When Abdi Abdirahman qualified for the 2020 Olympics, he became the oldest American runner ever to make the Olympic team at the age of 43. The five-time Olympian has spent his entire adult life as a professional runner, competing in the Olympics, World Championships, major marathons, track meets, and road races all over the world.
But Abdi doesn’t define his life by his running career. Rather, Abdi believes life is defined by the choices one makes, the way you look at the world each day, and the people you surround yourself with. Known as “The Black Cactus,” he is one of the most beloved and respected figures in the sport because of his longevity, work ethic, and positive attitude.
About The Book
In Abdi’s World: The Black Cactus on Life, Running, and Fun, Abdi shares thoughts on the world, running, and living. Discover his personal story. Not just in professional distance running but also about leaving Somalia for a refugee camp in Mombasa, Kenya. And eventually settling in Tucson and finding joy and opportunity in his new country.
Abdi credits everything he’s achieved in life to a combination of hard work, support, and luck—sometimes good and sometimes bad. But whatever the circumstances, he keeps pushing the pace and chasing the best that the world has to offer.
How did you get into running to begin with?
I never ran until I was a freshman in college, and I had no interest in trying it at all even then. But I would eat lunch with my friends at Pima Community College who were on sports teams and when they left for practice I was bored. A friend told me I should talk to the track coach about running. I showed up the first day in jean shorts and work boots and beat everybody but one guy in a five-mile run. At Pima and then at the University of Arizona, I was successful at running and I made great friends being part of those teams. I was still learning English and getting comfortable in America, so running was a place of belonging then. It still is.
What was it like the first time you went to the Olympics?
Sydney in 2000 happened so fast and it feels so long ago that it’s hard to even answer the question. Every Olympics is unique, but I remember the people of Sydney being friendly and the city being so clean. I was only 23 years old. I had just become a professional runner and was still learning who everybody was and about the history of the sport. I didn’t even think making a career of running was a possibility for me until a few months before the Sydney Olympics.
When I ran the 10,000 meters at the Olympic Trials in Sacramento to qualify for Sydney, my feet were hurting midway through the race because I was wearing new spikes. I remember wanting to make the team so badly and not wanting to wait another four years to try it again. I fought through the pain and that was a big accomplishment. So by the time I got to the Olympics, I remember feeling like I had so many possibilities ahead of me. Sydney represented that to me, and I knew that I wanted to come back to the Olympics every chance I got.
Now that you are going for your 5th time, how does it feel? What have you learned over the years?
I’m very proud of the race I ran at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials to qualify for my fifth team. I prepared well, I knew I was in a good position to make it, and I made good decisions throughout. As I wrote in my book, “My wisdom and fitness, my past and present, were all aligned.” I did something no American distance runner has ever done, and that felt really satisfying.
I can’t say I appreciate the experience more now than I did back in 2000 because I always knew how difficult it was to make the team. It takes extremely hard work, smart racing, and some luck to qualify for the Olympics. I always say age is just a number, but maybe now I don’t take for granted having lots more opportunities left. I will have to retire at some point!
Tell us more about your running philosophy?
In Abdi’s World, I give “Abdi’s Habits for Happiness and Success,” because I feel like you can’t truly have one without the other. These are how I approach running and they are also how I approach life:
- Rock steady. Don’t get too down after a bad experience and don’t get cocky because you did well. Some days are better than others, and you can’t change that.
- Practice balance. When I train, I train hard! But I also make time for friends and relaxing outside of running. I think balance is the main reason I’ve had such a long career.
- Stick with what works. I’ve worked with Coach Dave Murray since 1997. I’ve been sponsored by Nike since 2000. I run a lot of the same trails in Tucson and Flagstaff that I’ve been running forever. I don’t change my diet dramatically or track my workouts obsessively. When you change things all the time, you create stress for yourself. And you’re likely not addressing the core issues anyway.
- Play the long game. Don’t make decisions for short-term gains. My best example of this was when a nagging injury kept me out of the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. I desperately wanted to make my fifth Olympic team that year and I was in fantastic shape. I could have taken a painkiller or fought through it to try to race, but I would have risked a bigger injury. I want to be able to run long after I stop competing as a pro so I backed out. I healed and that fall I placed third at the New York City Marathon. I was also more motivated to come back in 2020 to make my fifth team, and that has led to experiencing the pandemic in a more thoughtful way, since I qualified just a couple weeks before the world shut down.
- Give yourself 10 minutes. Even I sometimes don’t want to get out the door. Everybody has those days, whether it’s going to work or running or anything. I know if I give myself 10 minutes though, my body will start to do what it’s meant to do. I’ll get what I call the “magic sweat” and then I’ll be able to tackle my goal for the day.
How do you get ready for the Olympics? What is your training like?
