While long-distance running may appear to be a solitary affair, if you ask four-time U.S. Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, you will most likely get a shake of the head. The 39-year-old pro, who enjoys the moniker “Black Cactus,” will be toeing the start line at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon on Jan. 17 in Tempe with one big goal in mind: Help his fellow elite runners qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon is the last chance for many runners to qualify for the Trials on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles. A blistering time of one hour and five seconds for 13.1 miles, which equates to 4:57 per mile, is required for men to book their ticket to the Trials. The top three runners in that event are then selected to represent the U.S. at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
On Sunday, Abdirahman will be leading the 1:04:45 group. “I’m looking forward to heading to Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona,” he says. “It’s the last day for people to qualify for the Olympic Trials so my goal is to run hard, run solid and help as many people get across that line under 65 minutes.”
Abdirahman has been a staple on the American distance-running circuit for nearly 20 years. His career highlights have included a top-10 finish at the 2000 Olympics in the 10,000-meter event, as well as winning the U.S. Trials in the same event that year. In the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon held in Houston, Texas, he took third, which was good enough to compete at the London Olympic Games.
For Abdirahman, returning to Arizona for an attempt to make his fifth Olympic squad couldn’t be more fitting. The Somali-born U.S. citizen attended high school in Tucson and went on to compete and eventually graduate from the University of Arizona as a repeat PAC-10 champion in numerous distances on the track and turf.
In addition to the men, a large contingent of women elite runners are also pinning their Olympic hopes on the fast Arizona course on Sunday. Qualifying standards for them mean either clocking a 2:45 in the marathon or a 1:15 in the half marathon.
“There is nothing in any sport, not just running, like the pursuit of the Olympic dream,” says Tracy Sundlun, senior vice president for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. “It’s always driven boys and girls, men and women. It doesn’t get old. It doesn’t change. For these athletes, it’s a life-changing experience to put everything on the line. I’m proud that we have someone like Abdi with us here in Arizona. He’s come full circle in his career back to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona race—back to his roots.”
Along with Abdirahman and a contingent of Olympic Trials hopefuls, a total of 20,000 other runners of all abilities from all over the world will be taking part in a thrilling weekend of races. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona 5K presented by Brooks kicks off festivities on Saturday, and a 10K takes place in conjunction with the half and full marathons on Sunday. Alternative rock trio Better than Ezra will then serenade all finishers and their families at the post-race concert.