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It’s hard to remember U.S. distance running without Abdi. He’s been part of the picture at national championships since his famous NCAA cross country showdown with Adam Goucher in 1998. He’s run on Olympic teams with long retired runners Alan Culpepper, Tim Broe, Dan Browne… He was on a World Cross Country team with Bob Kennedy, the same event where then high-schooler Dathan Ritzenhein took third in the junior race. Today, even Ritz has bowed out, but Abdi runs on: In a few weeks he’ll toe an Olympic start line for the 5th time when he lines up for the marathon on August 8.
How has he managed to stay in the game for over 20 years, always rising to the occasion when it matters most? And how has he prepared for this marathon at age 44? Weeks away from his 5th Olympic Games, Abdi talked with us about his training year and the secrets of his long-term success:
Find Your Focus, and the Right Friends
Since 2015, Abdi has spent several months of his year training with a group of international friends in Ethiopia. He says he goes partly to get away from Flagstaff winters, but, more importantly, to be able to focus with like minded friends.
“One of the reasons I like going to Ethiopia,” Abdi says, “I can focus without having obligations — meeting with people, doing things around the house, just running errands — you always find something to do when you’re in your town, regardless. So when I’m in Ethiopia, at least I’m with people who have the same goals, who are there for training camp, and all we do is run and focus on running.
“You go run and come back… You take a nap, eat lunch, and you do the same thing in the afternoon. There’s nothing else. There’s no social life, there’s no night life. You can find it, but you’re there for a reason and the reason is to train.”
It helps that everyone around is also focused on the same goals. “A lot of training groups are there, and my training group is there, Mudane team [Mudane means “sir” in Somali, in reference to the knighthood of Sir Mo Farah, one of the group]. And that’s one of the reasons I go there to train with the guys. It is inspiring to be with people who are after their goals, and also you get motivated.”
Take Breaks When You Need Them
Abdi went to Ethiopia in January of 2021, but didn’t start training with the team then. “I wasn’t in very good shape in January,” he says. “I was on my own. I would run with the guys on easy days, but I wasn’t doing any workouts until the middle of March.”
He was out of shape due to not having run much since mid-October because of a stress reaction on his ankle. “November, all the way through December, I didn’t do any running,” he says. After an MRI revealed a stress reaction, he took a complete break. “I just said, ‘You know what, I didn’t have any break for almost a year and half, so I’m going to let my body heal, enjoy life and relax — nothing’s coming up for a while.’ I wouldn’t say it was a good time, but a good time to get an injury, because nothing was going on. So I let myself heal, and I got back to running in January in Ethiopia.”
Abdi is comfortable with taking a break when he needs one. “Sometimes a break is something your body needs,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t even realize you need a break, but you might get an injury. When you get injured, sometimes it is because you’re overdoing it, overreaching. Sometimes your body is giving you a sign you need recovery.”
Even if not injured, Abdi says he listens when his body starts communicating. “Even in my buildup, sometimes you’re training so hard — suddenly you start feeling tired, you’re exhausted, you’re not looking forward to training the next day — that’s another part of, like, ‘I need a couple days down, let it rejuvenate.’”
Go Long and Steady
After three months of building back to shape in Ethiopia, Abdi was ready to hit training hard. “I started my buildup, end of March,” he says. “I’m doing my long runs, I’m in a good place now, well rested, and I’m in good shape.”
Long runs are the cornerstone of Abdi’s marathon training. “That’s my bread and butter, that’s what makes me strong,” he says. “My long runs are everything to me. As long as I’m doing my long runs, I’m good.”
Abdi goes long every weekend during a marathon build-up. In this build-up, he says he put in a 20 to 25 miler every weekend for nine weeks — five of them with Mo Farah who was visiting in Flagstaff — and he’d been going 17 to 18 miles every week for a month before that.
While he starts these runs at a relaxed pace, it soon gets serious. “We average anywhere from 5:30 to 5:20, for 20 plus miles, on a hilly, tough course, at altitude,” he says.
In his newly released auto-biography, Abdi’s World, he describes one of his favorites of those tough, hilly courses: the A1 Mountain Road Loop: “Seven miles up, seven miles around the top and seven miles back down” — gaining over 1,000 feet of elevation over the 21 miles of the lollypop-shaped course, which starts at 7300 feet above sea level. He runs this challenging route at about 30 seconds slower than his marathon pace, on average, ending up running near race pace.
Only Do the Intensity You Need
With a long run anchoring his training week, Abdi will usually do two other workouts, one on the track — stuff like 400 meter repeats, or kilometers — and one a long tempo run.
