|In the prognostications and message-board discussions that preceded this January’s U.S. Olympic marathon trials, Abdi Abdirahman was rarely mentioned as a legitimate contender.
He had, after all, spent much of the two years before the race quietly nursing injuries, including a stress reaction in his right femur.
The pundits and distance-running geeks thought he was done. At 35, he was too old and too injured to have a shot at one of the three spots on the U.S. team.
“It’s just not fun — there’s too much walking,” Abdirahman said. “I’m the slowest walker in the world. After one hole, I was tired already.”
This from a man who is currently running up to 110 miles a week as he prepares for Saturday’s U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Duluth, Minn., and for an Olympic marathon few thought he would make.
At the trials in Houston, Abdirahman emphatically reinserted his name into the American distance-running conversation, placing third in 2:09:42, and in so doing earning a ticket to London, his fourth Games.
Today, Abdirahman, a longtime Tucson, Ariz., resident, thanks the doubters, naming them as an essential ingredient to his success in what was the fastest marathon in U.S. Olympic trials history. (He finished behind 2004 Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, who ran 2:09:08, and Ryan Hall, who ran in 2:09:30. Fourth-place finisher Dathan Ritzenhein also broke the 2:10 barrier.)
“Everybody is entitled to their opinion,” Abdirahman said while sipping a latté at a favorite coffee shop in Flagstaff, Ariz., his high-altitude training base. “They only motivated me to prove I’m still one of the best.”
“I have set my standards so high that when people don’t see me winning races, they say, ‘he’s done,’” Abdirahman said. “I didn’t get down on myself. I just surrounded myself with good people who believed in me.”
It’s easy to mistake the “Black Cactus,” as the lanky Abdirahman is affectionately known, as a laid-back, goofball, man-child. Indeed, he is a social creature who, unlike many athletes of his level, isn’t afraid of donning a pair of pink polka dot socks, indulging in a drink or two on a night out with friends, or taking a day off from training if his body is tired.
He rarely references the aspects of training — like strength-training or nutrition — on which most elite runners fixate. Unique in a community dominated by foam-rolling, calorie-counting obsessives, Abdirahman says his specialty in the kitchen is liver sautéed with onions and green peppers. (“You have to be careful to not overcook it,” he cautions.)
“You will hear all kinds of impressions of Abdi,” said his coach of 16 years, David Murray. “One you will never hear, though, is [that he is a] stuck-up, arrogant guy. He enjoys life and sometimes that comes off as somebody who’s 35 going on 18.”
But the nonchalant, playful attitude Abdirahman exudes belies the hungry competitor who, 11 years removed from his first U.S. title, still regularly endures a punishing pace during his training runs. Nobody makes four Olympic teams by being a “screw up,” Murray said.
Abdirahman has survived, and in fact thrived, during a golden age of distance running in the U.S. Most his competitors from the early part of the last decade have long since retired. But even as the depth of talent has increased, Abdirahman has remained in the upper echelon, a fact he credits to the intensity of his training.
“A lot of people avoid training with me because I don’t mess around,” he said. “When I put on my running shoes, I become a different animal.
“Some people think that if I trained harder, I could get a medal. I’d like to invite them to a training camp for a week so they could see how much you have to do to make four Olympics. The competition doesn’t get easier, you just have to become more disciplined, work harder, and get mentally tougher.”
For that reason, Abdirahman mostly trains alone, except for occasions when his schedule coincides with that of his best friend, Bernard Lagat, a two-time Olympic medalist at 1500 meters and a fellow Tucson resident.
Abdirahman has also publicly acknowledged keeping more notorious company. Prior to the trials, Abdirahman said he logged a few training runs with Irish Olympian Martin Fagan and Ethiopian distance runner Ezkyas Sisay, both of whom have since (independently) been suspended from competition for testing positive for EPO.
The affiliation led some to suspect Abdirahman, who has never tested positive for a banned substance, of doping. Abdirahman said he had no knowledge that the two runners were taking any performance-enhancing drugs at the time they ran together.
“I needed somebody to pace my workouts last winter, so I asked Ezkyas to pace two of my tempo runs. He killed me. He kicked my ass,” Abdirahman said. “I work so hard for what I have, then two guys I ran with a couple of times did something wrong and suddenly I’m part of it. I’m glad they got caught — if you cheat, you should be banned for life.”
The controversy surrounding his choice of running companions is a mild annoyance for a man whose road to fame hasn’t always been smooth. Born in Somalia in 1977, Abdirahman was 6 when his family moved to Mombasa, Kenya, to escape the violence that led to the Somalian civil war.
His father, who worked for a major oil company at the time, received sponsorship to move to Tucson in 1989, but in the midst of adapting to a new language and culture, Abdirahman never considered any sport other than soccer. Then he enrolled at Pima Community College where, as the oft-told tale goes, he showed up to his first track practice wearing jean shorts and Rockport shoes, and proceeded to beat all but one guy in a five-mile run.
It wasn’t long until Murray, then coach at University of Arizona, spotted Abdirahman out on the trails. He said he immediately recognized the untapped talent in the new runner, so when the two years of community college were over, Murray recruited Abdirahman with a full scholarship to the university. They’ve been together ever since — and Murray says he accepts no compensation in return for his services.
“He trusts me,” Murray said. “He does exactly what I ask him to do. He never questions it; he just does it. It’s like a father-son relationship. My grandkids think of him as an uncle.”
In the thick of his Olympic preparations, Abdirahman said his training indicates better fitness than he had a year ago. And he doesn’t assume that his fourth Games will be his last. Regardless, the 35-year-old is abiding by a strict “live for today” philosophy, defining success as running a personal best with no regrets.
“I’m going to leave it all in London,” he said. “If I feel like I have something left when it’s over, then that’s a failure. I will go and represent my country and my family and friends well. In the marathon, everybody has the potential to get a medal.”
Doubters? Bring it on.