It takes a certain kind of madness even to attempt to run the marathon - and Mo Farah is about to join the Crazy Gang. At the elite level, the statistics are staggering. Next month, Sir Roger Bannister celebrates the 60th anniversary of his sub-four-minute mile. On Sunday, Mo Farah will have to run 26.2 miles at around four minutes and 45 seconds apiece if he is to win the London Marathon.
On the start line at Greenwich, he will rank as favourite in the hearts of the crowd, but not in the minds of the more dispassionate souls who chalk up the odds. In a field including the fastest marathon man in history (Wilson Kipsang), the London course record holder (Emmanuel Mutai) and the Olympic and world champion (Stephen Kiprotich), Farah will be ready for a harsh introduction to the distance. The marathon is more than four times the length of any of his races on the track.
The influx of Kenyan and Ethiopian talent has lifted the global standard of marathon running to near-superhuman levels and Farah, 31, believes the challenge he faces on Sunday is more daunting than his pursuit of an Olympic gold-medal double in the capital two years ago. “It’s going to be harder than London 2012, the hardest race of my life,” he says. “The London Marathon is not just about taking on a few guys. They get the best of the best.”
His commitment to the race has taken him to Iten in Kenya and to the extremes of pain. Training at altitude in the small town in the Great Rift Valley has been a key part of Farah’s success in recent times and he has based himself there for much of the year so far. “Life is simple. Eat, sleep and train. It’s worked for me, so I wanted to do it again.”
The place is familiar, but the pain is not. A schedule of 130 miles a week has introduced his body to a new level of torture: “When you’re training for the 5,000 and 10,000 metres, you’re ready for the gym after a run, you’re more explosive. But the marathon’s like someone’s dragging you. It’s a completely different kind of pain.”
His coach, Alberto Salazar – a man whose attention to the smallest detail of the science of distance running has seen him dubbed the Dr Frankenstein of the marathon – understands. The Cuban-born American forged a legendary reputation in athletics by winning three successive New York marathons from 1980. More than anyone, he helped to ignite the running boom in the US, his glory days studded with invitations to the White House and meetings with Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush Sr.
Pain and discomfort, says Salazar, are parts of the territory: “To get good at anything, there’s always a price to pay. In long-distance running, there’s a significant amount of pain and discomfort and drudgery. People either have that capacity to be able to endure it... I won’t say they relish it, they’re not masochistic, but at the same time they don’t fear it.
“Marathon runners are a different breed from other, track athletes. As a marathon runner, you’re not gonna run very many times, maybe twice a year. You gotta be a little crazy to do all that training to run just twice a year. Like a boxer, you’re picking something that you train a long time for, but you’re only gonna get the chance to showcase it a couple of times a year. So there has to be some inner motivation.”
The reward for victory in London is $55,000 (plus a $100,000 bonus for men going under two hours and give minutes, with an extra $25,000 for a course record and $125,000 for a world record). And star attractions like Farah can command large appearance fees. Even so, he is adamant the impulse comes from elsewhere. In his autobiography, published last year, he wrote about testing his limits while he still has the chance: “The motivation doesn’t come from a cheque book. It comes from you and you alone.”
He stood accused of disrespecting the event and chasing only money when he was signed up as a guest to run half of last year’s London Marathon. An article in The Independent suggested that one of the co-founders of the event, Chris Brasher, would be turning in his grave at the prospect of Farah stepping off the road after 13 miles. “A fake rehearsal” was how the paper derided the plan.
“Whoever wrote that didn’t know my father,” current race director Hugh Brasher told me on a trip to Kenya to watch Farah in training. “Ridiculous” and “bizarre” were the words Farah himself used of the comments: “I was disap- pointed in them, but I know why I did it.”
He was keen to get to know the course and to improve his knack of rehydrating on the run. The refuelling of the body is one of the most important factors for any runner, elite or otherwise, to measure. Insufficient water intake leads to a dramatic drop in performance. Too much fluid can induce a condition called hyponatraemia, leading to potentially fatal consequences when the body’s essential sodium level is diluted. At the 2007 London Marathon, excessive water consumption was given as the cause of death of a 22-year-old fitness instructor, David Rogers.
The elite group have specially labelled bottles laid out on tables. Farah recalls in his book how he got it wrong last year. “I saw a red bottle and thought it must be mine. Then I took a sip. It was horrid! I’d picked up someone else’s bottle by mistake, and it was too late to run back. I missed the next drinks station – it was to the left, I was on the right. By the end I was gasping.”
He is determined to get it right this time. In training in Kenya, he has been running alongside a car with his drinks bottle strapped to one of the wing mirrors, multi-tasking as he concentrates on judging his pace while drinking on the move. To add to the pressure on race day, all his main rivals have been there and done it – and many times.
A month ago, in a move designed to measure his progress and break up the monotony of training, he ran in the New York Half-Marathon, but suffered a setback when he collapsed after finishing second. Having tripped and fallen around halfway, his efforts to make up lost ground had left him exhausted.
“It’s no big deal,” he said afterwards, and his team stressed that the switch from the heat of Kenya to the freezing dawn in New York was a factor. They also pointed out that his training is geared towards hitting peak performance in mid-April and not a month earlier.
Farah returned to Kenya to put the seal on his preparations for London and an event that has played a significant role in his development. As a teenager, he won the Mini London Marathon three times from 1998 and his bond with the event has grown stronger ever since.
From 2001, the charitable arm of the London Marathon funded his scholarship at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, a hub of high-performance athletics. The arrangement was brokered by UK Athletics coach Alan Storey, with David Bedford, the former 10,000m world record holder who assembles elite fields for the marathon. Bedford saw something of himself in Farah, an athlete bursting with talent who needed a nudge in the right direction.
“David was always there for me,” says Farah, who is now on the verge of making a remarkable repayment. “The London Marathon means a lot to me. I won it as a junior and I always wanted to step up to the full distance. This year, I can’t wait for April 13th. My time has come.”
Mike Costello is Radio 5 Live's athletics correspondent.
London Marathon is on Sunday from 8:30am on BBC1 and Radio 5 Live.