Mohammed Ahmed heard the question and instantly took a step back in thought.
How many miles have you run on behalf of the University of Wisconsin men’s track and cross country teams since you came here five years ago?
Ahmed, a senior who will compete in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in the NCAA Outdoor Championships that begin today, did some quick math in his head.
“Ninety to 100 miles a week for five years,” he said. “That’s a lot.”
At the low end that works out to 23,400 miles on Ahmed’s personal odometer. At the max, it’s 26,000.
That’s a trip around the world (24,902 miles). That’s six back-and-forths between Madison and Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, site of the NCAA meet (4,214 miles). That’s nearly 20 round trips between the UW campus and Ahmed’s adopted hometown in St. Catharines, Ontario (1,332 miles).
Years from now, when a roll call is made of the most impactful performers in UW men’s track and cross country history, Ahmed’s name will probably be read early.
Part of that has to do with his elite resume. He led the way when the Badgers won the NCAA cross country title in 2011, finishing a team-best fifth. He was an Olympian in the 10,000 for Team Canada in 2012. His school-record time of 27 minutes, 34.64 seconds in the 10,000 is a half-minute faster than the next-best mark.
Ahmed is a four-time All-American in cross country and a five-time All-American in track. He owns five Big Ten Conference track titles and is fresh off being named Big Ten Athlete of the Meet after a win in the 5,000 and a second in the 10,000 behind teammate Reed Connor.
But Ahmed will long be revered for other things by those who know him. He overcame a slow start in the classroom to earn a degree in political science. He emerged as a quiet but unquestioned team leader in both cross country and track. A devout Muslim, Ahmed was born in Somalia and moved to Canada when he was 11 but managed to blend into the fabric of his surroundings at UW.
“It’s funny. He speaks Arabic, he’s reading the Koran, he eats a little bit different food, but he says, ‘Eh,’ ” said Connor, a fellow senior who roomed on the road with Ahmed. “He’s got some Canadian in him.
“Anytime you’re around Mo you know you’re going to have a good time. He’s a great teammate, a great friend.”
Ahmed and Connor were part of the inaugural recruiting class of the Mick Byrne coaching era at UW, which began in 2008. Byrne’s pitch was for them to come to Madison and win a national cross country title together. They did that in 2011 before finishing second in 2012.
Byrne calls Ahmed the “whole package” who “worked his butt off in the classroom” and who “understands that the name on the jersey is bigger than him.”
The NCAA meet will be third time in less than a month that Ahmed will double in the 5,000 (8:10 p.m. Friday) and 10,000 (9:15 p.m. today). During the Big Ten meet last month, he said he was in “really, really bad shape” after running second in the 10,000 on Friday, but pulled himself together two days later to win the 5,000, leading a 1-2-3 finish for UW that clinched the team title.
Did Ahmed consider withdrawing from the 5,000? “I was sore,” he said, “but that was not even an option.”
That attitude defines the mindset of world-class distance runners like Ahmed, a two-time Canadian champion in the 10,000 who placed 18th in the London Olympics in 2012.
“Some days you can’t get out of bed. But you have to,” he said. “You have to go out there and be like, ‘All right. This is what I have to do.’ ”
Joining Ahmed at the NCAA outdoor meet for UW will be Danny Block (discus), Alex Brill (steeplechase), Michael Lihrman (hammer throw), Zach Ziemek (decathlon) and Molly Hanson (1,500 meters).
The most recent UW runner to do the 5,000-10,000 double at the NCAA outdoor meet and earn All-America honors in both was James Menon in 1995. Asked what would be a realistic outcome for Ahmed, Byrne eschewed predictions for perspective.
“People probably judge Mo on NCAA titles,” he said, referencing the fact Ahmed’s best career finish in the 10,000 is fourth and top showing in the 5,000 is fifth, “but there’s so much more to him than titles. I’d like him to be remembered as a guy who gave his lot to the University of Wisconsin.
“Those last three or four Big Ten titles that we won, he had a lot to do with that. A lot of those championships came down to the last event or two and that’s incredible pressure to put on a person. He always came through.”