The past two Olympic cycles, I’ve gone to Ethiopia for altitude-training camp before the Trials. I train with several friends, like Mo Farah and Bashir Abdi, who are the best in the world, and we push each other in workouts and hang out together. I get the benefits of altitude, fitness, and friendship all in one! I have always done a lot of training on my own, but training partners increase the intensity when I need it.
I don’t do as many super hard workouts anymore, maybe one or two a week instead of three. I push as hard as ever on tempo runs and hill workouts, then give my body plenty of rest.
What are you most looking forward to in Tokyo?
This is going to be a very unusual Olympics; there’s no question about that. The marathon is hundreds of miles away from Tokyo, in Sapporo, so I won’t be at the Athletes Village. I won’t attend the Opening Ceremonies, which is like a big party and I always attend (even though my coach says it saps your energy and tells me not to)! We won’t have spectators from all over the world in attendance since international visitors are not being allowed due to covid.
I’ve heard people say how sad that is for athletes coming for the first time not getting a big blowout Olympic experience, or how it will be lame because it’s not what we’re all used to. I don’t see it as negative at all. This is the world we’re in right now and the organizers are doing all they can to make it safe and give the athletes a chance to do what we do best. We should never lose sight of how difficult the past year has been for so many people. Sports is not life and death; a contagious virus is. We do the best we can with the situation we’re given, individually and as a community.
I will soak in this experience as I have all the others. I’m honored to represent the United States and happy that I get to travel to a new place and experience another culture. To be able to be part of the Olympics in this unusual moment in world history feels even more special in a way.
You had to leave Somalia and live in a refugee camp before ending up in the US. How has that experience shaped you?
It has made me grateful for what I have and also to not expect anything to be given to me. I don’t make excuses and I don’t assume I know what somebody else is going through. Life is not always fair, so you have to decide what you’re going to do with that reality. For me, I want to be around positive people and make people happy when I’m around them.
I have not talked much about being a kid in Somalia and in a Kenyan refugee camp until my book. I always wanted to focus on being the best runner I could be and not get bogged down in sadness. The choices my parents made when the country was destroying itself, how close we came to being on a boat of refugees that wrecked, my sister being born prematurely right after we arrived in Kenya…these are all things that feel heavy. But they are also an opportunity for incredible gratitude.
Working on the book at this point in my life, especially during covid, has been a liberating experience. I see how those difficult times for my family have helped shape me in ways I never realized when I was younger. The book has given me a chance to talk about high points and low points with family and friends and decide what I think about those experiences as a 44-year-old.
How do you maintain a positive attitude?
Maintaining a positive attitude is a choice. It’s that simple. We all have stuff going on in our lives every day that can sap our energy or lift us up. I’m no different. I know that negative people and arguments and conflict and excuses are not going to serve me or my goals. People say I’m laid back and goofy, and I have to admit that is true. In part, that’s probably a way to distract myself from negativity. But it’s also a reminder that if you’re not having fun in life, you probably aren’t going to be doing what you like or be motivated to stick to your goals.
There’s a reason the subtitle of my book is “The Black Cactus on Life, Running, and Fun.” I’ve got lots to say about my life in and out of running, but if I’m not making fun a part of it, I’m missing out. That’s what I want readers to get out of the book.
Anything else you would like for readers to know?
I get asked a lot what advice I have for young runners, and I always say that they should listen to their coaches, not compare themselves to other runners, have fun, and don’t overtrain. The same thing is true with anything in life: Listen to mentors you trust, don’t decide what you like based on what other people think you should like, and don’t try to solve all your problems right now. You’ve got a lifetime to figure stuff out. Above all, have fun in whatever you do in life.
I don’t know what the Olympics are going to be like, I don’t know what next year or 25 years from now is going to look like, and neither do you. The fun is in the experience—but YOU have to decide to make it fun.Book Spotlight – Abdi's World: The Black Cactus on Life, Running, and Fun @Abdi_runs #SOULsticePublishing @cindyanndsilva @nooranand @heenasodhikhera #BlogaberryDazzle #BohoPonderings Click To Tweet
About Abdi Abdirahman:
Abdi Abdirahman is an American long-distance runner and a five-time Olympian competing for the United States in the marathon in the upcoming Summer Olympics (July).
Born in Hargeisa, Somalia, Abdirahman graduated from Tucson High School in 1995 and attended Pima Community College before transferring to the University of Arizona for his junior and senior years.
At Arizona, Abdirahman was named the 1998 Pacific-10 Conference Cross Country Male Athlete of the Year. He finished second at the 1998 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
He launched his Olympic career when he competed in the 10,000 meters at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Abdirahman has competed in three Summer Olympics since and is the first American distance runner ever to make five Olympic teams.
At the 2020 United States Olympic Trials in Atlanta, Abdi finished 3rd in the marathon with a time of 2:10:03, securing his place on a fifth Olympic team, and, at 43, becoming the oldest American runner ever to make the Olympic team.
I would like to thank PR by the Book for providing a digital copy of the book for the blog tour. All opinions are my own.
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