Mohammed Ahmed pulls away to win 5,000m at track nationals
Justyn Knight, Ben Flanagan round out top 3 in Ottawa
Fierce competitors on the track. Great friends off it. And part of the greatest crop of distance runners Canada has ever produced.
And, they hope, a terrific influence to young Canadian runners coming up behind them.
Mohammed Ahmed, Justyn Knight, and Ben Flanagan finished 1-2-3 in the men's 5,000 metres at the Canadian championships on Thursday evening, in a kicking race that came down to a fierce final 200 metres.
And then the three lingered long on the track, laughing and joking, any hints of a rivalry vanished.
- WATCH LIVE: Canadian track and field championships
- PREVIEW: De Grasse-Brown 100m showdown adds intrigue to nationals
- Aaron Brown tops 100m, De Grasse 3rd at Harry Jerome Classic
"I think it's great to have role models that aren't scared to talk to the youth and inspire them. And we've just maintained such a great friendship," Knight said. "Even after my races at NCAA, I'd send Mo a message and say 'How do I work on this? How do I work on that?' And he'd always give me his best advice."
Ahmed, a 27-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont., is the oldest and most successful of the trio, racing to fourth in the 5,000 at the Rio Olympics. He crossed Thursday in 14 minutes 36.09 seconds.
Knight of Toronto, and Flanagan, from Kitchener, Ont., are both 21, and recently capped excellent NCAA careers, Flanagan winning the 10,000 metres for Michigan, and Knight winning silver in the 5,000 for Syracuse.
Knight crossed second on Thursday in 14:36.56, outleaning Flanagan, who crossed in 14:36.66.
"Mo, when I started doing track I realized who the top dogs were at the senior level, and obviously Mo was up there. And I'm not going to lie, I pretty much fan-boyed Mo," Knight said, laughing. "I was that kid, he added me back on Facebook and I was freaking out, and it took me about seven days to figure out a sentence to write to him."
'I was starstruck'
Flanagan told a similar story of being a young Ahmed fan. Flanagan was a high schooler running at the Canadian cross-country championships, and Ahmed sought him out after the race to say hi, and offer advice about his upcoming NCAA career.
"I was starstruck, I looked up to him my whole career," Flanagan said. "Ever since then, my whole family has been 'How's that Mo guy doing? We all think he's such a great guy." It's been so cool to follow him."
At last summer's world championships in London, Ahmed was sixth in the 5,000, while Knight was ninth, and together they made history as it was the first time two Canadians had made a final together.
The trio speak often and proudly of the strength of Canadian distance running.
"It's phenomenal, just from a fan's standpoint, and how we can inspire kids to expect more from themselves, not just want to be the best in Canada, but be the best in North America, the best in the world, it's just so exciting to see," Knight said.
The field of 28 runners started out a pedestrian pace, but it was only a matter of time before Ahmed, Knight and Flanagan took control. They hit another gear without about a mile to go and finally pulled away from the pack over the final 400 metres, which Ahmed completed in just 54 seconds.
"I was looking for some shadows [to see how close the other two were behind him]," Ahmed said. "But these guys pushed me, and now that they're going to be pros, they'll get better, and they won't let me make some of those moves I was making. I look for the challenge and their growth as well."
Andrea Seccafien won the women's 5,000 in 16:05.60.
Ahmed earned an automatic berth on the Canadian team for the NACAC championships in August in Toronto.
Temperatures soared to a scorching 35 C for the afternoon events, but the skies turned stormy for the evening session, with blustery winds and intermittent rain. Volunteers gave out water on the backstretch during the 5,000 races, and doused runners with waterlogged sponges after they crossed the finish line.
Matt Hughes of Oshawa, Ont., who was 10th at the Rio Olympics — the best-ever finish by a Canadian — won the men's 3,000 steeplechase in 8:54.00. Genevieve Lalonde of Moncton, N.B., won the women's steeplechase in 9:49:07.