Abdi Abdirahman ran like a man almost half his age on Sunday in the New York City Marathon, but that should really come as no surprise.
The 39-year-old four-time U.S. Olympian from Somalia who lives and trains in Tucson, Ariz., has continued to run strong late in his career. Although he hasn’t run a marathon in two and half years—since the 2014 Boston Marathon—he ran his third-fastest time ever (2:11:23) en route to placing third in the men’s elite field.
Not bad for a guy who turns 40 on Jan. 1. Turns out, it’s one of the best results of his 17-year pro career, which has included success on the track, roads and in cross country.
“I’m not old! Can’t I be young for just one more day?!” Abdirahman joked after the post-race press conference. “Age is just a number to me. I don’t look it as my age as a disadvantage at all. I kind of look at it as an advantage because I have experience and I have have been here before. I told the guys before the race I was in this race in 2004 and they said, ‘Really?’ and I said ‘Yes!’ They couldn’t’ believe it!”
Running in his fifth New York City Marathon, Abdirahman emerged in the lead group after fellow American Dathan Ritzenhein took an early lead and led much of the race through the 5K (15:18) and 10K (30:38). In fact, Abdirahman approached Ritzenhein while they were running stride for stride up front and tried to offer him some sage advice—namely to settle down and race more relaxed.
Ritzenhein, a 34-year-old three-time U.S. Olympian who owns a 2:07:47 marathon PR, insisted on running a few strides in the front of the front pack of 20 runners, even though he wasn’t running any faster than the rest of them.
“I told him to cool down and relax,” Abdirahman said. “He was just breaking the wind and making it easier for everyone else. It’s a long race, there’s no need to do that. I just wanted to help him calm down a bit.”
As it turns out, Ritzenhein started to struggle after the halfway point (1:04:29) when eventual champion Ghirman Ghebreslassie, a 20-year-old star on the rise from Eritrea, took off with Kenya’s Lucas Rotich and Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa going up and over the Pulaski Bridge and put a huge gap on the rest of the front pack.
Abdirahman smartly held back as that trio took off, but that’s when he started to look strong and might be a contender to finish in the top five. Ritzenhein eventually dropped out of the race near the 20-mile mark. Ghebreslassie, almost 18 years younger than Abdirahman, would go on to become the youngest winner in the race’s history, besting the field in 2:07:51. But there was lots of talk about Abdirahman when it was over.
It’s not that Abdirahman’s effort was a fluke. The former University of Arizona standout was an Olympian in 2000, 2004 and 2008 in the 10,000m on the track. He ran his best marathon (2:08:56) in Chicago in 2006 and also made the U.S. Olympic team in the marathon in 2012 by placing third at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in 2:09:47—8 seconds ahead of Ritzenhein.
Although Abdirahman dropped out of the Olympic race in London with a knee injury, he’s run strong on the roads at shorter distances for the past several years. Most recently, he turned in a solid result at the Great North Run half marathon in the UK on Sept. 11, placing sixth in 1:02:46.
He knew his fitness was good enough to run with most of the field, but it was his experience that helped him continue to move up over the final 10 miles to the finish.
“My strategy today was just to be competitive and stay away from the front and run a good race,” he said. “When those guys put on a big surge at the 20K mark, it was too fast for me, so I wanted to hang back and run with the other guys that were still there. I didn’t think I was going to finish third, I thought I could finish fifth or sixth or seventh. But when I passed Desisa (near the 36K mark), that’s when my eyes got wide. I knew I was in a good position, and knew I wanted to push the pace to the finish.”
Like fellow four-time U.S. Olympian Meb Keflezighi, who ran the Olympic marathon this year at age 41, Abdirahman has enjoyed a long career by being consistent, doing the little things, keeping a good balance in life and surrounding himself with a collection of supporters and training partners. (Abdirahman’s girlfriend Diane Nukuri placed fifth in the women’s race in 2:33:04.)
Unlike some other distance runners, Abdirahman has typically only run one marathon per year.
Before he left the post-race press conference, he was asked what advice he’d give to Ghebreslassie, a runner almost 19 years his junior.
“The biggest thing is to make sure you’re smart about having a long career,” Abdirahman said. “Don’t try to make as much money as you can for one year. You can run three marathons and make a lot of money in three years, but you might not last past three years. If you want to have a long career and have longevity and enjoy it, run one or marathon a year and enjoy the moment and continue doing the right training, stay with the same coach and have the same routine.”