Abdi Abdirahman: “Practice balance”

Rock steady. Don’t get too high when you get praise or success and don’t get too low when you get a bad review or have writer’s block. A reporter one time said that my approach to running embodies Rudyard Kipling’s command to “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.” As […]

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Rock steady. Don’t get too high when you get praise or success and don’t get too low when you get a bad review or have writer’s block. A reporter one time said that my approach to running embodies Rudyard Kipling’s command to “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing 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.

He is the author of Abdi’s World: The Black Cactus on Life, Running, and Fun.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

My story of becoming a runner is much better than my story of becoming an author. At community college I hated sitting alone in the cafeteria when all my athlete friends would leave for baseball or track practice. I showed up at a mid-season track practice in Rockport work boots and jean shorts and beat all but one guy. Pretty soon, I realized I liked the competitive challenge of learning how to pace myself and see progressive improvement. Lessons like that which I’ve learned over 21 years as a professional runner are what I wanted to share in a book.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

The most interesting story to me was also the most difficult to write about. Fans of running know exactly what I’m referring to. It was the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2007 when one of my best friends, Ryan Shay, died on the course in Central Park. I had trained with him all year and we both were expecting to have big days. My time with Ryan and his wife, Alicia, made such an impact on me. How she and I and our running community in Flagstaff, Arizona, tried to recover after Ryan was gone taught me a lot about resilience, love, and compassion.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I do not like tension and arguments. I won’t try to change your mind and you don’t try to change mine, and then we can have a conversation and appreciate each other’s point of view. But in a memoir, you’re constantly expressing your views or how you’re responding to the world around you. As a Black Muslim immigrant athlete, I felt at first that I needed to address all sorts of political and social issues for the book to be complete. I soon determined that my goal was to tell my story in a way that focused on why and how I try to live my life rather than feel obligated to answer other people’s questions or cover every issue or big moment in my life. That freed me from expectations and let me share myself in a way I was comfortable with. As an example, I write about life after 9/11 as someone who was traveling the world, but I used it as an opportunity to discuss my family’s decision to leave Somalia 10 years earlier, my relationships with other African runners I was getting to know, and how I stayed positive during an uncertain time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

That’s easy. In my first post-collegiate race, I qualified to represent the United States at the World Championships in the 10,000m. I was stunned; it was a dream come true! Then when USA Track and Field asked for my passport to get me processed for the trip to Seville, Spain, all I had was my green card. I thought since my parents had become US citizens, I automatically did too, but I was already at college and adult when they did. I got my citizenship the next year and I’ve qualified to run for a U.S. national team 13 times, but I didn’t that time. And I’ve still never been to Seville. The lesson I learned is to take care of the details.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

My focus has been on getting in shape for the Tokyo Olympics and even though I’m 44 years old, I don’t have any plans to retire from racing after the Olympic marathon is over. I always say age is just a number. But I am working on developing a foundation that would help east African runners have a chance to get an opportunity for education and athletic scholarships. I’m calling it the Right to Have Hope Foundation. I was fortunate enough to get opportunities that others caught in civil war and drought never did. I look at the amazing work of organizations like the Clinton Foundation or Bono’s ONE Foundation, and if I have a platform to help make a difference, I want to use it.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

My family escaped Somalia when I was 13 years old. The running community knows a little about that, but this is the first time where I have told those experiences with a lot of the detail, and I have to thank my mom for being willing to remember some of that with me. We haven’t talked a lot over the years about how we just missed being on a refugee boat that sank before it got to Kenya, or how my little sister was born just after we arrived, or what life was like at a refugee camp. Those are hard memories, but I wanted to show how they shaped my gratitude for my second chance in the United States and my wish that people would show compassion for one another.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

When I became the first American distance runner to qualify for five Olympics in February 2020, I started thinking about writing my life story. I had done something no one else had done, and I saw an opportunity to inspire people to look for the joy in life and running even as you get older. What I didn’t expect was a pandemic that made the last year more difficult than a normal year for most everybody. Doing this writing at a time when there was no Olympics, no competition, very little socializing, and so much devastation definitely had an impact on my message. I was very reflective over the past year, as I’m sure many people were. I wanted people to feel inspired to find unity with others, common ground, to find what’s good in your life and share it with others and for everyone to be a positive force for each other.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

In Abdi’s World, I present rules to live by that I call “Abdi’s Habits for Happiness and Success” — because you can’t have one without the other. I share them in the context of running, but they work for writing too:

  1. Rock steady. Don’t get too high when you get praise or success and don’t get too low when you get a bad review or have writer’s block. A reporter one time said that my approach to running embodies Rudyard Kipling’s command to “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”
  2. Practice balance. I love to train and race, but I also like hanging out with friends, eating good food, traveling, and forgetting about running sometimes. Step away from your writing sometimes.
  3. Stick with what works. I’ve had the same coach for 25 years, the same agent and sponsor for 21 years, and I’ve lived in Tucson for 28 years. I like to be loyal, consistent, and not dramatically change everything just because I go through a slow patch. Not everything you write is going to be successful, but if you trust in your process, you’ll find satisfaction in what you do.
  4. Play the long game. If you don’t play the long game, you’ll go for quick fixes that aren’t healthy. I was injured and missed the 2016 Olympic Trials so I didn’t make that Olympic team. I could have taken painkillers and given it a go, but I would have risked long-term damage. Later that year, recovered, I placed third at the New York City Marathon and set up an amazing next four years of running. It may seem like every writing project requires total attention at the expense of everything else, but you have to take care of yourself.
  5. Give yourself 10 minutes. Even I sometimes have trouble getting out the door to go on a run. I tell myself to just go for 10 minutes. I call it the “magic sweat” when my body starts warming up. Then every step gets easier, and I start enjoying myself. Same with writing. Give yourself 10 minutes when you don’t feel like writing and see if you don’t create your own magic sweat that inspires you to go further.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Consistency. Running and writing are very similar in that you have to make regular progress if you’re going to see results. Some days you go hard and other days are more like recovery days, but you are doing something to get to your goal. You don’t reach 50,000 words or 26.2 miles without doing the daily research and 1,000-word sections or the daily stretching and 15-mile tempo runs.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I read a lot about current events, a lot of nonfiction. I like to read about people overcoming long odds to find success or resolution in their lives. I think that’s what most of us want to experience in some way when we read books — how characters, real or fictional, have a goal and then work through obstacles to try and achieve it.

Somewhat related to that, I like books set in mountains. Michael Crawley’s recent book, Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia, is a great way to learn not just about running culture there but also what life is like in Ethiopia. There’s a lot of symbolic value in mountains. In my own life, I’ve found that when I’ve trained up high — even when I was reluctant to go to Mammoth Lakes, California, and Addis Ababa — that’s where I’ve found the most success not just in terms of running results but also in deeper friendships and support from coaches and training partners.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to partner with people dedicated to creating a more unified world, where extremists of any kind aren’t allowed to impose their views and force innocent people into impossible situations. This happens when a dictator imposes violence on specific groups of people, like in the Somali civil war, and it happens when people considered different are singled out, as happened with the Muslim travel ban in the United States. The world’s response to the pandemic was far worse than it needed to be because people in power used it to divide rather than work together to be safe and supportive. I feel like the running community is committed to inclusion and I want to spread that message.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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