Abdi Abdirahman said he is “way more relaxed” at 39 than he was when he was younger, causing me to experience a mutifying, brow-furrowing dissonance.
Even when he was younger, Abdirahman was the sharpest dressed, chillest BMW-driving ladies’ man to ever take a day off from running because he didn’t feel like it. Among professional distance runners—certainly the lamest partiers in the sports world—the four-time Olympian has always been the standard-bearer for bon vivant. So, way more relaxed than that? That’s saying something.
Take that image of the nearly pulseless 5’11”, 130-pound figure draped over a Barcalounger, and hold it right up next to the one of the same knife-kneed guy sweating, gritting, working the pins over 13.1 miles in 62 minutes and 46 seconds, which he ran just a few weeks ago. Life of the party—4:48 spleen-busting minutes per mile for 13 miles. Eh, not feeling it today—hammering for sixth place in the UK’s Great North Run against fellows who take this sort of thing pretty seriously. See the disconnect? A 62-minute half-marathon is not achieved by training when you feel like it.
“Well exactly. I’m not taking it easy. I’m still training hard, maybe harder now,” Abdirahman explained. “When I was younger I was chasing my dreams, trying to accomplish things, make teams. Now I’m running for fun, to see how fast I can run, for how long. You just gotta enjoy what you do in life. I enjoyed it before, but I’m enjoying even more now. There’s not a lot of pressure to perform.”
The Somalia-born Abdirahman emigrated to Tucson, Ariz. in 1993 with his large family, when he was 13 years old. His father had a good job with an oil company, and after graduating from Tucson High School, he attended Pima Community College. The time-worn, and true, story is that a friend told Abdi he should go out for cross country, but the lean East African said he didn’t like running; it was too hard. Nonetheless when Abdi saw some of the runners training he thought he could do at least that well, and showed up to a practice session in work boots in jeans. He then knocked out a five-mile workout with the team.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Abdirahman said. “I thought I didn’t like running, but when I tried it, it was fun. I like competition, and I had great success right away. Within the first or second meet I was Pima’s top runner.”
After two years at Pima, with modest 31-minute 10K and 15-minute 5K bests, the head coach at the University of Arizona, Dave Murray, offered Abdirahman a full scholarship to the D1 program. Murray had first noticed Abdi in 1996, when runners from the University of Arizona passed runners from Pima Community College on the trails outside Tucson. As head track and cross country coach, Murray held the purse strings of Arizona’s very limited scholarships.
Normally, he gave out partial scholarships, sparingly, but he went with his gut and granted this guy who’d only been running for two years a full scholarship. “I hate to say I was influenced by a stereotype, but here was this skinny African guy,” said Murray. “He looked like he could run. I had a good feeling about Abdi. I took a chance, no question about it, but right from the get-go he was running really good times.”
Indeed, Abdi did not disappoint. He won his first two cross country races at Arizona, and by the end of his NCAA career, had improved his 10K time to 28:06 and 5K to 13:19.
Abdi became a U.S. citizen in 2000, was picked up by Nike, and embarked on a professional running career. Young guy, getting paid to do something he loved, winning races, everything sweet and familiar, going out with his friends—and when Abdi says “friends” he draws the word out, just, you know, savoring the thought—life was very very good. He bought himself a big-rimmed Denali and was gave himself the only nickname in all of distance running—the Black Cactus.
Abdi stayed with Murray after he graduated from Arizona, and despite the reputation, Murray says discipline was never a problem. “He’s a fun-loving guy, very popular, always has a smile on his face. We joke Abdi is 39 going on 16. But he’s also a very competitive guy. Sometimes I have to force him to take a day off because, like other distance runners, he’ll fret that he’s missing a day of training.”
Sixteen years of professional running, nineteen years of the same coach, the same attitude. “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it,” Abdirahman said, laughing.
But of course, things do change. Preparing for his fifth Olympic Marathon Trials this past January, his 39-year-old body broke a little bit and he scratched from the February marathon. Was he worried that this was it? A sign that his body was throwing in the towel?
