Moh Ahmed narrowly missed the Olympic podium in 2016 and three years later earned world bronze after leading late in the race, yet some of his fiercest battles haven’t been waged on a running track.
There were many days spent as a young teen playing basketball at a park with younger twin brothers Ibrahim and Kadar, about two kilometres from home in St. Catharines, Ont., while their parents worked.
“They were feisty and competitive,” Ahmed said in a phone interview with CBC Sports. “They wouldn’t go home until they gave me the best effort they could. They were my brothers but also my best friends.”
Ibrahim and Kadar have watched the 5,000-metre runner become a five-time Canadian champion, national record-holder and now a serious medal contender for the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
On July 10, Ahmed ran the 10th fastest 5,000 in history, bettering his own Canadian record by 10 seconds in 12 minutes 47.20 seconds.
Two weeks later, he ran a 1,500 in 3:34.89, the fifth-fastest time ever by a Canadian.
‘They inspired me’
All that time spent battling his brothers looks to be paying off.
“It’s a competitive milieu I grew up in that really helped me. They inspired me,” Ahmed said of his brothers, who also played soccer and basketball. “They were always good, making teams and brought that competitiveness home.
“In Grade 7 and 8 I was still immature, in terms of my body. I went to a school with some incredible athletes so I couldn’t make any of the teams.”
WATCH | Mo Ahmed: From humble beginnings … to Olympic podium?:
Ahmed started running track at age 13 and was further inspired seeing track athletes on television at the 2004 Athens Olympics, as well as Canadian sprint kayaker Adam van Koeverden, who won gold and bronze medals at those Games.
“Watching all those races,” he said, “I had goosebumps. I remember running around the basement after each of those races for 15 to 20 minutes. In my Grade 8 yearbook I wrote ‘Olympian’ as my future occupation. I didn’t know what that meant but it’s the fact I was inspired and held on to that [dream].”
Ahmed, now 29, realized his Olympic dream in 2012 in London, where he finished 18th in the 10,000. Four years later, he doubled up in Rio, placing 32nd and fourth, respectively, in the 10,000 and 5,000.
Ahmed’s breakout moment came three months earlier at the Diamond League’s Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., according to Jerry Schumacher, his coach at the Portland-based Bowerman Track Club since 2014. The former University of Wisconsin-Madison standout took the lead with a lap to go in the 5,000 and hung on for a third-place finish in 13 minutes 1.74 seconds.
“I remember thinking he was just scratching the surface and there was better coming,” Schumacher told CBC Sports.
Ahmed went on to earn Commonwealth Games silver in 2018 and last September clocked 13:01.11 for bronze at the world championships in Doha, Qatar.
If there’s a sign the Somalia-born runner is ready for Tokyo, he said his record 5,000 run in July at an instrasquad meet in Portland “felt fairly easy.
WATCH | Ahmed shatters his 5,000m Canadian record:
“Physically I was ready for it, and mentally and emotionally as well,” said Ahmed, who enjoys writing and poetry away from the track. “I was very much in tune with my body, on top of my stride, controlling my body and emotions, and was able to observe and read the race well.”
He’s kind of like that quiet assassin. … He’s got this quiet confidence but when he comes out [on the track] he packs a big punch.— Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher on Ahmed
His brother Ibrahim was able to attend, which gave him extra motivation.
“Every scream, every yell and every shout from [Ibrahim] and [my coach and teammates] had pure encouragement,” Ahmed said. “It was pushing me, propelling me. There’s a deep connection with those individuals and I know how bad they want it for me.”
Better at handling nerves, pressure
“He’s kind of like that quiet assassin,” Schumacher said of Ahmed, laughing. “You don’t expect it [because] he’s a very unassuming guy and humble. He’s got this quiet confidence but when he comes out [on the track] he packs a big punch.”
Ahmed admitted to feeling more confident in his abilities and more experienced in handling the nerves, anxiousness and pressures of racing. He also considers himself among those in the hunt for an Olympic medal next summer in Tokyo.
Only Joshua Cheptegei, who set a world record of 12:35.36 on Aug. 14, has run faster than Ahmed since Jan. 1, while Cheptegei’s Ugandan teammate Jacob Kiplimo (12:48.63) and Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega (12:49.08) are the others to have run under 12:51.
This is the company Ahmed now keeps and wanted, Schumacher said, when he arrived at Bowerman with big dreams but lacking the skills, confidence and development to immediately reach an elite level.
“That’s what he’s always been driving for,” the renowned Schumacher said. “Moh’s competitiveness or competitive instincts have been the same since [Day 1]. But medalling at that level, with those guys, is always hard.”
Ahmed hopes he put enough fear in his competitors in the world final after taking the lead with about 500 metres to the finish, dropping to fifth and working his way back to third on the straightaway at Khalifa International Stadium.
WATCH | Ahmed claims 5,000m bronze at 2019 worlds:
Health will be paramount in the eight months leading up to Tokyo, Ahmed noted.
“My dad once told me, ‘Only a healthy man can go out and seek their destiny.’ If you are healthy and can pile up the mileage week after week, you’ll be prepared,” he said.
American runner Evan Jager remembers Ahmed having “a lot of room to grow” when he joined Bowerman, watching him make big gains the first two years and reset the bar soon after the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“He wasn’t going to be satisfied with anything less than standing on the podium at global championships,” said Jager, a silver medallist in the 3,000 steeplechase at Rio. “Every part of his life was centred around running and people are starting to see his hard work and dedication pay off.
“I was not shocked and shocked at the same time [at his running 12:47] because of how easy he made it look,” said Jager, who was in the race but wasn’t able to hold Ahmed’s pace and didn’t finish.
“Tough, fun and super frustrating” is how Jager describes battling his longtime teammate at practice these days.
“He’s definitely more confident over the past two years,” Jager said. “Keeping up with him is a tall, tall task. Everyone on the team looks up to him and it just sets the bar even higher.
“I would not bet against Moh to medal [in Tokyo] but championship races are so hard and competitive. Everyone brings their A-plus-plus game to an Olympic final and I have no doubt he’ll do the required thinking and planning to get there.”