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Sandia coach still running at the age of 49

Running marathons has filled much of the adult life of Mbarak Hussein.

But life is its own marathon for one of Albuquerque’s greatest distance runners, who is hardly slowing down.

At 49, the Kenyan-born U.S. citizen has, to put it mildly, a full plate. Last weekend, he exercised his renowned running chops, winning the Masters division of the USA Men’s Marathon Championships in Minneapolis.

Hussein is also in his third season of coaching the Sandia High School cross-country teams.

And on Monday of this week, just a few hours after he crossed the finish line in Minnesota and after a mad dash back to New Mexico to be with his pregnant wife, Liana, who was delivering 10 days early, he was on hand for the birth of his first child, a son.

“A double win,” he said, smiling. With the new addition, Nabil Kigen, plus the physical recovery from the marathon and his duties at Sandia, Hussein is wearing a weary look of fulfillment this week.

His victory in Minneapolis was the record-setting fifth time he’d won the Masters division. He also has won the open division twice.

“That’s the kind of person I’d want to be,” Sandia senior runner Gabe Brown said. “To be that age and still want to do that.”

Hussein has been a prominent marathoner for almost half his life, but his time is less occupied with running that it has been.

Hussein admits to fresh mental health, but a concession he must make is that his body’s limits cannot be stretched as they were 10 years ago.

Sandia coach Mbarak Hussein talks to members of his cross-country team before Saturday's meet. The 49-year-old native of Kenya has had a hectic schedule of late. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

Sandia coach Mbarak Hussein talks to members of his cross-country team before Saturday’s meet. The 49-year-old native of Kenya has had a hectic schedule of late. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

“The mind is still there,” he said, tapping his temple. “You are trying to duke it out with the young guys, but I’m pushing it.

“My body is aging,” he added. “You can’t put in the mileage that I was doing before. You have to tone down.”

In local running circles, Hussein is a celebrity, albeit a reluctant one.

Twice he’s attempted to qualify for the Olympics (2008 and 2012), and he also has two career top-five finishes in the Boston Marathon, in 2001 and 2002. His older brother, Ibrahim, is a three-time Boston Marathon champion, the first African champ of that storied race, and is often credited as the inspiration behind Mbarak becoming a competitive runner.

Mbarak said he doesn’t race much anymore – one marathon last year; last weekend was his first of 2014 – but he continues to pour his heart into the sport.

That includes giving back at Sandia.

“I have never had a better coach,” sophomore Emma Buck-Anderson of the Matadors said.

“This is my first year running, but he puts you at ease immediately,” added sophomore Kathleen Hess. “He’s so gentle and easygoing. We are so lucky to have him.”

Hussein remains so humble about his running, Sandia assistant coach Dawn Meyer said, that often he won’t tell his athletes when he’s competing out of state.

And it’s exactly that humility that is endearing him to everyone at the school.

“He has been phenomenal for these kids,” Meyer said. “I can’t believe what he gives to them.”

Sandia is not his first go-round with coaching. In 2008-09, he coached the United Arab Emirates national team, although he found the experience frustrating.

“It wasn’t a very easy transition (from running to coaching),” he said.

What he unearthed were athletes in the Middle East who lacked the same commitment to running that he had known as a child in Africa.

“That was the challenge,” he said. “It was very hard.”

Fast forward three years, and Hussein was ready to wade back into coaching. He already had a working knowledge of the Sandia program and had wanted to coach college or high school runners.

“You just want to make him happy,” said Matadors senior Alfonzo Lozano. “He means a lot to us. He pushes us, and he makes us what we are.”

While Sandia is not expected to contend for any state titles right now, Hussein said that is almost beside the point. On Saturday, after the metro cross-country championships had concluded, Hussein was happy to report that many of his runners had considerably shaved their times compared to this same meet a year ago.

“Seeing development,” he said. “This is the best. I enjoy it more than anything. That’s my main goal and my main focus.”

As for his own running, well, he may taper off a bit now that he’s a dad.

But, he’s admittedly a competitive guy, and he is hardly throwing in the white towel to Father Time. Asked if Sandia’s runners have ever challenged their well-known coach – who once appeared in a national Subway commercial – to a race, Hussein laughed.

“They used to,” he said.

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