The fighter: Mo Farah
You know you’ve made it when the whole nation can collectively dispense with your surname: Daley, Paula, Jess... Mo’s ascension to this exalted echelon of UK sports stars has come about thanks to the well-documented victories that have made the 33-year-old Britain’s most successful track athlete of all time.
His stunning triumphs in Rio made him a double World and Olympic Champion over both 5000m and 10,000m; he is the undisputed current king of distance running, but that’s only part of the reason we have chosen to pay homage here.
Those beautifully executed wins may have looked like the inevitable spoils coming to an athlete blessed with a supreme gift, but it’s only when you look deeper and begin to examine what it took for him not only to reach these stratospheric heights but to stay at the top that you really get the measure of this remarkable man. What makes Mo a true hero is not his elegant stride or his brutal finishing kick, but the indomitable fighting spirit that have shaped them and him.
Since coming to England from Somalia at the age of eight, Mo has had to fight. Overcoming playground bullies, struggling first to learn the language and later, as a young athlete, to make ends meet in his chosen vocation. In his early 20s he struggled to unlock his potential, something which he worried was having a direct effect on the welfare of his family. Athletics offers nothing like the riches of, say, football and a period of (relative) mediocrity between 2008 and 2011 meant sponsorship deals were jeopardised, bonus deals retracted and pay cuts suffered. So Mo moved his wife and stepchild (the couple later had three children together) to the other side of the world and the Nike Project in Oregon, US, where he set about turning himself from the guy who faded down the home straight, to the seemingly unbeatable megastar we saw triumph yet again in Rio. Training twice a day six times a week; clocking up to 130 weekly miles interspersed with intense strength, conditioning and flexibility sessions in the gym, running in the howling wind, the lashing rain, the cold and dark of winter, when the rest of us start spending a lot more quality time with Netflix.
In the second half of 2015 and into last year Mo was caught up in the doping scandal that swept through track and field, all because of his association with coach Alberto Salazar, whose methods had come under intense scrutiny. Instead of being able to focus solely on training for the Olympics Farah was forced to spend months fighting to defend his innocence amid a frenzy of media attention. In the midst of, and possibly because of, this distraction, questions were raised over his form and mindset when he finished a distant third at the World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff in March, crossing the finish line in visible distress.
He may have been knocked down, but on the Olympic stadium track in Rio, he picked himself up and fought his way back to become the first distance runner to win a ‘double double’ since the great ‘Flying Finn’ Lasse Viren (who took 5000m and 10,000m gold at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics) and thus cement his place in the pantheon of modern distance greats alongside Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat and Kenenisa Bekele. The richly deserved knighthood may be pending, but in the meantime we salute you, Sir Mo.
The hope giver: Makorobondo Salukombo
‘This is Congo,’ says Makorobondo “Dee” Salukombo, 28. ‘Here, people run to save their lives.’
Since 1996, civil wars have killed nearly six million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo – more than any other conflict since the Second World War. One survey found that more than 1,000 women are raped every day in the beleaguered central African state, and there are an estimated 30,000 child soldiers.
Salukombo and his family fled their village of Kirotshe, near the Rwandan border, in 2001, and ended up in the United States, where he became an All-American school champion in cross-country running and on the track. Salukombo graduated from university in 2012 and then started ProjectKirotshe, a youth running programme with an educational focus; it’s based in his former village. He raised enough money to send 13,000 textbooks, 55 computers and athletic equipment to supply the village’s new community learning centre and running team. Then he returned home for the first time, to launch his vision of turning kids into students and runners.
Through donations, the project – now called the Kirotshe Foundation – pays their school and higher education expenses. In a country where militants lure kids with guns and money, education is critical, says Salukombo.
The kids, most of whom have been left orphans by the war, participate in running groups and compete in local and national events. ‘By running together, they’re creating a family that most of them never had,’ says Salukombo.
He spent much of last year training with his top runners as well as coaching them. In August, he and his best runner, 5000m ace Beatrice Kamuchanga, then 18, went to Rio to represent DR Congo in the Olympics. Kamuchanga didn’t advance out of her heat and Salukombo
finished 113th in the marathon (in 2:28:54), but it was being there that mattered most, he says. ‘The Games gave the youths the confidence to believe they can get that first Olympic medal for Congo.’
Salukombo is now back in the US, fundraising and coaching his runners remotely. He remains determined to help as many kids as he can. ‘Why not use my strength to try to inspire them?’
The record breaker: Ben Smith
If ever there was a story that confirms the redemptive power of running it is surely that of 34-year-old Ben Smith.
Five years ago he was a smoking, heavy-drinking, overweight depressive; on October 5 last year he completed a record-breaking 401st marathon in as many days. It marked the end of an extraordinary journey.
Smith was bullied at school, which led to depression and two suicide attempts in adulthood. After suffering a mini-stroke at the age of 29 and coming out as gay, he planned an adventure that would raise awareness about bullying, as well as helping him to turn his own life around. The 401 Challenge would entail running around the UK and, in the process, raising money for two charities close to Smith’s heart: Stonewall and Kidscape.
Having sold his house to fund the challenge and with the constant support of a new partner, Kyle, who gave up his own job and PhD studies to help out, Smith set off from his hometown of Bristol on September 1 2015, running self-planned routes during the week and taking part in official marathons at weekends, including the Isle of Wight, Bristol to Bath, Brighton, Greater Manchester, Edinburgh and London. Along the way he battled injuries to his spine, knees, heels and shins but was helped by almost 9,500 people who had read about the challenge and who turned up to run with him for a leg or two.
