PHOENIX – At 44, Abdihakim ‘Abdi’ Abdirahman has defied all odds to become the oldest U.S. runner ever to make an Olympic team. He will compete in the marathon at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo thanks to minor tweaks to his training regimen and a honed awareness of his body’s needs.
“At the end of the day, we have to realize we are human beings,” the Tucson resident said. “If you’re doing something and you’re not feeling well, not enjoying it, and feeling fatigued, you have to give your body time to recover.”
Minor injuries have come during crucial points of Abdirahman’s career, with the most devastating occurring during the 2012 Olympics. Although he felt he was in the best shape of his life, he had to drop out of the race with a knee injury. Yet he’s continued to move forward, competing in his fifth Olympics.
The many great races still outweigh the bad ones and the injuries.
“All distance runners are going to have injuries. They have fatigue problems, stress fractures,” said Dave Murray, his professional and former college coach at the University of Arizona.
“When you run a distance up to 100 miles a week, sometimes you’ll turn an ankle and your hip starts bothering you, which has happened to Abdi a couple of times.”
Although many world class marathon runners may easily run 120 to 130 miles a week, Murray said through trial and error they have determined the mileage that works for Abdirahman’s body.
“We have experimented with it in the past, and it seems every time I say, ‘OK, let’s try a week of 110 to 115 miles,’ he’ll come back with some kind of ache, pain and fatigue, so we immediately drop down right around 100.”
Jeffery Taylor-Hass, an orthopedic physical therapist who specializes in sports and running injuries, acknowledged that Abdirahman has “had to figure out the right formula of training, rest, recovery, and probably a good dose of luck. Because even when you feel like you’ve checked every box, you can still get injured.
“Most people are considered a masters runner by the age of 35. Age is typically the defining factor whether one is considered a beginner, intermediate or master runner. As one increases age into the masters stage, there is typically a steady decline in maximum speed, maximum endurance, muscle strength, and that usually translates to slower running times.”
But for Abdirahman, he’s not the usual, as seen with a marathon qualifying time of 2:10:03 to place third at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
Physiological changes are inevitable with age, but Abdirahman’s simplistic mindset and minor adjustments to his recovery have aided in his longevity.
“We look at our bodies like racing cars,” Abdirahman said. “You can’t just use it every other week and not maintain it.”
His 6 a.m. workouts are usually followed by a nutritious meal and an afternoon nap. Throughout the day, his recovery continues, with stretches, lifting and physical therapy sessions to ensure “everything is aligned.”
Since college, he has made only minor tweaks to his food choice, besides being able to afford more nutritious organic foods as a professional athlete. And his go-to meal is still his native Somali beef or lamb-stew with rice.
Patience and consistency are evident, from his lifestyle choices to his decision to keep the same coach since his college days. Abdirahman credits Murray, who spotted him running outside and offered him a scholarship to run at the University of Arizona, after completing two years at Pima Community College.
Abdirahman wasn’t the best runner back then – he didn’t start until college – but Murray knew his stride pattern would make for a good runner. And the minute he asked Abdirahman who he was after spotting him on the street, Murray said Abdirahman’s personality came through.
“Abdi is 44 years of age going on 18,” Murray said, chuckling. “He has that kind of personality, just a fun-loving guy.”
A coach-athlete relationship that has spanned over 20 years is what makes it possible to coach Abdirahman from afar.
“I know Abdi like a book,” Murray said “I don’t have to be with Abdi every single day of his training. When he’s in Flagstaff, I don’t move to Flagstaff. I correspond by phone, and I tell him what he should be doing this time.
“When he’s in Tucson, we will do training together, but I don’t run with him. I’m 79.”
Because Abdirahman has good self-awareness and knows what works after all these years, Murray is confident the runner could train himself at this point.
Abdirahman believes the continuity of having the same coach has helped him continue to progress.
“People sometimes want to change coaches when things aren’t working out. But they have to remember every time you change a coach it will put you back a year to two because you have to start at the beginning,” Abdirahman said.
Their connection runs deep.
“Our relationship became more than a coach and an athlete,” Abdirahman said. “I became a member of his family. He became a father figure to me.
“I share with him my problems, and it makes it much easier to share how I’m feeling about my running. Sometimes as an athlete, you tend to hide minor injuries, if it’s not something that will sideline you, but it’s important to keep your coach in tune with how your body feels to make the workout accordingly.”
And while Abdi enjoys training, the consistency and the commitment to not overtrain has helped him, Murray said.
“As long as he goes into the race and he’s healthy, he’s going to be competitive,” Murray said. “All I want him to do is be competitive and when he finishes the race, he’s satisfied.
“I don’t care if it’s a podium position, or if it’s 10th or 12th place.”
But for Abdirahman, his goal isn’t just to run, but to win a medal.
“There are some who are favorites when you look at the paper,” he said “But the favorite does not always win. … If they knew who was going to win, they should have given the medals and no reason to run, and have a party.
“Just give yourself a chance, keep on doing what gets you there.”
The men’s marathon is set to begin Aug. 8 in Sapporo, Japan.