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Last summer, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey got a message from someone he’d met long ago. It was from a man who had once run faster than anyone in the world. His name was Abdi Bile, a world champion runner in the 1500 meters and a native of Somalia. He was coming to Minneapolis, he said, and he asked if they mayor wanted to go for a run.

Frey did. He was beyond excited because, as unlikely as it seems, this would be the second time the two had run together. The first time was nearly 30 years earlier. Then, Bile was in college at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and Frey was a 10-year-old who loved everything about running. He lived just down the road from Bile’s university.

One day, Frey took the bus down to the university, and was running on a trail when, off in the distance, he saw this long, lanky figure running toward him.

“As he got closer,” Frey says “I realized it was Abdi Bile. His poster was displayed at the local running store, with his signature and a note to the owner. There were these legendary tales about the workouts he did and the races he won. He was a hero of mine.”

Frey turned around so he could run with Bile. He introduced himself, but as the two ran, young Frey struggled to stay a half-step ahead, until Bile reached down, put a hand on the his shoulder and said, “Jacob, it is not important how fast you go. It is only important that you go with purpose.”

Frey never forgot those words. And now, almost three decades later, they were running together again. They went down the river, crossed the Stone Arch Bridge, them came back up the other side. What Bile saw made a deep impression.

“I just saw all these people running,” he said, “and they all said, “Hi, Mayor!’ ‘Hi, Mayor!’ I had just come back from Mogadishu, where there’s an explosion every day, it’s not safe. So just to come to a city that’s peaceful and quiet and where the mayor is just running on the river, it was a good experience. I told him this is a beautiful city. I’m thinking about maybe relocating.”

After they parted, Frey called John Munger, who runs the Loppet Foundation, which promotes outdoors activities and endurance sports in the Twin Cities.

“Jacob sent me a text,” Munger recalled, “saying someone named Abdi Bile is going to call you and you should take the call. I did a very quick Google search and figured out that Abdi is this amazing person. I was like, I think I’m going to make this meeting happen.”

Bile had not only been a 3:49 miler in his time, but had served as national coach for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The two met, and Munger showed him around the Trailhead at Wirth Park. Bile was impressed again.

“It is really an incredible facility. And people were so healthy, so energetic, so friendly. I just fell in love. Everything was like “Wow, I love it here.’ ”

As it happened, the Loppet had been looking for someone like Bile who could expand their outreach to new communities. “We’d been thinking about starting a running program,” said Piotr Bednarski, Loppet sport director. “But we weren’t really ready for it. And it was just kind of a lucky opportunity that Abdi was interested in moving here.”

Abdi Bile, right, worked over the summer with Ayan Yusuf,18. Ayan had plans to run for Minneapolis South High School.
Abdi Bile, right, worked over the summer with Ayan Yusuf,18. Ayan had plans to run for Minneapolis South High School.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Abdi had been doing high-level coaching forever,” said Munger, “but he said he was interested in doing more youth development work, and in working with Somali populations, as well as broader population. So it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.”

By the end of the summer of 2019, the Loppet Run 365 Program was born. In September, Bile moved to Minneapolis to run it. Within a week of him starting, some 60 Somali youth had signed up for the Loppet Trail Kids program.

“We saw it immediately,” said Munger. “The parents in the Somali community all know who he is and want their kids to have some light from Abdi shine on them.”

The Loppet Run 365 Program has three levels of training. The first is the junior program which has both a development team, to get kids — especially kids from the East African and other communities — involved in running, and a competition team for promising runners in the 16-19-year range. There’s also an adult program, which focuses on adults who are interested in running distances ranging from the 5 kilometers to a marathon, on roads and trails. Lastly there’s the elite program, which focuses on runners 19 years and up with national and international potential. They weren’t expecting the elite program to be started until next year, but Bile already found several athletes of that caliber.

“Abdi knows the system,” said John Cook, who coached Bile in the 1980s, when he was one of the fastest runners in the world. “He knows what weaknesses an athlete has, and how to work on that. If his runners listen to him, they’ll do well.”

“The East African community has so much potential,” Bile said. “Instead of always seeing runners coming from Kenya and Ethiopia and Somalia, why don’t they come from Minneapolis? Some have done, like Hassan Mead. But he’s only one. We can have 20 Hassan Meads. We really want to promote running as a sport in general. And we want to make this city, Minneapolis, a running town.”

Frank Bures is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis.

Abdi Bile’s highlights

In 1987, Bile came from behind in a surprise victory at the world championships in Rome, beating favorite Steve Cram with a monster kick. Two years later he won the 1500 meters at the World Cup in Barcelona, besting the great Sebastian Coe in the final race of Coe’s career. Bile’s personal records include a 1:43 (800M); a 3:30 (1500M), and a 3:49 mile. In 1996, he ran his final race in the Atlanta Olympics, finishing sixth in the 1500 meters.