Four hundred and one days – as well as 10,506 miles, 22 pairs of trainers, 2.5 million kcals, 19kg of weight lost and £307,000 of funds raised – later he breasted the tape at a special event in Bristol, where he was greeted by Kyle, his family and well wishers.
Following a three-month ‘cool-down’ period to bring his body back to normal, Smith continues his work – he plans to set up the 401 Foundation, which will work to build confidence and self-esteem in children.
The inspiration: Claire Lomas
A Brit was first across the line at the Great North Run last year and no, it wasn’t Mo. Before the elites, wheelchair racers and fun runners streaked along the South Shields seafront on September 11, 36-year-old Claire Lomas was lapping up the cheers of thousands as she crossed the line – five days after she set off.
Lomas, who was left paralysed from the chest down in a 2007 horse-riding accident, started her monumental effort on Wednesday, September 7, and covered a little over three miles a day, sheathed inside a robotic exoskeleton reWalk suit, and using the working
muscles she did have to trigger the motion sensors required to get the suit to move. The going was extremely slow (it took her four hours to complete the first mile) and painful, with chafing, temperature regulation, hills and fatigue among the issues she had to deal with. And if that wasn’t enough, Lomas was also 16 weeks pregnant with her second child.
‘I had quite a lot of morning sickness in training so I didn’t have the lead-up I wanted – I didn’t get much sleep along the way, either – but I really did not want to lose this opportunity,’ she says. ‘There were times when I thought I was going to quit, but I’m so glad I made it.’
Lomas’s husband, Dan, walked every step of the way with her and each day the pair stopped at schools along the route to talk to pupils about her battle to overcome her injuries and about spinal injury research – to date Lomas has raised around £560,000 for the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation. As well as capturing the hearts of the nation, it’s fitting that Lomas drew praise from another of our Heroes, Mo Farah. ‘It’s pretty amazing,’ he said when she finished the race. ‘What she went through, and then to finish the Great North Run. I want to congratulate her – this is what the Great North Run needs. To have the courage to be able to compete is amazing.’ We couldn’t agree more.
The rising star: Callum Hawkins
In April 2015, when Eliud Kipchoge was storming to victory in the London Marathon, Callum Hawkins had never even run the distance. Little more than a year later he was holding off his idol, and the rest of the field, at the halfway mark of the Olympic marathon in Rio. Hawkins was eventually caught, but still finished ninth, the culmination of a meteoric rise during 2016 that saw him emerge as one of Britain’s most promising young athletes.
Rio was only the third marathon for the 24-year-old from the village of Elderslie, near Glasgow, who’d previously specialised in cross-country, 5000m and 10,000m – competing in the latter at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. Frankfurt, in October 2015, was Hawkins’ marathon debut, and he backed up a strong showing in Germany by finishing eighth in London, with a PB of 2:10:52, qualifying in the process for Rio as highest-placed Brit.
‘I knew once I moved up to the marathon I’d be semi-decent, but I never thought I’d be this good,’ he says.
After Rio, Hawkins returned to his native Scotland, winning the Great Scottish Run in October. He was the first British winner of the event in 23 years, but it was his course-record time that stood out – 60:22, the second-fastest half marathon ever by a Brit (behind Mo Farah). ‘I wasn’t expecting that at all. I never thought I’d go under 61 minutes,’ says Hawkins. Is breaking the hour for the half now in his sights? ‘It wasn’t in my mind before then but it has certainly jumped in there now.’
His performances suggest a maturity that bodes well for the years ahead – particularly since marathon runners typically don’t peak until their 30s. ‘I used to fear taking on the world’s best but now I don’t get anywhere near as intimidated,’ he says. ‘It’s a real buzz being up there with the leaders, but I just focus on my running and try not to get too carried away.’ Yes, you can leave that to the rest of us.
The ultra activist: Stephanie Case
For Stephanie Case, running in Afghanistan usually meant logging laps inside the United Nations compound in Kabul, where she worked as a human rights lawyer. Then, one day, the 34-year-old ultra runner hitched a UN helicopter ride to the Koh-e Baba Mountains for a day of unrestricted running. During that run, she thought, I’d love Afghan women to experience this sense of freedom.
When Case floated the idea of a running club for women, other organisations dismissed it as too dangerous. To her surprise, it was Afghan women who pushed for the idea. ‘I thought, if they’re interested and brave enough to try this, I should be brave enough to help them,’ she says. So in 2014, Case founded Free to Run. Its goal: to use the sport to empower women and girls affected by conflict in their countries.
Twelve women from Bamiyan, a town about 80 miles northwest of Kabul, joined her for two days in the mountains; after that inaugural outing, the group met once or twice a month. In 2015, a Free to Run member became the first female Afghan to complete a 26.2 in her own country, the Marathon of Afghanistan in Bamiyan, and in February 2016, the country’s first mixed team – trained by Free to Run – finished RacingThePlanet, a 155-mile ultra in Sri Lanka.
Today, there are teams in three Afghan provinces and Case has expanded her initiative to Hong Kong (where it is aimed at refugees). In November 2016, more than 100 women and girls from Free to Run programmes ran either the 10K or the 26.2 at the second Marathon of Afghanistan.
Stephanie now lives in Geneva, but keeps in contact with her teams, coordinates their training and visits often. She’s hoping to expand her programmes. ‘Changing the perception of women’s role in society is a way to achieve peace,’ she says. ‘It’s not for the to-do list after there’s peace.’
Words by Kerry McCarthy, Duncan Craig, AC Shilton and Nick Weldon.