And so the 2011 men’s World Championships 10,000 meters is complete. And poor Mo Farah. England’s pride came up agonizingly short in his bid to win his nation’s first ever World Championships 10,000 final. Instead unheralded Ethiopian Ibrahim Jeilan rallied in the final 200 meters to run down the Somali-born runner, winning in 27:13.82 to Mo’s 27:14.07. Another Ethiopian Imane Merga came third in 27:19.14 to mine the bronze. America’s top hope – and Mo’s training mate at the Oregon Project – Galen Rupp finished in seventh position in 27:26.84.
The look of utter despair that moved across Mo’s face as the Ethiopian assassin blazed by with but 20 meters remaining was a testament to the value accorded the potential win. Farah had grown immensely over the course of the last year, especially after moving to Portland to join Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project. His 26:46.57 win at the Prefontaine Classic in June remains the leading time in the world this year, and pegged him as race favorite in Daegu. And he ran like a champion, too, except – and it’s a big except – for the final 650 meters.
Based on the results, you’d have to say Mo got just a little too anxious. Rather than waiting for the final 500 meters to strike, as had been his tactic throughout his breakout season, he went to the front on the backstretch of the penultimate lap, maybe 50-75 meters too soon, because he ran out of fuel before he ran out of territory, which allowed Jeilan time to rally down the stretch to snatch the gold. But that’s an easy assessment sitting in front of a computer screen. It’s a whole different matter when your spikes are flinging mondo track beneath you in a blur, the crowd is baying like a hungry animal in your ears, and your lungs are a bellows breathing fire to the soul.
Nine kilometers passed in 24:46.50, a 2:46.07 ninth km. In line came Charles Mathathi of Kenya, Imane Merga of Ethiopia, Mo Farah, then ZersenayTadesse of Eritrea, Jeilan of Ethiopia, Peter Kirui of Kenya, Sileshi ”Mr. Silver” Sihine of Ethiopia, and Galen Rupp of America. The pace had been solid if not remarkable. Four-time world champion Keninise Bekele of Ethiopia had come to the starting line, but having not raced all season nursing an injury, he’d given way mid-race, considering, I’m sure, his uncertain fate ahead.
Two laps to go, no more than a gathering storm lap of 66.82 brought firepower to the front. And now the moves began. On the backstretch with the clock ticking past 25:45, Mo Farah went to the front for the first time, his Union Jack kit hanging from his distance carved torso. He’d won all year with lethal final laps, but today he went to the lead with nearly 650 meters remaining. Instantly, Jeilan returned fire while the multiple time World and Olympic silver medalist Sihine gave way as Rupp moved by him into sixth, but losing contact with the leaders all the same.
500 to go at the top of the stretch for the penultimate time. 26:10 on the clock, and Mo, Merga and Jeilan established themselves as the clear medal candidates. Jelain had been a promising junior runner, winning the 2006 Ethiopian 10,000-meter title and a gold at that year’s IAAF World Junior Championships. He followed with a world youth best of 27:02.81 over 10,000 – the second best time ever run by a junior after Kenya’s Sammy Wanjiru. But he’d faded from the scene in ensuing years. Last I’d seen him was when he ran third at the 2009 Beach to Beacon 10K, Joan Samuelson’s road race in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
But now the slender Jeilan was in the medal hunt in Daegu with one more turn of the oval remaining on the heels of a 60.8 lap. British commentator Steve Cram, himself the 1983 World 1500 meter champion, exclaimed, “Mo is pouring it on! It’s over, I think. The man’s gone away!”
Farah entered the backstretch at 26:35 with a clear advantage. Jeilan sensing the gold slipping away moved ahead of countryman Merga, the feared 5000 meter closer on the Diamond League tour. With 200 to go (26:46.5) Mo had six meters, but then Cram realized, “Jeilan is slowly closing on Mo Farah!”
On the final turn before entering the homestretch Mo’s face contorted into a grimace of all-out effort, even as the long-limbed Jeilan, like a rapier unsheathed, began slicing the distance between with each slashing stride. 27:01 at the top of the stretch, a remarkable 51 seconds after Mo had last past that mark, but with 90 meters of telescoping real estate still ahead.
Jelian was now fully blooded, and hit another gear at 27:08, Mo no more than maintaining. Jeilan pulled even a second later, then gutted Farah over the final few strides.
It is the brutal nature of championship racing, the stakes so high, the margins so narrow, that dreams can evaporate over no more than few precious seconds. Still, it was a wonderfully courageous effort by the young Brit. Who knows, it may hold him in good stead for London 2012.
On the American side Galen Rupp sallied forth, able to match the pace of the world’s best, but not the acceleration in the final lap and a half. After completing his tour in seventh, Galen comforted his fallen friend Mo who lay disconsolate on the track.