I recently had an incredible opportunity to run with some of the best runners in the world in a half marathon in the middle of the Ethiopian desert. Here are few snapshots from the race followed by some more thoughts on running in Ethiopia…
I was right on her heels as we emerged from a creek bed when I decided to talk to her. I said, “This is hard! … Are you tired? … I’m thirsty. … You are very strong.” We passed a peasant woman tending a small string of donkeys carrying a few twigs of firewood. This was the only place on the course that actually had some grass covering the dirt and sand. You could see the huge sandstone spires in the background that managed to withstand the millennia of erosion, unlike the sand that we were running over. We kept running. I didn’t have any other Tigrigna words to try on my new running buddy so I said Izohi (be strong) and trudged on.
Hannah made a friend too. I passed her and her new Ethiopian friend on the down and back and gave Hannah a high five. I probably should have encouraged her friend who had a sandal blow out and was running the remaining third of the race barefoot.
Who let this dump truck on the race course!? I couldn’t believe that I was choking on the dust of a giant Sino Dump truck while running a half marathon.
I wonder what this dude thought of us as we ran past him. He was just cruising along the path under his big sun umbrella. His old western suit, common to the peasant men in this area, didn’t match his jelly sandals, or his umbrella either. Unless that is you are an old peasant man in Tigray, then this is the preferred outfit. I ran by in fancy running shoes and dry wick shorts reeking of sunscreen. What did he think of us?
These two girls boxed me in as we ran through a canyon of cactus. I was a little frustrated with their inability to pace themselves because it made me have to think in order to avoid collision. I don’t like thinking all that much when running because my body is busy running…not thinking. Anyway we came to a small hill and the girl in front started walking. Her friend decided to help out and grabbed her arm. She pulled her up the hill using her will and her own two flip-flop clad feet. People say running is a personal endeavor, not at team sport, but the teamwork and selflessness this girl showed her friend make me wonder. And she was wearing flip flops in a half marathon in the sand?! Gobez!
Flashback to October 2012: Running in Ethiopia is incredible. I started running here during pre-service training in Asella with a few other Peace Corps friends. We would wake up early, before most of our host families had risen, and strike out to explore new routes, climb new hills, and pretend we were good at running in the high elevation. I remember one morning telling my running buddy Ryan that this was what I thought Peace Corps was going to be like. At that moment we were running through a wheat field above the town of Asella in the bright light of dawn. We passed by farmers and their donkeys as they brought their grain into town to be milled or sold. Running in the wild in Ethiopia. I loved it!
One day after having class just outside of Asella, Ryan and I decided to take a detour to visit a running training facility. We found a few big dormitory buildings with a bunch of brightly colored athletic clothing hanging up to dry on the clothes lines. Other than that there wasn’t much evidence of a training facility. Keep in mind this is where Ethiopia’s gold medal winning runners come from. We found a few guys sitting on the side of the road and asked them about the facility. They said they don’t have a track and don’t have a weight room, just lots of roads, paths, and mountains to run on. The facility is sponsored by the Ministry of Sport and Youth. Youth from the area are selected to participate in the program and move into the dormitories to begin training as professional runners.
One of these runners accompanied us back to Asella since he was on his way to church in town for the evening service. He was 20 years old, spoke excellent English, and seemed like a normal guy. Except that his 5k time was only about 14 minutes. Wicked fast! Many of Ethiopia’s best runners come from this area. The highland running combined with an excellent natural physiology has allowed Ethiopian runners to dominate international distance running. Prominent hotels in Asella are named after Ethiopian greats: Kenenisa Bekele, Derartu Tulu. As we would run by on our morning jogs, kids would shout out these big names to encourage us.
Fast forward to March 2013: We woke up at 4AM on race day to participate in the Accelerate Ethiopia half marathon. This race was a fundraiser for two organizations, the Himalayan Cataract Project and Imagine1Day, who both work in Northern Ethiopian in the Tigray region. This race, dubbed Ethiopia’s first trail race, was set to begin at 8am and would then pass through the desert underneath the Gheralta Mountains. We didn’t have many details about the race, but were told to meet in the center of Hawzen at 5am for a free ride to the small town of Megab, where the race was set to begin. After waiting around in the dark for the vehicle, and an extremely convoluted trip around town picking up supplies, we arrived in Megab for the race. We were joined by a few hundred Ethiopian runners, male and female, clad in everything from nice running shoes, to jelly sandals and flip-flops.
