When Abdi Ulad became Danish Champion at the Copenhagen Half Marathon, he won not only for himself but also for his trainer Leo, his friends and every other runner. “If my training and results can inspire just one more person to pursue their dreams, I’ve done the right thing,” he says.
On a freezing cold Saturday in November, when warmth and relaxation are normally the things we crave, 24 year-old Abdi Ulad is out on a football pitch.
Finding one of Denmark’s best runners in training clothes is no surprise, especially when you run 250 km on average every week in all weathers. Abdi Ulad is out there even in storm conditions, when the rain penetrates what’s supposed to be rainproof jacket and even in the snow.
But even though the air is thick with moisture on this particular Saturday, Abdi is not alone. Greve Athletics Club is hosting the first round of the East Danish Championship in Cross for youth, and couple of hundred people have turned up – runners, helpers, parents and others. Abdi falls into the last category, for despite his fantastic results in cross country, he will not be running today. Instead, he’s there to encourage the younger members of his new club, Hvidovre AM.
“I want to inspire others,” says Abdi a little later over a bottle of water in the stadium cafeteria.
Even though he speaks quietly and a little humbly, he drowns out the noise from the TV in the corner where a football match tries unsuccessfully to tempt people indoors and away from fresh air and exercise.
Abdi Ulad was born on 14 June 1991 in Somalia, and arrived as a refugee 11 years later in Denmark. The Somalian aspect is not so important:
“I was born in Somalia, but I’m Danish, and Denmark is my home,” he says.
What’s more important is the story of a pair of Kawasaki shoes, his trainer Leo Madsen and a unique talent for running.
To tell that story, we have to go right back to October 2008. Abdi was not yet a Danish citizen. He spent his time at school, physical training, playing football and particularly watching English and Spanish football on the TV.
“One day, one of my school friends called and said ‘Hey, I’ve started athletics and think this might be something for you – after all, you are from Africa!’ Using Africa as an argument was a bit weird, especially as he was from Morocco,” laughs Abdi.
By 2008, the running craze had not yet reached Denmark, and therefore Abdi had no real idea of what it involved. But curiosity got the better of him and at the age of 17 he ended up at the athletics stadium.
“They were almost finished training for the day when I turned up. I went to the trainer, Leo Madsen, and introduced myself. He looked at me and asked: ‘Can you run?’”
Abdi thought he could.
But Leo wasn’t convinced and asked Abdi to run 1,000 metres as fast as possible.
“I was wearing a pair of old Kawasaki shoes which were no good to run in, but they looked cool. But even though they were useless, I still finished in 2 minutes and 56 seconds,” smiles Abdi.
The trainer was satisfied and a major talent was on the way.
The taste of blood
In common with many other runners, Abdi was attracted by the individuality of running. There were no weak members of a team to hold him back – when training or a race went badly, he had only himself to blame.
And the strict training under Leo Madsen was tailor-made for the gangly youth.
“It may sound a bit much, but I love to push myself so much that I can taste blood in my mouth after training.”
Abdi shows his teeth in a quiet smile. Not shyly, but more like a contented predator resting after putting its athletic body through hours of hard training.
His enthusiasm for training was an advantage right from the start.
“I started off running 10 kilometres four times a week. After the first training session I was totally wasted for two days and had to take a break for the next three. I called Leo and said I hurt all over and had a stiff back,” says Abdi.
Leo’s response was: “Must be something to do with your shoes.”
He was right:
“I was still training in those lousy Kawasakis, and if you want to run long distance, you need good shoes to avoid injury,” explains Abdi.
To cut a long story short, that run around the stadium in Korsør has made Abdi Ulad the Danish and Nordic champion and a bronze medallist at the European Championships so far. He is no longer a promising talent – he’s one of the biggest stars in Danish athletics
“When you find something you are good at, you have to give it a chance. I found running and now have a duty to see how far I can go.”
Star status lights up a cold day. Not that Abdi Ulad has to fight his way through a horde of teenage girls as if he was a Danish Justin Bieber, but many of the young runners (and the children) cast admiring glances at him. The slightly braver approach him for a chat. Abdi always takes time to listen and reply.
Once more, it’s a sense of duty that drives him.
“I don’t just run for myself. If my training and results can inspire just one more person to pursue their dreams, I’ve done the right thing. That’s why I keep on running and always stop to talk to people.”
Wants to deliver the goods
Out on the horizon is Abdi’s goal: the marathon at the Olympic Games in Rio. The Copenhagen Half Marathon in 2015 was a major step along the way, as Abdi had declared that he wanted to beat Carsten Jørgensen’s Danish record of 1 hour 1 minute and 55 seconds. But it quickly became apparent that the record would not fall that day.
“The members of my group were having trouble pulling together, and the record was out of reach.”
But that was no reason for him to take it easy.
“People were out in the bad weather to cheer me on, so no matter what my time might be, I always give it my best and try to deliver the goods – I feel I owe it to them.”
Abdi Ulad’s advice on the Cph Half
- Set a goal: You will get the best out of it if you set yourself a goal. Completing within two hours for example.
- Train!: A half marathon is a long distance – especially if you do not know the route. The first time I ran a half marathon, my body was telling me to stop after 10 kilometres and I went from running 3 minutes per kilometre to only managing 3.20. It was crazy and I ended up running in a zigzag. If you set long term goals, you get more continuity out of your training and if you’re lucky, can even become hooked on it.
- Diet: Do not eat junk food and drink beer while training hard – well, you can, but don’t be surprised if you fail during your run. If you start training 6 months before the run, you can focus on your diet for the last 3-4 months.
- Footwear: Ensure that you have good shoes for training and competition to reduce the risk of injury. Take a few runs in the shoes you intend to wear for competition before the day itself to let your body get used to them. You could run a few hard intervals for example.
- Do it for yourself: Do not run a half marathon just for the sake of it, nor because everybody else does it. Do it for yourself and enjoy it!