crowns. What will happen when Farah commits primarily to the roads? I mentioned his European record in the half-marathon. He also clocked a 2:08:21 marathon debut in London in 2014. That was a rare year with neither Olympics nor World Championships, allowing athletes to pursue fast times or dabble out of their comfort zones.

The marathon debut was highly anticipated, but it didn’t go to plan. Yes, a 4:54 mile pace for 26.2 is a respectable first go-around, but Farah finished eighth in a race won by Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang in 2:04:29 (4:45 pace). Don’t worry; Farah will be back for more. Expect a road-racing onslaught in the near future for the now-32-year-old. And expect Salazar to have his athlete primed and ready to go.

It’s remarkable what the Farah-Salazar tandem has accomplished since 2011. Not even a half-decade has elapsed since Farah made the smartest, boldest move of his life. National records, European records, a world record, gold medals—you name it. The man responsible for the Mobot reigns supreme.

For Rio 2016, the following moment—in the 5K, 10K or both—is nearly a given: Mo Farah gritting his teeth in the final straight, glancing behind to keep tabs on those struggling in pursuit, all while displaying his arm swing with frantic precision and adding yet another gold to his already-vast legacy.

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