Then the stars arrived. In order to build publicity for the race, the organizers convinced American endurance running legend Scott Jurek to come to the race. He was accompanied by a few fantastic Ethiopian runners including international marathon winners, Gebre Gebremarium and Yemane Adhane Tsegay. Scott Jurek was profiled in Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book “Born to Run” and was recently named one of the best runners of all time by Runner’s World Magazine; like up there with Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson, Steve Prefontaine, and Haile Gebreselassie. He’s won a bunch of 100 mile long ultra-marathons at high elevations, running on trails in shitty conditions. The guy’s a champ, and I got a chance to run with him.
The race was amazingly beautiful as it passed through cactus canyons, dry creek beds, and tiny rural hamlets. All of this happened under the huge sandstone cliffs of the Gheralta Mountains, home to ancient Christian rock hewn churches. The course was supposed to go up into the mountains, but given our celebrity guests, the race director decided to set a more moderate and safe course. It was hot and difficult. I hadn’t been training much since I didn’t know about this race far enough in advance. Also I wasn’t running at my home in Abi Adi because I didn’t have any water to wash with afterwards due to major water shortages in town. Plus stomach problems (read: shitting too much) in the preceding few weeks didn’t help my training schedule. I finally made it to the finish line in about 1 hour and 55 minutes cursing the heat and squinting through my sunscreen infected eyes. I got 83rd place. To celebrate, my friend Ben gave me a sip of his New Belgium, Ranger IPA beer that his family brought over from America. The best sip of beer I’ve had in months! I found out my friend Ryan beat Scott Jurek with a time of 1 hour and 37 minutes. Scott was hanging back taking photos and cheering people on, but still, Ryan can say he beat the legendary Scott Jurek!
After everyone finished there was a raffle to give away prizes to the runners. I was so out of it trying to rehydrate that I didn’t pay much attention to the festivities. After everything was raffled away and the crowed was dispersing, we noticed a small bag under the water station table. It had two pairs of running shoes in it. We asked about it, and it turns out they were Scott Jurek’s old shoes intended to be given away as raffle prizes. Since the crowd was already gone, the race organizers said that we could keep the shoes. Ryan and I are now running around Ethiopia in Scott Jurek’s shoes. Stoked! Pretty big shoes to fill!
The next week I was in Addis Ababa with all 50 Group 8 Peace Corps Volunteers for a big training event. Sunday was a free day and a bunch of our female volunteers were running in a Women’s only 5K race to support International Woman’s day. No boys allowed! So I did the right thing and helped my friend Matt set up a beer hydration-station for the ladies. We even had a sign. Our girls loved it as they came by for a beer stop and a burst of energy. The Ethiopian runners really loved it. Matt and I stood out there for about an hour hollering and cheering for the girls. This is a big deal in this country where male dominance is the norm and women’s voices and opinions are too often suppressed. It was awesome getting out there and supporting all these women and girls as they ran by toting signs saying things like “no woman should die to give life.” You could tell they appreciated how we made fools of ourselves yelling, clapping, and dancing on curb to support their cause. A few local guys joined us and it was great being the change agents Peace Corps has told us we are supposed to be.
At the end of the race there was a huge party with music, face painting, jumbo TV screens, and awards. Ethiopia’s most famous runner, Haile Gebreselassie, was on stage giving out awards. He’s got something like 27 world records and a few Olympic gold medals. He was on stage with Meseret Defar who took Olympic gold in London and Athens in the 5,000 meter race. And I was there 50 feet away from them taking photos, reveling in the excitement of the crowd.
I’ve really enjoyed organized running events in the states because of the excitement and energy in the crowd. People are stoked to be there, stoked to have finished, and stoked to think about what else they can accomplish now that they’ve completed this feat. This was one of the most festive and exciting finishes I’ve seen. It’s amazing how the simple act of running with friends can empower so many young women in a country struggling with gender equality. I’m glad I got to participate in this event and help show the women that they deserve it.
Over the course of a week, I had seen half a dozen world class runners from America and Ethiopia. I even had a chance to run with some of them. It has been incredible being a part of Ethiopia’s running culture and I can’t wait for the next race in Hawassa in May. Now I just have to keep on training! (in Scott’s shoes)