“Not really. I never thought that way,” he said. “To be honest, I had more worries when I was young and got injured because I was thinking, Okay, I should be doing a hard workout right now. Now when I’m injured, I go rest, have some fun. I’m in peace. It’s simple—it’s not rocket science. I know the most important thing for me is to rest. At 39 you’re never going to feel the way you did in your 20s—that’s something you have to accept.”
And sure enough, it wasn’t the end. He rested a bit, regrouped, and put that marathon’s worth of fitness to use clocking a 28:39 at the BAA 10K in April, a mere seven seconds off his PR, set eight years ago.
So, he’s in great shape, plenty of time to prepare for the Olympic Track Trials in July; that’s what a professional distance runner does, right? Nope. Not if you are Abdi. “I wasn’t motivated to run on the track,” he said.
Right, track is no fun. But you know what is fun? High-altitude training in Flagstaff with his friend of 20 years, Bernard Lagat. And hammering some 65-second 400s with his Tucson crew—Lagat, and youngsters Stephen Sambu, Lawi Lalang, and Sam Chelanga.
“We make fun of the young guys, me and Bernard. We tell them how fast we ran those routes back in the day. They think we must have been racing, killing ourselves, but that’s just the way we trained back then. Hard,” said old man Abdirahman, laughing again.
While Abdirahman can still keep up in track sessions, and clips off 20-milers at the same 5:20 pace, he says he’ll only do one or two hard workouts per week, instead of the three he did in his youth, and he needs more recovery days after a tough session. His social life, too, is approached with less intensity.
“Yeah, it’s about balance. I don’t go out when I have a hard tempo run the next day. Tomorrow I have 12 easy miles. My friends want to go out, so I can do that. When I was young I would go out even when I had a hard run the next day. When you’re 21, you’re able to do some things you can’t do now now. It’s hard for me to stay up past midnight now; I start yawning.”
Abdirahman knows his relaxed attitude won’t work for everyone, so he doesn’t proselytize, but he does include having fun as one of three factors that has contributed to his 20-year career. “Yeah definitely my attitude has helped, and maybe also the fact that I started competitive running pretty late,” he said. “But also, my coach, Dave Murray—he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for keeping me motivated, telling me what I’m capable of.”
Murray, for his part, credits Abdirahman’s long career to consistency, his ability to read his body, and that “even after all these years, he’s not tired of running. That may be because he has no other responsibilities beside himself. If he had a family, things might be different.”
Instead, Murray described Abdirahman as practically a member of his family. They live a few miles apart, and see each other on almost a daily basis when Abdirahman is not training up in Flagstaff. Abdirahman spends Christmas and Thanksgiving at the Murray household, amidst grown children, grandchildren, aunts, and uncles.
“He trusts me. Like Bob Larsen and Meb [Keflezighi], we know what makes them tick, what works and what doesn’t work.” Like any successful relationship, trust and good communication go both ways. “I can give workouts but only Abdi knows how his body is feeling,” said Murray.
Abdirahman often slips into the past tense when talking about his professional career, but he’s not done yet. He is registered for the November 6 NYC Marathon (“Why not? It’s a great city!”) and would like to run a few more in the coming years.
Murray admits Abdi is on the far side of his competitive career, but says he’s still training very very well. “As long as he wants to keep training, I’ll keep coaching him.”
Younger runners, maybe trying to reproduce Abdirahman’s success, have asked Murray to coach them but he said he declined. “Nah, I’m not interested in having other athletes, and besides, I’d feel like I had to charge them something. I’ve never taken a penny for coaching Abdi. I just enjoy being around him, it keeps me busy. He’s always saying, ‘Coach, let me pay you.’ But you know, I’m just watching him run 25 laps of a track. I can’t actually do anything. I don’t feel like I need to take his money; he earned it. I just enjoy coaching him.”
“I’ll definitely retire from professional running, but I’ll always run,” said Abdirahman. “I might not be in the first group, but you’ll see me running a 68 [minute] half-marathon. It keeps me healthy. I’ll just go to races, have fun. Instead of going to bed at seven the night before a race, I can go out with friends.”
And he draws out friieeeends, just thinking about the good times.