For a guy who has made five U.S. Olympic teams, Abdihakem “Abdi” Abdirahman came to distance running relatively late. He did not play sports in high school in Tucson, Arizona—the city where his family eventually settled after being forced to leave their native Somalia in the early ‘90s with the outbreak of civil war. It wasn’t until he was a 19-year-old freshman at Pima Community College that Abdirahman decided to try out for the track team. As he recounts in his new memoir, Abdi’s World, he showed up for his first practice wearing Rockport work boots and jorts and proceeded to drop almost everyone on a five-mile run. (He made the team.) Two and a half years later, after transferring to the University of Arizona, Abdirahman finished second at the 1998 NCAA Cross Country Championships. You could say that he had some talent.
It’s been almost 23 years (and many national titles) since that NCAA race, but Abdirahman is still at it. At age 44, he will be the oldest American runner ever to compete for an Olympic team when he lines up for the men’s marathon at this summer’s Tokyo Games. His longevity as an elite runner is perhaps all the more remarkable when you consider that Abdirahman has never had the immaculate running form of someone like his longtime friend and training partner Bernard Lagat. A heel-striker with a peculiar, unorthodox stride, Abdirahman has nonetheless proven himself to be one of the most durable athletes in the history of American running.
As he gears up for his final weeks of training before heading to Japan, I spoke to Abdirahman about his new book and how he has managed to train at an elite level well into his fifth decade.
OUTSIDE: In your memoir, you mention that you didn’t start running until your freshman year in college and that your first race was a track 5K where you ran 15:05, despite essentially running the event like a fartlek workout. I’m sorry, but that’s insane. Was that really your first race?
ABDIRAHMAN: That 5,000 was definitely my first-ever race. It was just one of those things. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. They just told me that I had to run twelve and a half laps after the gun goes off. I would just run 200 meters fast and then 200 meters easy. I remember at some point I took my jersey off and put it on top of my head just to cool myself off—I didn’t know what the rule was. That was the start of my running career.
Do you ever wonder whether getting a comparatively late start as a runner has been one of the reasons why you have been able to have such a long career and avoid burnout, both physically and mentally?
I think there is a connection there, but at the end of the day you have to give credit to my coach, Dave Murray, for building me up from the college to the professional level. I was never a high mileage guy. The first ten years after I got out of college, I was only running 60 to 70 miles per week because I was running 5Ks and 10Ks on the track. And, yes, if you look at some of the other guys I’ve been running against, they have been running since junior high. So when I started in college, they were eight years ahead of me. I didn’t really start doing mileage of over 100 miles per week until my mid- to late-thirties. Before that, I’d never even go to 90 miles in a week.
Distance runners aren’t generally known for their flamboyant celebrations. So I want to thank you for the way you celebrated after winning the 10,000-meters at the 2008 Olympic Trials, when you took an impromptu bath in the steeplechase water pit on your victory lap. Of the five Olympic teams that you made which one was the most emotionally gratifying?
Each one was amazing, because you always have to come through injury and doubt. If someone told you they had a perfect build-up for four straight years, they would be lying to you. Nothing’s perfect for four years. But, for me, the most gratifying one and my favorite has to be the 2020 Olympic Trials in Atlanta because that’s the one where a lot of people never thought I was going to make it and thought I was just looking to participate in the Trials. For me, just to come out there, prove them wrong, and show them I still got it, that was the most gratifying. I don’t know how the Olympics is going to go, but that was my favorite Trials because I had a lot to prove and I did what I had promised to myself: I worked really hard. Even if I had not made that team, I would not even have been disappointed because I knew how hard I worked. But thank god things didn’t happen that way.
I’ve heard you say that you prefer not to self-identify as an “older runner.” I can see how that attitude might be advantageous, but I’m sure your training is different now than when you were younger. How do you find a balance between not seeing your age as an obstacle, while also not having unrealistic expectations of what your body can handle compared to what you may have been doing 15 years ago?
Well, the fact is that I am 44 years old and I can’t deny that. But do I feel like a 44-year-old? No. Do I run like one? No. So, what do I consider myself? I consider myself an elite athlete and at the end of the day I train like an elite marathoner and do everything that they do. But do I feel capable of what I used to do when I was younger, in my mid-twenties or thirties? No. And that’s the truth. But I’m not racing the same distances that I was running at that age. I’m running marathons now. The reality is that I’m not as fast as I used to be, but I’m fast enough to compete at the distance that I’m running.
In your book, you repeatedly mention the connection you have with Meb Keflezighi and Bernard Lagat—two other African expatriates from your generation who became star runners and were competitive into their forties. Do you guys have a special secret? I know Lagat takes like a month off every year. Seems to have served him well.
I did the same thing as Kip (Lagat) when we were both running track, because we were both training in Tucson. We’d take four weeks of no running and just letting the body recover. I think that served us well, me and Bernard, and I think Meb used to do the same thing, too. A lot of people don’t understand that you can’t just keep training, training, training. A lot of people will run a race and instead of taking time off they will take a couple days easy and then, they’re already back to fully training. So, yeah, I think part of what served us well to have had long careers is that recovery.
A few times in your book, you mention specific workouts that you did and the paces that you were running. For example, you mention that before the 2012 London Olympics, you did 12 x 1K with one minute rest in 2:45 and a 20-mile progression run starting at 5:10 and working down to miles in the 4:40s. Fans of the sport really appreciate that level of detail. With the Olympic marathon one month away, would you be willing to reveal any big workouts that you still have planned? Or is that an Abdi secret until after the race?
No secrets! I don’t mind telling people what I do. I just don’t like putting it on social media and talking about it, or tweeting about it. That’s just me. Look, the bread and butter workout for a marathon build-up would have to be the long run. 12 x 1K is also great, but the most important thing for a marathon build-up will always be your long runs. Since I’ve done plenty of those, all that remains at this point is just sharpening up: a lot of Ks and short intervals. Last week, I did seven times three minutes, seven times two minutes, and seven times one minute—each set a little faster. I started with 4:50 per-mile pace and got down to, like, 4:25 per-mile for the one-minute reps.
What paces do you do the long run at?
Well, we do them at altitude and the course is a little bit challenging, but we start at like six-minute per mile pace and get down to 5:20 to 5:00 pace.
Final question on strategy. You have a reputation as a shrewd racer, so championships style races suit you well. And even though the Olympic marathon has been moved from Tokyo to Sapporo, it could still be pretty warm. Are you hoping for a hot day?
I’m just hoping for a good race and I’m going to prepare myself as well as I can. As you say, I have done well in championship-style races, like New York or Boston. Any race where there’s no pacer. It might get hot, but the more people complain about the conditions and the weather, the better it is for me because I see the weather as the great equalizer. So, let the best man win the race.