Moh Ahmed and Justyn Knight at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha (© AFP / Getty Images)
Canada’s Moh Ahmed has been a force on the world distance running scene for the past decade, notably finishing fourth in the Rio Olympics 5000m before snatching the bronze medal at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha.
As he prepares for his third Olympic Games from the Bowerman Track Club’s altitude training base in Park City, Utah, he knows he cannot be complacent going forward.
At the Florence Wanda Diamond League meeting on 10 June, Ahmed finished third in the 5000m in 12:50.12 – not far off his Canadian record of 12:47.20. That splendid result has come to be expected of the 30-year-old. The surprise, however, was that his fellow Canadian Justyn Knight, who had finished runner-up to Ahmed at the Canadian Championships in 2017, 2018 and 2019, claimed fifth in that stellar field with a huge personal best of 12:51.93.
This pair are now the two fastest North American 5000m runners of all-time.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised,” says Knight, 25. “It was my first ‘5km’ in two years. The last one I ran was at the 2019 World Championships. Now we are in 2021, a lot of time has passed and I have been working really hard to improve myself.
“I was able to do lots of base training to make sure I was strong enough and then, leading up to that 5000m, I was fortunate enough to get into a couple of good 1500m races. I think I knew where I was at.”
The jovial Toronto area native made the final of the 2017 World Championships 5000m, six months before winning the NCAA indoor 5000m title for Syracuse University. Precocious talent doesn’t go far enough in describing his ability. But it was a huge 1500m personal best of 3:33.41 in May of this year which signalled a major breakthrough in his specialty was imminent. There is one reason for it.
While most NCAA athletes find themselves in a position where they must change coaches when turning professional, Knight’s graduation from university coincided with his coach Chris Fox’s hiring as head of Reebok Boston Track Club in 2018.
“I was fortunate to leave college and have the same coach,” he admits. “We had a tremendous amount of success at Syracuse and we accomplished a lot of great things. He knows me really well, I know him really well and he knows how to get me fired up. I listen to the coach and have complete trust and faith in him.”
The club is based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Knight jokes: “Charlottesville is too long a word to fit on a singlet!” With a smile he apologises for the confusion over names.
The area is known for its hills and autumn training includes many repetitions on some of the hilly dirt roads outside the city. Recently, Knight has been ‘honing the speed’ needed for the Olympics and he believes he will be equally prepared for a ‘sit and kick’ race or one that is fast from the gun. Surprisingly, one common and seemingly universal training element is missing from his experiences.
“I have never done altitude training,” he reveals. “I have been begging my coach to try it. He actually promised me that after 2020 maybe we could try it, then the Olympics got delayed. Maybe next year I will be lucky. It’s something I have always wanted to try but never had the opportunity to do.”
A 15-minute interview turns into a two-hour chat as the humble athlete enjoys discussing the history of athletics. Learning that his manager, Ray Flynn, still holds the Irish mile record (3:49.77) comes as a delightful surprise. It is evident he has time on his hands. Because of travel restrictions which required Canadians to quarantine upon returning home he has not been back to Toronto since Christmas. Friends and family are missed.
“My days are pretty relaxed, especially during Covid. I don’t really go out so to reduce the possibility of coming in contact with the virus,” he admits. “I have been very fortunate, I have been staying in touch with my friends on FaceTime. I love watching movies, I play a lot of games as well. Sometimes – and in case my mum reads this – I do crack open a book every now and then.”
Knight laughs at this statement. But beneath the cheerful exterior there lies a dedicated and ambitious athlete who is always seeking improvement. He was ninth in the 2017 World Championships 5000m final while a student-athlete and 10th in Doha two years later. Those experiences, as well as that Florence 5000m, showed him he can run with the best in the world.
“I was just happy to break that 13-minute barrier but there are still some improvements that I can make,” he declares. “Florence was a huge confidence booster, especially because I was running with the talented group I was running with.
“Usually I am accustomed to running with the second group, I guess, being part of the chase pack. And in that Florence Diamond League race I was in the top five or six front group. Hopefully I can be in contention to do something special at the Olympics.”
Clearly this young man has ambitions and the talent to perhaps pull off some surprises in the coming years. Ironically, he credits Ahmed’s longstanding experiences on the world stage as being an influence. And he lets out a little secret.
“Moh has been a huge inspiration to me ever since I started running,” he declares with candour. “My freshman year in college, back when Facebook was the most popular social media site, I wrote him a message just reaching out to him, just saying: ‘Hey, I look up to you, do you have any tips as a runner?’ He got back to me fairly quickly.
“That meant the world to me and that was kind of the start of our friendship. Just to see Moh throughout the years bring Canadian distance running back with all these Canadian records he has set, and all these championships races he has run in, and how he has always represented us in the best way possible. It’s just really nice to have someone to look up to.
“Now I am in a position where I am competing alongside him and we have the potential to do something special, at the same time, for Canada – that would just be a great accomplishment for us both and would mean a lot to our nation as well.”
Knight will race only the 5000m while Ahmed is planning the 5000m and 10,000m double in Tokyo. In Doha, the 5000m final was six days before the 10,000m where Ahmed came back to finish sixth in a Canadian record of 26:59.35. In Tokyo, the 10,000m final is on the first night of athletics competition, leaving Ahmed four days to recover before the 5000m heats.
The Canadian team will first gather in Gifu, Japan, where they will adjust to the time difference and to the heat. Expectations will run high that these two Canadian distance runners will pack a 1-2 punch in the 5000m.
Paul Gains for World Athletics