In less than two weeks Tucson’s Abdi Abdirahman will compete in the Honolulu Marathon for the first time. Due to the marketplace of marathons, it has been more than a quarter century since a top American male has come to Honolulu to race. So as Honolulu prepares for its December 8th onslaught, and the nation as a whole celebrates what many believe to be her most endearing holiday (before going off the rails again on Black Friday), I thought we’d go back a few years to a trip I made to Tucson in 2007 as Abdi prepared for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in New York City.
Though I had known and covered Abdirahman for many years, what I learned during that visit didn’t just reveal the character of the man, through him it reminded me of the character of the country he now calls home. Perhaps it’s a reminder we all need to hear during this time of Thanksgiving.
Abdi Abdirahman hopped into his black 2007 GMC Denali and rolled out of the driveway of his three-bedroom home on the far western edge of Tucson. Even at 7 p.m. the Denali’s 22” Scorpion rims glinted like torch fire in the falling evening sun, a not-so-gentle reminder of the day’s 107-degree blast furnace heat.
“This is what I tool around in – the Mayor of Tucson,” boasted Abdi in mock pride as he slipped a CD into the dash. “But this one isn’t tricked out like my first one. This is just a stock model. The first had four TVs, 24” rims, and 12” subwoofers. This is more the mature Abdi.”
Irrepressible in a way that once defined a youthful, exuberant America to a cynical old world, Abdirahman’s easy smile and unflagging personality have endeared him to friends and competitors alike, and at times masked the fierce competitor within.
After his seventh place finish at the World Championships 10,000m in Osaka, Japan in August 2007, Abdi joined some of his American teammates to watch fellow Tucson resident Kip Lagat and Alan Webb in the 1500m final. As team members Matt Tegenkamp, Dana Coons, Anna Willard and others sat in the athletes’ section, down the aisle came Abdi with a big American flag hoisted out behind him ready to lead the cheering.
“I look at Abdi as 30 going on 16,” says his coach Dave Murray, who first saw him run at Pima Community College in the mid-1990s, and recruited him for his University of Arizona Wildcats. “He just enjoys being a professional athlete, doing what he does, and getting recognized around town.”
Today’s comfortable, fun-loving life is light years away from his upbringing in Somalia where civil war ripped the nation apart in the 1980s. Like so many thousands displaced by war, Abdi’s parents fled with their six children to neighboring Kenya where they lived for five years as refugees in Mombassa.
“I didn’t know where life was gonna take me,” remembers Abdi of his time in Kenya. “But somehow God gave us a place working for an American oil company (Conoco-Phillips). But when the U.S. government was taking oil company workers my dad wasn’t one of the first people taken. They didn’t believe he worked for the company.”
Desperate, the family scrambled to come up with the papers proving his employment. Finally, with the precious proof in hand, they reapplied to the American embassy, and ended up in Tucson, Arizona. Abdi was eight years old.
“I remember taking the flights from Mombassa to New York to Dallas to Tucson. If we didn’t get those files we’d still be in Kenya now or somewhere in Somalia where there is no government or jobs. I’d probably have a gun like all the people I grew up with fighting some other tribe or being in a refugee camp. A lot of people I knew are dead now at an early age. So God was looking out for me. So everyday when I wake up or go to sleep I am so thankful. I never take anything for granted. Anything. Every little thing I have I am so thankful for.”
THE BLACK CACTUS
With fellow Arizona grad Thomas Opio riding shotgun, Abdi drove 13-miles west up into the Saguaro National Park for his second run of the day. By the time he parked the sun had dipped half-way behind the broad-shouldered Tucson Mountains, leaving the Saguaro National Park in a dream like state as the veil of night drew down over the harsh desert landscape.
Though he felt good after his third national 10,000-meter title, Abdi has been instructed by Coach Murray to take it easy for a day or two. So he and Thomas Opio were carving out only seven miles of the full 13-mile desert run the locals call “Abdi’s Loop” in recognition of the many miles the area’s best long distance runner has spent on these hilly, gravel trails.
As the two lean East African born athletes headed east up a steep incline, the towering Saguaro cacti stood in array like silhouetted sentinels against a fading sky. Abdi ran in front with his knock-kneed gait belying the easy speed it generated. In the quiet of the desert night only their rhythmic footfalls penetrated the heated air. All they left behind were small puffs of dust as evidence of their passing.
Following their 49-minute run they drove back to the gated-community Abdi has lived in for the last three years, following the broken line of brake lights that snaked over the narrow, switchback mountain road. Then with Thomas left stretching in the living room of Abdi’s stucco abode watching Sportscenter on the 65-inch Sony flat-screen TV, Abdi grabbed a quick shower before heading to a small strip mall near his home for dinner with out of town guests.
Abdi’s connection to Tucson has long since convinced him this will always be his home. In January of 2000 he became a U.S. citizen, and later that same year represented his country for the first time at the Olympics at 10,000-meters. Today he is a successful man, by African standards most certainly, by American standards, as well. But…
“Even if I wasn’t running, just to be able to live in this country I’d be the happiest person alive. There are so many Somali people in America who are taxi drivers just meeting the needs of their family. And those are the happiest people you can meet. Why? It doesn’t matter how much money they have. They know they have a place to go home to sleep, and have food to eat the next day. And that’s the most important thing for them. In Somalia they never know where their next meal will come from. To have a piece of meat is like a celebration to them. And in the U.S. we wonder where you will build your resort house 30 years from now.”
For Abdi Abdirahman the American dream has already come to pass well beyond the wildest imaginings of the young boy living in a Kenyan refugee camp. All that’s left is the final dream of Olympic glory. He came close in 2000, finishing 10th in the 10,000-meter Olympic final in Sydney. Now the dream has its next wake up call set for November 3rd in New York City. That is where the “Mayor of Tucson” will be looking to take the key to yet another American city.
Abdi DNF’d at the 2008 Olympic Trials Marathon, but made the 2012 team in London, his fourth Olympic selection.
(A version of this story was first published by NYRR.ORG as part of their Chasing Glory series previewing the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon)