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Distance runner Abdi Abdirahman returning for fifth Olympics at age 44

Monday July 19, 2021
By Jeff Metcalfe

Abdi Abdirahman reacts after finishing in third place during the Men's U.S Olympic marathon team trials on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Kevin C.Cox/ Getty Images

Abdi Abdirahman is more than two decades into his professional running career.

At 44, he is about to run in his fifth Olympics, all representing the United States.

Abdirahman, born in Somalia, became a naturalized citizen in 2000, in time to qualify for the U.S. track team at the Sydney Games.

He made it back to the Olympics in the 10,000-meter in 2004 and 2008, then in the marathon in 2012. After missing out in 2016, he again will race in the marathon, Aug. 8 in Sapporo, a city in northern Japan that hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics and will be cooler than Tokyo.

"Cool" is fitting for Abdirahman.

He's a cool, fun guy to be around, one of those not-an-enemy types who long ago discovered how to strike a balance between elite athlete work ethic and enjoying life.

He's cool for staying true to his roots in Tucson, where his family managed to relocate in 1993. Yes, he's trained in Flagstaff, Mammoth Lakes, California, and even in recent years in Africa, but always maintained his home base in Tucson and his coaching tie for Dave Murray, who recruited him from Pima CC to UA.

And he's cool for his longevity and ability to come to peak under the intense pressure of Olympic trials and at his beloved New York Marathon.

Abdirahman is the oldest U.S. runner to make an Olympic team and the first distance runner to become a five-time Olympian. Even without yet medaling, he is easily one of the most prominent Arizona Olympians ever and a lock to one day be an Arizona Sports Hall of Fame inductee.

"If someone from the streets tell me I'm too old, at least that person doesn't know anything about sports," Abdirahman said. "It's the right question to ask if you see someone 40-plus years old still running, it's the first thing that comes to your mind.

"But something that motivates me is when the other athletes say I'm too old, that I will never beat them, when are you going to retire. I say why should I retire if I'm still beating you and taking your spot on the Olympic team. You should be straight forward and tell me to surrender and give you the spot instead of telling me to retire."

There was no surrender in Abdirahman when he had to drop out of the London Olympics marathon because of a knee injury. Or after a calf injury early in 2016 forced him to scratch from the Olympic Marathon Trials for the Rio Olympics.

He produced his best New York finish (third, first American, oldest to make the NYC podium) in fall 2016, fueling the commitment to another Olympic cycle that culminated with third place at the 2020 Olympic Trials in 2:10.03 on a hilly Atlanta course.

Then came the pandemic, Tokyo Olympic postponement and in early October, Abdirahman suffered a stress fracture above his ankle that prevented him from training for the remainder of 2020.

"When I start running again, it wasn't the easiest thing," he said. "I had to start from scratch because I was out for almost three months. It's been a long process, but that injury made me take time off so I look at it as a blessing in disguise to be honest. The whole world was shut down so nothing was going on so you couldn't do anything any way. That's what saved me."

The pandemic and injury down time also gave Abdirahman time to work on an autobiography that allows him to intermix his story of fleeing Somalia with his family, first to Kenya then to the U.S., with various stages of his running career. And even more importantly to showcase his personality in his own voice with the help of Myles Schrag, co-founder of Flagstaff-based Soulstice Publishing.

"I never knew him before," Schrag said. "I knew of him and certainly knew his reputation but never had a chance to actually meet him," until seeking out Abdirahman for some testimonial quotes for "Chasing Excellence," a biography about famed running coach Joe Vigil, also an Arizonan after his days in Colorado.

"He told me he'd been thinking about writing a book and that it was important to him. He wanted people to get the fun of running that he's always had. That's what started it," after the 2020 trials and the Olympics postponement.

The result is "Abdi's World," due out in August, a treasure trove of Arizona and international running name drops that reinforce Abdirahman's place in the sport. His stories about friendships with the late Ryan Shay, Bernard Lagat, Mo Farah range from silly to heartbreaking, all insightful.

"While I've worked on a lot of book projects, this one almost feels more personal," Schrag said. "It's not my voice, but if it's not well received then I'm not going to be true to Abdi's voice. You can't not like him. There's nobody that doesn't think the world of the guy. The world deserves to have Abdi."

There are small revelations — his birthday is actually March 21, 1997, and not his assigned Jan. 1 common for refugees without a birth certificate — in the book and big thoughts including about being a Black Islamic American with African roots after the 2001 terrorist attacks and in today's polarized immigration climate.

"A lot of people know me as a runner, but they don't know the story behind it," Abdirahman said. "My life wasn't glamorous, being recruited. We didn't choose to come to the U.S., but U.S. chose us because we flee a war-torn country not knowing what the future holds. It's life lessons and something I would love to share. I want to send a message, don't let someone else dictate your future or tell you what you can and cannot do. Follow the path of your destiny with open heart and purpose."

Abdirahman relates the story behind his "Black Cactus" nickname, going back to a suggestion from a neighbor in Flagstaff when he was training for the 2006 Chicago Marathon, where he ran his personal best time (2:08.56) and finished fourth behind three Kenyans.

He returned to Flagstaff "feeling pretty bold" and began calling himself Black Cactus as did prominent coaches such as Greg McMillan and Jack Daniels, whose Flagstaff ties go back to training Jim Ryun for the 1968 Olympics.

"I encouraged it," Abdirahman writes in his book. "I thought, why should I be self-conscious? It's a great name."

Abdi's accomplishments

  • 2000 Olympics: 10th 10,000-meter
  • 2004 Olympics: 15th 10,000-meter
  • 2008: Olympics: 15th 10,000-meter
  • 2012 Olympics: DNF marathon
  • 2020/21 Olympics: Marathon
  • Six top-10 finishes at New York City Marathon including third in 2016
  • Sixth at 2017 Boston Marathon
  • 2001/2005/2007 World Track Championships
  • 5 World Cross Country Championships
  • Tucson High School (1995 graduate)
  • Pima Community College (1995-97), 1996-97 NJCAA cross country, 5,000-meter runner-up.
  • University of Arizona (1997-99), 5-time All-America, 1998 Pac-10 cross country Athlete of the
  • Year, 1998 NCAA cross country runner-up.


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