“The tempo run is usually a good one,” Abdi says. “If I can run under five minutes for 10 miles, at altitude, I say I’m ready. And that’s always been an indicator of my fitness.”
He gives the first concession to his age when explaining the length of his tempo runs. “Some people do 15 miles,” he says, “But at this point of my career, I’m trying to save my energy, and try not to beat the workout too much. I already do enough long runs, so as long as I get the speed and I feel I’m comfortable [that] I could go 5 more miles at that pace, I stop at 10 miles. That’s plenty enough — there’s no reason to do an extra five miles.”
Doing just enough tempo work isn’t the only adjustment. “The training is much the same — the distance is still there, the volume is still there, the intensity is there,” he says. “But a different kind of intensity: I don’t do the track workout as fast as I used to, like 4:20 miles — and I don’t need to do that, if I’m running the marathon.”
As his results show, the adaptations haven’t caused his performance to suffer. And his book reveals that he started making these adjustments as early as 2012 with a shift in focus to the marathon. “When I finally committed fully to the marathon,” he writes. “I really internalized for the first time the idea that I didn’t always have to redline workouts.”
Rather than redlining, Abdi is known for keeping a strong, steady pace. Coach Greg McMillan, a fellow Flagstaff resident, says of Abdi, “He is a machine. His ability to simply churn out lap after lap or mile after mile is one of his greatest assets as a runner. He doesn’t seem to fatigue in the same way other runners do (or at least he hides it very well).”
Get Fit, Not Stressed
That ability was on full display at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta in February, 2020, where so many fell away on the relentless, windy hills. Abdi says it was this strength and endurance, his overall fitness and toughness, that carried the day — not trying to fine-tune everything.
“In Atlanta, people were talking about the course — I didn’t even know how hilly the course was,” he says. “I never ran the course, I didn’t take a tour of the course, I only knew where the starting line was, that was it.
“I’m a firm believer that if you prepare yourself real well, you can tackle anything. I heard about the hills, but I wasn’t thinking about the hills while I was training — I was just trying to be as fit as I can, that’s it. I wasn’t doing specific workouts. If you’re fit, you’re fit.”
Run Today’s Race
Abdi says he will take a similar approach in Sapporo, not stressing the details. “I’ll do the same thing,” he says. “I know it is a 4 mile loop, that’s it. Even if you’re leading, there’s a lead car you can follow. You’re not going to get lost.”
This willful ignorance is part of a larger race-day strategy, one that has obviously worked for Abdi.
“For me, I just look at it as another race: I’m running against another athlete,” he says. “At the end of the day, nothing matters, no times, what someone has done before, what they’re capable of doing, just the pure competition that day, put myself in a good situation, a good position. I just do my best, run a smart race.”
Running smart, for Abdi, means reacting to the situation of the day and to what his body is telling him. “I don’t wear a watch, I just listen to my body,” he says. “There’s a point that, if I’m going too fast I will know. I have to pace myself, that’s one thing I’m good at. I’ll compete, I’ll go out with people, but if they are running too fast, a little bit too hard for me, I’ll back off a little bit and just run my own race. Then see how many I can pick off toward the end of the race.”
Enjoy Every Day
While Abdi can be as focused as anyone on race day — even more than most — he credits his longevity mostly to being balanced and relaxed. “I’m more than a runner,” he says. “Running is a small part of me, but also, the other part of me has contributed to my success in running. Keeping it easy, keeping it simple.”
He elaborates in his book: “I’m just laid back, enjoying life. You can’t be going 100 percent all the time, every day — you need to back off, physically and mentally, or you won’t last. I think that’s the reason I’ve had such a long career.”
Keep it simple, keep it in perspective — and, above all, enjoy it all. When asked how runners can have long-term success, Abdi is quick with an answer, “My advice is just to enjoy. If you enjoy running, are in love with what you do, you can deal with injury, overcome obstacles. The most important thing, the key thing, is enjoy — enjoy every day.”
Abdi doesn’t just advise it, he lives it. “I’m quite sure nobody loves to run more than I do,” he says in the opening page of his book.
Who’s going to argue with the man who is still looking forward to more world-class running.
“I have these crazy dreams,” he says. “Maybe I’ll make it to the trials, the next one. You never know. Maybe I will make it to the trials again.”
And then? “One goal at a time,” he says. “I’ll never say I’m going to make the Olympics — but if I make it to the trials, I’ll say, ‘Why not?’”
For more Abdi, pick up a copy of Abdi’s World, an entertaining and insightful memoir of his life… so far.