Running in Ethiopia

by Benjamin Cousen - 

It occurs to me that one of the main reasons to run (and this is a passing thought not extending to anything like a philosophy), is that the activities of running, and entering races, become the vehicles or excuses to go to places. They provide a legitimacy to travel. I certainly would not have visited to Ethiopia if it hadn’t been for the Green Olive Great Ethiopian Run Running Tour, but at the same time, this tour was always going to be more about an experience of Ethiopia than about running. However running provided the reason to be there and a window into a specific culture.

Ben communing with an Ethiopian Hyena 
The enriching intensity of the whole tour is impossible to convey in the space of this article but running was a theme that threaded through the holistic experiences of history, landscapes, wildlife, NGO work, sign language workshops, dance lessons, market places, food extravaganzas, boat rides, wolves, hippos and Rastafarians. 

In the middle of this myriad (bewildering at times because spontaneity, delay and sudden action to a changed plan are features of Ethiopian existence), we met the greatest of runners Haile Gebreselassie, and at the end we ran the 10k Great Ethiopian Run and throughout, like returning to the breath in meditation, we went running.

Running is what a lot of Ethiopians do. Quite a few of them, relatively speaking, do it better than anyone else in the world. This fact and the potential of attaining almost unimaginable glory and reward, is almost like a haunting presence in itself when running with the Ethiopians. I wonder if it is a problem. I wondered the same thing in 2012 when I went to see the documentary film Town of Runners at the Picturehouse in Brixton London. This film focuses on the small town of Bekoji, south of Addis Ababa, a town of corrugated iron and mud from whence many Olympic and world champions have emerged (think Tulu, Gelana, Bekele, Dibaba to pick out a very few). Gebreselassie in fact doesn’t come from Bekoji - but he’s not from far away.

The documentary has a bittersweet feel, it is narrated by Biruk, who is an endearing small boy at the beginning of the film (“before my voice broke” as he says in the voiceover). It tells the tale of two girls from Bekoji who are promising runners. It also tells the story of the Chinese built road that was coming, linking Bekoji with Addis Ababa, and perhaps symbolising much greater change. It was along this road that we from Green Olive travelled to Bekoji to spend time running with the young people of the town and be afforded a glimpse into their lives. Biruk himself, now a young man with a penchant for occasionally dressing like SnoopDog, was in fact one of the guides for our whole tour and the organiser of the Bekoji trip. 

Just after 7 am seemingly hundreds of young men and women begin training among the trees that cover a small slope at the edge of the town -all under the direction of the legendary coach Sentayu.

I found myself fourth in line in a small ‘train’ of six runners as we wound our way at a steady pace in and out of the trees and up and down the slope, constantly twisting and turning. We’d return to the valley at intervals when Sentayu blew his whistle and then drills would be seamlessly performed before another whistle returned us to the mesmeric parade around and about and through the trees. At one point a young man joined our line one place ahead of me and for the rest of the run I contemplated the fact that he was running in a pair of old converse shoes with no laces and the soles falling off. His t-shirt was filthy and he wore a pair of cut down jeans.

Such observations were reinforced in the afternoon when Biruk had arranged for us to visit the homes of two aspiring athletes. Both these young men were in Bekoji with the aim of making it as athletes under the guidance of Sentayu. Their living conditions were shocking to all of us and I think for many this was the most emotional moment of the whole tour. It is hard to describe it with justice in this blog. What I think was most troubling was the enormity of the stakes in the world these boys were entering. 

The expectations are incredibly intense - it is either everything or nothing. It defies belief in many ways that these people of Ethiopia and Bekoji who rely on gifts of second hand shoes, can so often take on the rest of the world and win. The problem is, of course, that it is a minuscule proportion who actually get there. There are many tales of young athletes being exiled by their families if they fail to ‘make it’. And an athlete could be at a standard where if they would be the best in Europe were they from the UK or Holland, but it still might not be enough to count on a Ethiopian and hence global stage.

It is an unease at the implications of this that I felt when watching Town of Runners and I felt it again when visiting and running with the Ethiopians this time.The question that lingers is what happens to those who are brilliant but maybe not brilliant enough? Two runners on that cusp, Dagiff and Hagdu were our running guides. This, perhaps, is something that can be promoted and can provide a career for these talents- running tourism. I ran particularly with 32 year old Hagdu, often just me and him in the early morning of Addis Ababa. We would duck under a barbed wire fence at the boundary of Millennium Park above the city. Tracks and trails teemed with plastic bottles, rubbish and other runners and the air was thin. “Gebreselassie still trains here in the morning”, Hagdu tells me. “And she who’s stretching over there - that’s Tiki Gelana, she won the Olympic Marathon in London 2012”. I waved and Tiki Gelana, Olympic record holder beamed and waved back.

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