Sir Brendan Foster was walking on Bamburgh beach in his native North-East on Boxing Day when his phone rang.
‘It was Mo,’ the 75-year-old recalls to Mail Sport. ‘He said, “I am going to retire next year and I want to run my last race at the Great North Run”. I said, “That is fantastic news”. I was honoured. I said, “The only thing I can promise you, Mo, is that we will do our best to give you a good send-off”.’
Fast forward nine months and that send-off for Sir Mo Farah is now upon us, with thousands of fans set to line the 13.1-mile route from Newcastle to South Shields on Sunday to cheer on the four-time Olympic champion one last time. Or #OneMoTime as it is being marketed.
‘We love Mo, we have always loved him,’ admits Foster, who proudly founded the Great North Run in 1981. ‘We’ve been involved with him since he was a kid. He is a great lad, he is great fun.
‘He has won the Great North Run six times. The region has taken him to their heart. The spectators on the side of the road will mark the occasion, unquestionably.
Mo Farah is set to run the final race of his glittering career at this weekend’s Great North Run
Sir Brendan Foster (left) is good friends with Farah and expects him to finish on a high
Farah has an excellent record at the Great North Run, having won the event six times
‘There is a pub right on the finish line, The Bamburgh, and they have changed their name for the weekend. I can’t tell you what they have called it, but they are unveiling it on Saturday.
‘I think Mo will know how the people of this part of the world feel about him at the weekend. He will be warmed, he will be emotional. I think it will be great. It will be an historic moment.’
It will also be Farah’s first Great North Run since 2019, when he won the iconic half marathon for a record sixth successive year. The only time he has actually failed to finish first was on his debut in 2013, when he was beaten by Ethiopian great Kenenisa Bekele by one second in a thrilling finish, with another distance legend, Haile Gebrselassie, in third.
This time, though, the 40-year-old will be running free of expectation. His farewell tour this year has so far seen him place ninth at the London Marathon in April, eighth at the Great Manchester Run 10k in May and fourth at The Big Half in London last weekend.
There, he was beaten by three fellow Brits – Jack Rowe, Mahamed Mahamed and Andrew Butchart. On Sunday, Farah will be up against an international field, including Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworo, the runner-up at this year’s London Marathon and a three-time world half marathon champion, and Ethiopian Muktar Edris, the two-time world 5,000m champion.
But Foster says: ‘I think he will run well. He told me he thinks he is pretty fit. He is taking it pretty seriously. He has been training at altitude for the last seven weeks to prepare for this, after he played in that Soccer Aid game, which I gave him a b******ing for!’
Farah’s training camp was at Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees, where Foster actually paid him a visit to interview him for a BBC One documentary, Mo Farah’s Last Mile, which airs at 12.30pm tomorrow (Sat). The programme looks back on the best moments of Farah’s career, most notably his ‘double double’ of 5,000m and 10,000m golds at both London 2012 and Rio 2016, all of which Foster commentated on.
‘He’s had an incredible journey,’ reflects Foster, who is a fellow Olympic 10,000m medallist, winning a bronze in 1976. ‘He was illegally trafficked to the UK and he has become, in my view, Britain’s greatest ever sportsman or woman.
‘If you look what he has done, 10 global titles – six worlds and four Olympics – in a truly global sport. If you look at the countries on the map, they’ve all got 5,000m and 10,000m runners.
‘He is the Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi of our sport in this country. And we will never see his like again. If you look at the great athletes we have had in the past – Daley Thompson, Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram, Sally Gunnell, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Katarina Johnson-Thompson – Mo has won four Olympic golds and none of them have won more than two.
Farah has won four Olympic gold medals, and Foster believes he’s Britain’s greatest athlete
Foster has compared Farah to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi when looking at the impact he has had on his sport
‘In my view, it’s not emotional to say he is the greatest. I am happy to have the debate. But he didn’t do it in a boat with three others, or on a bike in loads of different events. He didn’t do it in a team of 10 others or 14 others. He did it on his own.
‘If there was a summary, I would say he is a great guy and his career was built on his dedication and hard work.’
Many others, of course, will have a different summary of Farah’s career, given his relationship with Alberto Salazar. Farah’s former coach was banned for four years in 2019 for doping violations. But Foster says: ‘All I will say on that is – look at the programme on Saturday. I asked him the question, “Did you make a mistake with Alberto Salazar?”, and I will leave him to answer. I had to ask him. I couldn’t not.’
When asked about his link to Salazar before this year’s London Marathon, Farah insisted he ‘wouldn’t have done anything different’ in his career. Now the question is about what he will do once his career is over. Foster, for one, hopes he turns to coaching.
‘He has got so much knowledge about how to prepare, how to train, how to do it, he is the man,’ he says. ‘I hope the knowledge he has got is made available for the next generation of distance runners.’
Farah will get a glimpse of that next generation on Saturday when he starts some of the Junior and Mini Great North Run events, which a record 10,000 children have entered from the ages of three to 16.
Foster has not shied away from asking Farah about his relationship with his ex-coach Alberto Salazar (right), who was banned from the sport for four years in 2019 for doping violations
Foster (left) hopes Farah turns his hand to coaching after he calls time on his running career
At the other end of the age spectrum, on Sunday, 102-year-old Bill Cooksey is bidding to become the oldest person to finish the Great North Run. The retired teacher from County Durham plans to walk the full half marathon distance and will be wearing a special 102 race number signed by Foster.
‘He is actually the brother-in-law of my coach, Stan Long,’ reveals Foster. ‘He came up to me and said, “Are you not running? Stan always said you would keep going forever!”. I’ll have to see what time he does and I’ll try and beat it when I am 102!’
Cooksey is one of 60,000 participants on Sunday, with the 42nd Great North Run set to break their record for highest number of finishers. That milestone means a lot to Foster, especially as it comes so soon after the event had to be cancelled in 2020 because of the Covid pandemic.
‘It’s been Britain’s biggest mass participation event since it started in 1981,’ adds Foster. ‘We are looking forward to seeing the record numbers and, coming after Covid, it will be a big statement when Britain’s biggest event has its biggest ever number. Mo and the 102-year-old are two of the stories, but the real story is that there are 60,000 stories.’