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How Abdi Abdirahman, the oldest US runner to make the Olympics, weathered setbacks to reach Tokyo 2020

Super Admin 47 Jul 23

He continued to race the 10,000m and other distances for a few more years, winning several track and road competitions. But over time, he says, injuries hampered his progress and his performance fluctuated.

Murray also noticed that Abdirahman’s sprint “kick” at the end of races wasn’t getting stronger. Some critics suggested the runner’s career was over, but Murray recommended a change instead. “I said, ‘Abdi, I think as you are getting older now, you might start thinking about the marathon.’”

Transitioning from the track to road races is common for distance athletes, especially as they age or are no longer fast enough to win at the elite level. Initially, Abdirahman was not thrilled. The marathon had never really been on his radar. But Murray said his stride pattern was perfect for the race, so Abdirahman gave it a shot, and in 2006, he ran 2:08:56 at the Chicago Marathon.

This was a competitive time that landed him in fourth place and ultimately convinced him that he could run the 26.2-mile race on the world stage.

Abdirahman competed in the 10,000m race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics before transitioning to the marathon. He participated in the 2012 London Games but did not finish due to knee injuries. In 2016, he suffered another injury and missed out on qualifying for the Rio Olympics.

After all the strain and disappointments, Abdirahman saw Tokyo as possible redemption. Then came the pandemic.

21.8 miles

With just over four months to go until the opening ceremony and with plans for a scaled-down version of the Games well underway, Tokyo 2020 organizers announced that international spectators will be refused entry into Japan to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. Days later, the Tokyo Olympic torch relay began in Fukushima, the site of a nuclear disaster 10 years ago.

He says his training was going well until October 2020, when he suffered a stress fracture to his ankle. But Abdirahman did not worry too much.

“I think to be honest, it was a blessing because sometimes as an athlete, we just don't know how to rest ... And I said, ‘You know what? This will give me time just to recover, just to sit back ... just to think about something else besides running.’ And that was great,” he says.

For the next three months, Abdirahman did exactly that -- he caught up with friends, family and the world events he doesn’t always have time to keep track of during the racing season.

He also recorded his thoughts and reflections in a book he started writing early on in the pandemic. “Abdi’s World: The Black Cactus on Life, Running, and Fun” will be available nationwide mid-August (“The Black Cactus” is the nickname Abdirahman gave himself).

By January, his ankle healed and Abdirahman needed to get back into race shape. So he turned to his squad -- a group he’s relied on for friendship, hardcore training and fun for years -- the Mudane Team.

Mudane means excellency

Abidirahman smiles during a training camp in Ethiopia while preparing for the 2020 Olympic Trials. Courtesy Abdi Abidirahman

Mudane means sir or excellency (like a high-ranking official) in Somali. This is a small but expanding fraternity of Somali-born professional runners in the diaspora, like Bashir Abdi who represents Belgium, Abdi Nageeye in the Netherlands and Britain’s Mohamed “Mo” Farah.

Abdirahman met up with the crew in the popular yet developing district of Sululta, Ethiopia. They train there in winter, when it’s cold in the US and UK. Ethiopia’s high altitude and warmish weather make it an ideal training ground for serious distance athletes. The fact that it is home to some of the best distance runners in the world is added incentive. Farah, who is a four-time Olympic champion, is a founder of the group. He formalized it in 2016, along with Abdirahman and Abdi.

“As an athlete, you go to races, you want to want to win, you want to get a medal.”
Abdi Abdirahman

As an athlete, you go to races, you want to want to win, you want to get a medal. And that's my goal. And you know what a lot of people will say, that's not realistic. But you get me to this point where I’m always believing in myself, anything can happen. We already know the clear favorite. But there's nothing guaranteed in life. Something can happen while you're running the race. So you know what? I’m just going to go out there, give myself a chance and compete the best and you know, my main goal is to win the race, but if I don't win it and I give it 110%, I'll be the happiest guy alive.

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“My aim is to create a group where it doesn't matter where you're from, what color you are. You can come together and train, work, you can achieve something out of that,” Farah tells CNN.

He first met Abdirahman at the World Cross Country Championships in 2000 in Portugal and they’ve been good friends ever since. Farah, 38, likes to point out that he’s younger than Abdirahman. But he won’t hesitate to acknowledge that he sees his Somali-born American friend as a role model too.

Training partners Abdirahman, left, Mo Farah of Great Britain, center, and Bashir Abdi of Belgium share a morning coffee near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2018. Bob Martin/Shutterstock

“He's a father figure … and he continues to push himself and ... he inspires all of us. At that age, to make his fifth Olympics -- I think it’s something that should be celebrated,” says Farah, who narrowly missed qualifying for the 10,000m event in Tokyo. “And in fact, I was even joking around. I said, ‘Abdi, mate, you should be carrying the flag’ ... because often, people want to make one Olympics, and … here we go, he's making his fifth one.”