Survivor

A decade after escaping war-torn Somalia, Denver South's (Colo.) Mohamud Ige is now one of the top distance runners in America.



This article appears in the October 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.

Denver South's Mohamud Ige was just a little kid at the time, but he remembers the gunfire.

So many bullets. There must have been so many bullets. It was the early 1990s, and Mogadishu, the capital city of Ige's native Somalia, was being ravaged by a horrific civil war. Ige (pronounced IG-ee) was living the real-life version of the movie "Black Hawk Down."

The most piercing, mind-shattering gunfire — the automatic weapon burst he still can't get out of his head — occurred in the back room of his family's dwelling. That was the day Ige's father was assassinated. Ige was spared from witnessing the horror. But he didn't need to see the deed to know something irreversibly bad had happened.

The next few days — heck, the next few years — were pretty much a blur. His mother sold every piece of jewelry she possessed to take a boat about 400 miles south along the East African coast to Kenya and relative safety.

Ige, now a senior cross country standout at Denver South, and his three brothers bounced around refugee camps for a while before being granted amnesty. The family finally arrived in the United States in August of 1997.

Conclude what you will about Mohamud Ige's background, but don't think for a millisecond that the hardship and pain he suffers during a race even scratches the surface of the hurt he's already endured. And never, ever underestimate his desire to beat you.

"One thing that really motivates me is my dad," says Ige, who finished 13th overall and second among non-seniors at the 2004 Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships with a time of 15:44. "I've always wanted to give something back to him. All my races are for my dad. My father was a great leader, and I want to follow in his footsteps. I'm not afraid. I don't care what you do or who you are. I'm coming after you."

Somewhere, Ige's father has to be smiling. Not because of his third son's distance-running prowess, but because Ige is a wonderful person.

He is soft-spoken, yet pointedly opinionated. He dances along the boundary of cockiness, yet at the same time never really comes close to it. He lives in the hard projects of inner-city Denver, but carries himself like a guest at a ski resort in Aspen. He came to America unable to read or write in any language, even his own, and now lists Colorado, Wisconsin, Arizona and Adams State College as his collegiate favorites.

If nothing else, Ige is a living, breathing story of surviving — no, thriving — against all conceivable odds.

"There is something very special about him," says South cross country and track head coach Nancy Gregorio, who's now in her 10th season at the helm. "Something unique. He cares about others. It's not about if he wins. It's about him doing his best and helping his teammates run as fast as they can. He's the most delightful person I've ever coached."

He's also the one with the most potential.

The 5-foot-11, 155-pound Ige, known as either Mo or Big Mo to coaches and teammates, finished second at the Class 4A state cross country meet and third at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional last fall. In addition, he won the 5,000 meters at the National Scholastic Indoor Championships last March and won a state title in the 1,600 meters during the track season.

But Team XC club coach Brad Barnes loves Ige's race mentality even more than the hardware he's won.

"He's not afraid to go for it, and a lot of people actually criticize his race tactics for that," says Barnes, who founded Team XC six years ago. "They say he's stupid, but front-running is what we've set him up for. American elite distance runners are wimps. We've seen it for years. They're great in their own back yard, but you get them in the big leagues on the big international stage and they disappear. Mo's conditioning doesn't back up his heart yet, but it will. And when it does, those critics will eat their words."

Ige, who will turn 18 on Jan. 1, draws additional motivation from those unkind whispers. (Note to opponents: This guy doesn't need any additional motivation, so you might want to watch it.)

"It's kinda weird, but I feel like I'm not getting as much respect as I should be, racing-wise," says Ige, who transferred from Denver West to Denver South in the middle of his sophomore year. "I hear them talk trash. They say I set too fast a pace and pay for it. We have a lot of Africans in this program — Ethiopians, Somalis — and I've heard people say we're just a bunch of Somalis who starve ourselves. That motivates me. Hey, I may not be the smartest guy out there, but I know what I'm here for and I know who I am."

Who he is is a guy who blisters the pace, goes to the front of the pack and tries to hold the field off. An elite runner with a catch-me-if-you-can mentality.

That philosophy has hurt him in some big races. But it probably won't forever. Besides, to run any other way would be to run unlike Mohamud Ige.

"At Foot Locker last year, I reminded him, ‘If you go to the front, a field this talented is going to hunt you down,'" says Barnes. "He didn't hesitate. He said, ‘I don't care. Let them try.' They caught him, but how can you not be in love with those guts? Once he's conditioned at a collegiate level, he's going to run away and hide from fields. He's not just one of these great American high school runners who fades away. He has the gift. He has Olympic potential, there's no doubt about it."

Predictably, Ige can't even fathom backing off the pace in this, his senior year. Fact is, he's laid out for himself a few not-so-modest goals.

"I'm not going to lie, I want to win the Foot Locker national title," he says. "I also want to break the outdoor mile record (3:53.43), and I think I'm capable of doing that. I also want a shot at the 2-mile record (8:36.3). I want to go for it. I want to break some records. I'm going to race my way. I'm not going to be afraid to attack. In the end, that's what matters."

Now there's an attitude his dad would be proud of.


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