On February 29, 43-year old USA’s Abdi Abdirahman battled through to the final straightaway to qualify for his fifth Olympic games on a punishing, hilly, and windy course in Atlanta. One week earlier, Abdi’s training partner Mustafa Mohamed had run 2:10:04 in the Seville Marathon, earning himself a spot on Sweden’s Olympic team. Later that day, while Abdirahman was answering questions from the media, Belgium’s Bashir Abdi, another teammate, ran 2:04:15, to break his own Belgium record and finish second at the Tokyo Marathon.
“My training this time in Ethiopia was so, so, so good,” said Bashir Abdi, who has already earned a spot on the Olympic team for Belgium. “I didn’t know I would run that fast, but I thought 2:05 was a realistic time after this training camp.”
Plus, he received a little extra motivation the morning before his race, when he woke up to see that his 43-year old training partner and close friend qualified for the Olympics.
“When I woke up the first thing I did was I grabbed my phone to check [Abdirahman’s] race and I thought: ‘this old guy is getting young.’ This is good. After Mustafa ran the Swedish record and qualified for the Olympics, and Abdi and I were putting up strong training blocks, I had extra motivation.”
There’s nothing quite like seeing people you’ve worked with to put in grueling training blocks succeed alongside of you.
Among these training partners, Bashir is “the serious one”—who makes all of the plans both for training and for leisure. On the way to training, he is stone faced and focused. Abdi Abdirahman, by contrast, is the “funny one”— he might be the one cracking jokes before difficult intervals. After training, Mustafa Mohamed “probably eats the most,” they agree.
These three are core members of the Mudane team (meaning “sir” in Somali, in reference to Sir Mo Farah’s knighthood). The team is a non-commercial brainchild of Farah that came to fruition in 2018. Farah, “best DJ of the group,” came up with the idea to have a Somali-focused group composed of a group of athletes who may represent different countries, but were all born in Somalia, share a work ethic, and want to meet for training camps around the world.
Sometimes Kenya. Sometimes Arizona. Sometimes Ethiopia. But always all-inclusive. And always fun. “We’re there to help each other in training. To have a joke, have a laugh—because if you’re not enjoying training, it’s hard.” Farah describes the team’s purpose and tone. “But when it comes to competition, there are no friends. They are there to compete and win medals.”
Perhaps no one embodies this mix between fun and serious as much as Abdi Abdirahman, who never ceases to make the group laugh but battled through grueling windy conditions and a hilly course to nab the last Olympic qualifying spot, flashing his five fingers shortly after sealing the deal.
“To be honest it was a difficult course, but we trained for it,” Abdi Abdirahman said. “We had weekly long runs in Akaki [a training site South of Addis Ababa, perfectly situated for long runs over rolling dirt hills] between 35–40 kilometers, but our bread and butter was just the consistent workouts.”
Long runs are the main focus of the weeks training, and the final three key workouts were run between 3:22–3:26 kilometer pace [5:25–5:30/mile]. However, because Akaki is located at over 8,000 feet elevation, key track workouts gave the team a reason to introduce more turn over, and also brought back some of these aged legends to their old training days.
Mustafa Mohamed, for example, used to excel in the steeplechase, and competed in the event at the 2004 Olympics. Moving up to the marathon was not an easy transition, and training with seasoned marathoners from the Mudane team certainly helped. “I was kind of naive and I didn’t think it would be so big to change from the steeple to the marathon,” Mohamed says. “At first I increased the training mileage too fast and kept getting injured. Now I’ve made the key part of the trainings the long runs.”
Even with an emphasis on volume, introducing speed back into the legs remains an important principle. “If I’m going to run five minutes per mile and feel comfortable I need to be able to run 4:40 on the track,” Mohamed says.
Although two track workouts were never the same, the group had training sessions ranging from longer intervals—two-kilometer repeats—to a downward ladder. One day, they even did 300 meter repeats—around 20 times—to ensure that the turnover in the legs was still there.
Mohamed cites his coming to the training camp in Ethiopia already in good shape—and the high quality training the group put in—as instrumental to the performance. Because he works part time and has to spend time with his family, this was likely the only training camp he’ll be able to do in 2020. But he believes his performance in Sevilla was so successful because of this stint with the Mudane team, “In addition to the training, we also support each other and have fun together. We are like a family and that is the important part.”
Abdi Abdirahman agrees. It is not only the regular massages, consistent naps, and taking the easy days easy that gives them fuel to keep training. It’s the team effort that breeds collective energy: “When we went to our competitions we were all rooting for each other. When Mustafa finished a week earlier we knew we were capable, because Mustafa was in really good shape but Bashir was leading the group and I was not far behind him.”
What the members of the nebulous Mudane family do next is yet to be determined. The original crew includes “the one who sleeps the most” Ahmed Osman—who represented the U.S. in the marathon at 2019 Doha World Championships and recently finished 15th at the U.S. Olympic Trials. There is also Mohamed Ali of the Netherlands, who the team hopes puts up an impressive performance in his debut Marathon in Rotterdam in April, not only because he’s part of the family—but also because he’s “the best cook” and will throw together a delicious celebratory meal thereafter.
However, the Mudane team is constantly growing and evolving. Athletes from various countries who share national, lingual, and traditional Somali roots are often joining in training camps, reaching out via social media. While there’s a core group of about 12, in Ethiopia, there can be up to 60 members joining Mudane training camps, with exemplary performers like Farah, Abdi, Mohamed, and Abdirahman, setting examples and leading the way.
As of now, Mohamed, Abdi, and Abdirahman will be training to compete against one other at the 2020 Olympics. Farah will drop down to the track, and a few members of the Mudane team may yet still qualify. The plans for the next training camp have not yet been set in motion but they will probably meet again for a block to push each other to new limits before they become rivals in Japan.