Feeling as sharp as he has all season despite a relatively light race schedule, Canadian distance runner Mo Ahmed enters Friday's Diamond League final in Brussels with one goal.
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"More than anything, I just need a win," says Ahmed, who has never won gold or silver in a Diamond League race. "If I can, it's going to give me confidence that it could happen again and I would try to emulate that.
"I've beaten the top guys in the world but not recently."
Ahmed, 27, will part of a 12-man field in the 5,000-metre race at 3:22 p.m. ET, vying for the $ 50,000 US top prize and coveted Diamond Trophy at the AG Memorial Van Damme in Belgium, where 16 disciplines will be contested.
Sixteen other athletes will be crowned champions Thursday in the first leg of the Diamond finals at Weltklasse Zürich, with all the action live streamed at CBCSports.ca both days, starting at 2 p.m. ET.
Since placing fifth last Aug. 24 in Zurich, the Somalian-born, St. Catharines-Ont.-raised Ahmed has raced the 5,000 just four times, highlighted by a narrow victory at the Canadian championships and a silver-medal performance at the Commonwealth Games, where he also placed second in the 10,000.
Watch Mo Ahmed's silver-medal run at Commonwealth Games:
Along the way, Ahmed has been in the gym three times a week and running 80 to 100 miles weekly as part of a gruelling strength training program under the watchful eye of renowned coach Jerry Schumacher at the Portland-based Bowerman Track Club.
"I had zero races entering the Commonwealth Games and [I excelled in] both races there," says Ahmed, who will conclude his competitive season at the Continental Cup Sept. 8-9 in Ostrava, Czech Republic. "We've been running at altitude for a full month and our training is harder than races.
"We cover strength, speed and mileage, and when you cover everything, you become a better athlete."
Canada's long-distance star Mohammed Ahmed (<a href="https://twitter.com/Moh_Speed?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Moh_Speed</a>) from St. Catharines, Ontario takes some time to play a little track trivia with <a href="https://twitter.com/ansonhenry?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ansonhenry</a> <a href="https://t.co/7kt4W3Blfx">https://t.co/7kt4W3Blfx</a> <a href="https://t.co/lGcawZyvbQ">pic.twitter.com/lGcawZyvbQ</a>
Ahmed singles out the 5,000 final of last year's world championships at London Stadium and the 2016 Olympics in Rio as races that have provided him "a little more motivation and force you to grow up more."
In London, the Canadian-record holder in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 exchanged the lead for nearly half the race with legendary British runner Mo Farah, who took the lead for good at the bell lap, while Ahmed was awarded fifth place following the disqualification of American Paul Chelimo.
Ahmed also went out with the elite runners in Rio and settled for another fifth-place finish in 13:05.94, falling just shy of his 13:01.74 Canadian record and less than two seconds off a bronze medal.
"The only thing I told myself this year was to get comfortable rubbing elbows with [the top] guys," he says. "At times, I have probably questioned whether I belong with them and now I can definitely say I do. I have forced myself to go to the front [in races], stick it out and see what happens and I'll try to continue to do that.
"The tactical misses and not being fully prepared or at my peak in training are the only things holding me back."
Here are the six other Canadians competing this week:
Aaron Brown, men's 200m (Thursday, 3:11 p.m. ET): Ranked third in the world, the Toronto native's stellar season includes a 19.98-second personal best, Commonwealth Games silver medal, Canadian title and eight podium finishes. Brown, 26, last competed on Aug. 12, placing second at the NACAC championships in 20.20.
Watch Brown's NACAC success:
Matt Hughes, men's 3,000 steeplechase (Thursday, 2:24 p.m. ET): Hughes, who qualified ninth for the Diamond League final, placed seventh among 15 runners in 8:23.67 two weeks ago at the Müller Grand Prix in Birmingham, England. The five-time Canadian champion from Oshawa, Ont., ran a season-best 8:12.33 at the Commonwealth Games.
Sage Watson, women's 400 hurdles (Thursday, 3:02 p.m. ET): Watson, 24, ran 57.11 seconds to secure a spot in Zürich. The first-year pro and native of Medicine Hat, Alta., who was hampered by a sprained right foot earlier in the season, clocked a season-best 54.55 on June 7 in Norway.
Shawn Barber, men's pole vault (Friday, 1:28 p.m. ET): Barber, 24, failed to reach the podium at eight Diamond League meets but did jump a solid 5.71 metres in London on July 21. The 2018 Canadian champion jumped 5.85 in Poland on Aug. 17 and on Wednesday set an indoor season best of 5.86 to place second at an exhibition event at Zürich's main railway station ahead of Thursday's final.
Mike Mason, men's high jump (Friday, 1:45 p.m. ET): Mason, 31, is coming off a second-place finish at the Müller Grand Prix in Birmingham, where he jumped 2.30 metres, following his 2.28 showing at the NACAC championships earlier this month. The three-time Olympian's season best is 2.32.
Christabel Nettey, women's long jump (1:08 p.m. ET): The 27-year-old from Surrey, B.C., returned on Aug. 18 after a month-long absence from exhaustion to jump 6.54 metres in Birmingham (her season best is 6.92). Nettey placed fifth (6.46) three years ago at her Diamond League final debut in Zurich.
Intriguing international matchups
Men's 200 (Thursday, 3:11 p.m. ET): Noah Lyles, the 21-year-old American sensation, is the favourite after running a season-best 19.65 seconds in his most recent race on July 20 in Monaco. Turkey's Ramil Guliyev, the reigning world champion, could challenge after clocking 19.76 at the recent European Championships, but Lyles is unbeaten in Diamond League 200s, going 6-for-6.
Women's 800 (Thursday, 2:13 p.m. ET): South Africa's Caster Semenya seeks an unprecedented third consecutive Diamond title. With a season-best time of 1:54.25, the reigning world and Olympic champion could also set the world record (1:53.28) in what could be her final Diamond League race as a recently introduced IAAF regulation, which Semenya is challenging, would limit testosterone levels in female athletes, starting Nov. 1. As of now, she would be ineligible to compete without treatment.
Watch Caster Semenya run personal best 1:54.25:
Men's 1,500 (2:48 p.m. ET): Expect world leader Timothy Cheruiyot and fellow Kenyan Elijah Manangoi to battle for gold. The two-time defending Diamond League champion, Cheruiyot has lost only three times in the past 13 months, all to Manangoi. Norway's Jakob Ingebrigtsen, 17, also bears watching as the youngest sub-four-minute miler in history (3:38.10).
Men's 100 (Friday, 2:54 p.m. ET): This race is shaping up as an epic battle as Ronnie Baker (world-leading 9.87 seconds, four Diamond League wins) facing, among others, fellow American Michael Rodgers (9.89 season-best), Akani Simbine (9.93 SB), Reece Prescod and Christian Coleman.
Watch the latter run 9.94 on Aug. 18 in Birmingham to beat Prescod in a photo finish:
Women's 1,500 (2:41 p.m. ET): American Shelby Houlihan enters her first-ever Diamond League final undefeated outdoors in a season that includes wins at the Prefontaine Classic and in Lausanne (personal-best 3:57.34). Co-favourite Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands has raced well of late but could be in tough as she doubles back from Thursday's 5,000 Diamond final in Zurich.