NEW YORK -- It's rare for any individual rivalry in sports to have a 15-year shelf life these days, and rarer still that two athletes would actually like each other after surviving that kind of meat grinder. But distance running is an exceptional pursuit, and Abdi Abdirahman and Meb Keflezighi are exceptional members of the fraternity.
Sunday's New York City Half-Marathon will mark the 50th meeting between the two African-born U.S. Olympians. It's a series that dates back to their Pac-10 days in the late 1990s -- Keflezighi ran for UCLA and Abdirahman for Arizona -- and includes races all over the planet at every level and multiple distances, indoors, outdoors, on college tracks, elite cross-country courses and asphalt.
The 35-year-old Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the marathon, has been the faster man in 35 of those races to date. In 2009, he became the first American in 27 years to win the New York City Marathon. Abdirahman, 34, is a three-time Olympian in the 10,000-meter event and set a personal best time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 56 seconds in the 2006 Chicago Marathon. Both men are previous runners-up in the NYC Half and are using it as part of their preparation in this pre-Olympic season.
Keflezighi, a father of three, trains in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and Abdirahman, who is single, remains near his old school in Tucson, Ariz. They became U.S. citizens within a year of each other in 1998 and 1999 respectively, and cemented their friendship when they roomed together at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. (Both raced in the 10,000 meters; Abdirahman finished 10th and Keflegizhi 12th.) To this day, they request shared quarters at major competitions. They call each other when their college teams play basketball, and they look out for each other in races -- until crunch time.
"I'm mellower, I think," Keflezighi said Thursday. "It's a very intense competition with each other, but there are times we've helped each other in a race. He's a great guy."
Abdirahman said the two "clicked" when they met in college and set the mutual goal of beating Stanford runners. "He wants to beat me and I want to beat him, but when the race is over, we're friends," he said. A stress fracture of the left femur has kept him out of marathon fields for two years, and he regards this as a good test. Neither Abdirahman nor Keflezighi has decided whether he'll run a full marathon before the U.S. Olympic Trials next January in Houston.
Sunday's men's field is deep with both U.S. and international talent and includes 2008 Olympian Ryan Hall, reigning European 10,000- and 5,000-meter champion Mo Farah of Great Britain, defending New York City Marathon champion Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia and 24-year-old track standout Galen Rupp of Portland, Ore., who will be competing in his first major road race.
Hall, who's entered in next month's Boston Marathon, said he doesn't consider the half-marathon "a great predictor of marathon fitness ... the speed factor plays into it a lot more. To win a full marathon, you have to be really strong." But Hall said racing at this distance is a good change of pace from logging the equivalent in training. "It's more fun doing it with other people," he said.