Mo Farah rarely smiles after a loss. Usually it is too painful.
Those close to him say that defeat cuts him deeper than other athletes and that partly explains why he is so successful. But after coming second to the American Garrett Heath at the Great Edinburgh XCountry on Saturday, Farah was cheery and philosophical. But then he knew what we did: the Rio Olympics in the summer, with a warm breeze swooning off the Atlantic, is very different to a boggy cross-country slog around Holyrood Park in January.
“It was slippery,” said Farah, shrugging his shoulders. “It was tough. Early on it was slow and I couldn’t keep that going. When Garrett went, I just couldn’t respond. When he put his foot down, it was just bouncing off the ground quicker. I wasn’t that comfortable. But this is cross-country. That’s what you get.”
True enough. But we have become so used to the sight of Farah’s victory sprint taking him to another win in the final stretch that it was somewhat of a shock when his afterburners spluttered and died in the mud at the end of the 8km race.
Heath had won here for the past two years – including beating the world 1500m champion, Asbel Kiprop, and the world 5,000m and 10,000m record holder, Kenenisa Bekele, over 4km in 2014 – but he sounded just as surprised to win. “There’s no doubt that in a 10km on the track I’ve got no shot at taking down Mo, but out here in a cross-country it changes some of the variables,” he said. “What makes it so exciting is that you never know what’s going to happen.”
When the race began in the early afternoon, the freezing fog that had shrouded Arthur’s Seat all morning had thinned and thawed. But there was a new enemy. Rain. It made the already sloshy surface more slippery and more than once Farah stumbled while going around a corner.
Perhaps a little uncertainty was to be expected. This was Farah’s first cross-country race since 2011, but while he had no recent form in the mud he had plenty of pedigree. Between 2006 and 2009, before gold medals became Farah’s currency at world level, he won a gold and three silvers at the European cross-country championships. He had also won here in 2011, beating his training partner Galen Rupp.
Farah was near the back after the first of the six-lap race. But gradually he moved into contention and as the race entered the final lap he was in a five-man group, with Heath on his shoulder. When Heath kicked with 800m to go, Farah was never able to close the gap and the American won by two seconds in a time of 25min 29sec.
“It wasn’t until about 50m to go, after it felt like I was kicking for 800m, that I finally looked back,” Heath said. “I was surprised that I had a shot to even beat him.”
“I don’t think you can ever expect to beat Mo. The guy’s got an amazing record and whether it’s cross-country or the track he’s nearly impossible to beat. I was confident that I was fit and I wanted to get out there and give myself a chance, but I can’t say I was confident I was going to beat him. But I just love cross-country, particularly this course.”
Farah, however, did not sound overly disappointed with his setback. “Nobody likes losing, but when you lose you get back in training and you think about it, so it can be a good thing,” he said. “It gives you motivation. Better to lose now than in August. I can go into training camp now and get some good mileage and then some good track sessions behind me.”
Heath left Edinburgh promising to start a campaign to bring cross-country back for the Winter Olympics. It is doubtful that he will get much support from Farah, who said he cannot wait to get back on the track – and on track – again.
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