Canadian Moh Ahmed should have been racing in Tokyo now, but is still running fast times

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When Moh Ahmed ran to a stunning Canadian record recently, his cheering section was his 20 or so Bowerman Track Club teammates spaced out around the 400 metres of infield at Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore.

The stadium was otherwise empty due to COVID-19. But 20 people or 20,000, it didn’t matter to Ahmed.

The most important voice was the one in his head.

With each 200-metre split hollered out by his coaches, the 29-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont., was mentally calculating his pace.

“I was doing the math, I was looking at the clock, I was like, ‘OK, I’m on pace, I can do this.’ I was very focused. I was very much in the zone,” Ahmed said. “More than anything it was the internal [dialogue]. It was the plan that I had laid out beforehand, and the various little cues, words that I needed to use at various different distances.”

WATCH | Moh Ahmed shatters his 5,000m Canadian record:

29-year-old Moh Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., won the 1,500 metres race in three minutes 34.89 seconds at the Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore. on Tuesday, July 21. 5:03

He also heard the familiar voice of his brother Ibrahim, and his coach Jerry Schumacher.

“I think with 3,600 metres, or maybe even 4,000 metres [into the race], Jerry said, ‘We’re getting this record, we’re getting this record.”‘

Ahmed sliced 11 seconds off his own Canadian record when he ran 12 minutes 47.20 seconds in the 5,000 on July 11. It was also a North American record and made Ahmed the 10th fastest runner over the distance in history.

On Tuesday, he moved down to the 1,500 — a virtual sprint for the 5 and 10K specialist — and became the fifth-fastest Canadian at that distance.

Ahmed would have been checking into the Tokyo Olympic village right about now. He could have laid down these sizzling-fast times on the Olympic Stadium track. But the global pandemic pushed back the Olympics to next summer, and it all but shut down this summer’s international track circuit.

Ahmed prefers not to dwell on it.

“With the shock of the pandemic and the cancellation, I had a little bit of regret, not being able to use the work that I put in during the fall and the winter, and when everything hit the fan, right after a big stint of altitude [training] in January and February, it was almost like, ‘Ah, dang it!”‘

‘Dreaming high’

Coming off a bronze medal at the world championships in Doha in September, Ahmed had believed this could be his year. But he said the fast times are confirmation that he should be “dreaming high.”

“This year could have been my year, but next year, and the next year, and the next year after that could also be my year,” Ahmed said. “It’s a confidence booster, if you are dreaming about getting medals and rubbing elbows with the best in the world you have to be capable of those sort of times. And for me to validate that, albeit in a very controlled and a relaxed atmosphere, it validates the dreams and expectations that I have for myself.”

WATCH | Moh Ahmed victorious at Bowerman Track Club meet:

29-year-old Moh Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., ran the 5,000 metres race at the Portland Intersquad Meet in 12 minutes 47.20 seconds, bettering his previous mark of 12:53.16 set last summer in Rome. 18:09

The global pandemic closed down weight-lifting facilities in Portland in March, but if there’s one athlete you want to be during a pandemic, it’s probably a distance runner. No equipment needed. Ahmed said Schumacher didn’t drastically alter the team’s training except to break it into small groups of two or three athletes who maintained physical distancing on runs. They managed to source some tracks to train on.

“Quarantine was not really that unfamiliar to us. We train, we come home, we sit at home, hang around,” Ahmed said. “It was just the uncertainty and the immense amount of sadness that was all around us and people’s anxiety really showing, when you go to the store and stuff like that. Those are the only hard things to grapple with.”

Track and field’s social media pegged Ahmed as a gold-medal hopeful in Tokyo after his 5,000 earlier this month.

Great Britain’s Mo Farah won the 2016 Rio Olympics in 13:03.30, although Olympic races are more tactical with no pace-setters. Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia holds both the world record (12:37.35) and the Olympic record, which is 20 seconds slower.

While some athletes prefer to dodge any talk of medals, Ahmed says he’d been dreaming of climbing the podium for years. He finally realized that with his bronze in Qatar.

WATCH | Moh Ahmed claims 5,000 metres bronze at track and field worlds:

Canadian Moh Ahmed reaches the podium with a time of 13 minutes 1.11 seconds. 3:03

“It’s very, very difficult. Everybody’s fit, every single one of those guys that I either beat or that beat me are capable of exactly everything that I’m capable of,” he said. “You have to be in the best shape of your life and compete with an incredible amount of strength and courage. That’s one of the things that I’m working on more is just that courage — but I believe I’m aiming for medals honestly.”

Ahmed will race in another sanctioned intrasquad meet on Friday, and then another one 10 days after that.

Watchful eye on racial unrest

In between training, Ahmed has kept a watchful eye on the racial unrest exploding across the U.S., particularly where he lives in Portland. The city has been roiled by nightly protests for two months following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Ahmed has friends who’ve been out protesting.

“There have been people, Portland citizens, that have been out there for 57, 58 nights straight calling for action and change,” Ahmed said. “And for the government to come in and violate their right to protest is extremely disheartening. I truly commend those [protesters] for doing that.”

U.S. agents have arrested dozens and dispersed crowds nightly by shooting tear gas at short range.

“Man, America is on fire,” Ahmed said with a sigh.

Ahmed, who was born in Mogadishu, Somalia and came to Canada when he was 11, is no stranger to racism. In 2017, he missed the Doha Diamond League meet after being flagged and detained in the Portland airport for hours. It also cost him a chance to race in the Diamond League Final, along with almost a season’s worth of race earnings.

Mixed feelings

He has mixed feelings about the past few turbulent weeks. The smothering reaction of the federal agents in Portland angers him.

“Obviously the Trump administration is bad. It’s really bad, honest to God. That’s not the action of the leader,” he said.

“I also see it and say: Are people and corporations just practising wokeness? How much more change are we going to see? Is it because people have time on their hands right now, all of a sudden they’re interested in this, trying to make a change?”

But he’s also hopeful, particularly with the diversity in voices and protesters. A “Wall of Moms” most recently joined the demonstrations in Portland, mothers in bike helmets, linking arms to form a protective wall.

“You see a lot of individuals out there from various different backgrounds who are working really hard to fight and showing that they’re willing to voice their concerns and I think that’s the hopeful part is how diverse things are,” Ahmed said about the Black Lives Matter movement overall, not merely in Portland. “I think those are the individuals who are going to make a difference. Black people have been fighting their whole lives, and nothing has been done. The individuals that can make change are white people coming to the table.”

Canada needs to hold itself accountable and make a lot of changes also, Ahmed said.

“It’s a little bit more subtle, it’s not in your face kind of thing, but it’s there too, you’ve just got to read it in the history books.”

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