Despite miserable weather, 95 percent of of the 27,042 common folk who started Monday’s Boston Marathon eventually crossed the finish line. The whippets up front proved less stalwart: two-thirds of the elite men’s field dropped out. One who didn’t was 41-year-old Tucson resident, Abdi Abdirahman. He finished 15th, first in the Master’s category, in 2:28:18.
He’s made four U.S. Olympic teams, multiple World Championships in cross country, and has been at the top of distance running since the 1990s. For 20 years, he’s been grinding out 120-mile weeks, organ-melting track sessions, two-a-days, withering 20-milers, and then this—raw and stiff and shivering, helpless as six months of training ended in the slowest time of his career. If anyone would have been justified in dropping out, it would have been Abdirahman.
Why did he tough it out when so many others didn’t? Back in Tucson’s 80-degree embrace, Abdirahman answered my call, relaxed as usual, a smile in his voice.
Deadspin: Coming into Boston, what did your training indicate you could run?
Abdi Abdirahman: You don’t predict any time, but I knew how fit I was. I’d been in Africa for three months at altitude, I’d trained for the hills. You put so much work into into it. I was a lean mean machine, as healthy as I could be. I was hoping for a top five finish. I mean, if you don’t want to win, you shouldn’t be there, but realistically top five. But even at altitude it was 80 degrees in Africa. Wind, cold, and rain—all three? No, I didn’t prepare for that. Who knew it would be like that?
What was it like during the race?
It was brutal. I wore a T-shirt under my singlet, and arm warmers. I don’t honestly know why I did that because everything was soaking wet right away, and stayed wet. I was shivering, freezing cold. I was running slow but I was extremely tired, my quads were tired, my joints were cold, I wasn’t moving. I tried but I just couldn’t move. At every single water stop I thought about dropping out.
Why didn’t you?
I know how much work I put into [preparation for] this race. And I was not doing as bad as anyone else... I don’t know why. I just don’t like to DNF. I wasn’t having a great day, but for me, I just don’t like to DNF unless it’s absolutely necessary. Giving up is not a good thing. Thirty kilometers to 35, that was brutal. But when I got to 38K, I thought about how far I’d already come and I thought, 4K to go—why quit now? I wanted to finish; that was my goal.
Have you ever DNFed?
Yes. In the 2012 Olympic marathon. Because of a knee injury.
Have you ever run a marathon in those conditions?
If an elite runner DNFs, does he get his appearance fee?
Everybody has a different contract, so I don’t know how that works for everyone. But if you don’t do the job you promised to do, there’s probably a penalty, a reduction.
Why do you think so many elite runners dropped?
Lots of different reasons. Maybe they were not having a great day, it was not the way they planned. Compared to average runners, elite runners have less body fat and it’s hard to keep warm. And most of these guys from Ethiopia and Kenya, they’re training in warm weather.
You’re pretty lean yourself—do you know your body fat?
Seven or eight percent. I don’t know how I managed to cross the line—it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done—but next thing I knew, I was in the med tent with hot tea in my hands.
Do you think some elite runners would rather DNF than have a slow time on their resume?
Maybe, maybe not. For me, 2:28 is 2:28. It’s just about finishing as high as you can. To be honest, I’d rather have a slow time than a DNF on my resume. When I crossed the line and looked at the clock, I saw 2:55. I don’t know why. I told my agent, ‘Man, I can’t believe I just ran 2:55.’ So I was not bummed out [with 2:28]; I was happy with the 15th place. Finishing was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, so I was happy with that.
Did the thought of being first Masters motivate you to keep going? How much did you win?
I never thought about that. After 30K, four or five guys passed me who might have been Masters. When you start thinking about your race position, that’s not a good thing. You know, I’m not really sure how much I won.
Was there any sense of finishing the race out of loyalty to John Hancock or the BAA?
I respect John Hancock and the BAA; they’ve done so much for me, inviting me these last two years. I know I’m a good runner, but there are a lot of great runners, and they chose me to be there. But at the end of the day, I just wanted to finish the race.
Because the race was comparatively slow and so many top runners dropped out, some relatively unknown runners placed high.
[laughs] You know, that’s what makes our sport fun and interesting. Anything is possible in a marathon. It shows what they always say about marathoners—these guys are tough. And that’s what makes our sport special. That would never happen in the NFL or the NBA. [In running] anyone can go out and place high at the Boston Marathon. That’s why I keep racing. You can’t count anyone out.
At the end of the day, I’m happy I came out in one piece. I don’t feel like I ran too hard, so that makes recovery that much easier. I’ll take a week off, relax, then one week of jogging, and then start training again. Then I’ll think about what’s next.