The Air Up There: A Look Into Ethiopia’s Distance Running Legacy

A large group of Ethiopian runners head out for a tempo run on the roads.

A Running Culture

The standard salary for a runner who makes it to the club level in Ethiopia is around 1,000 birr per month — a paltry 50 dollars, but enough to live on if you keep things simple. And it doesn’t get much more simple than a daily routine of two runs, three meals and a three-hour nap, which is the standard for most of the athletes here. The complete focus that athletes are able to give to their training, combined with the financial incentives they have when compared to runners from other parts of the world, make all the difference. One of the runners in our group, Endale Tekilead, recently won around $1,200 for ninth place at the Rome Marathon, which represents roughly two years of his salary.

The pressure that the athletes are under – both from themselves and as a result of the vast amount of competition they face — explains why our coach, Mersha, seemed almost personally affronted whenever I failed to hit the times he wanted me to run in training. I had to adjust to a fairly uncompromising view of what represents “good” running. With no recreational runners to make you feel better about your training, the perspective you end up with is one that I expect is far closer to that which was held during Britain’s distance-running heyday.

Attempts to explain the ever-declining standards for running at the world level in the UK have been made for years now, but I think the basic reason is a shift in the culture of running in Britain. If you widen the base of a pyramid, its peak is supposed to get higher. The huge increase in mass-participation running should then, theoretically, improve the performance of the more serious runners. The regularity of 4+ hour marathoners has skewed the perception of what represents a fast time in Britain. In Ethiopia, if you are running it is either because it is your job, or because you have to get somewhere and you have no other form of transport. At one point during my stay I ran a 10K tempo run in Addis in 32:30, which I was quite pleased with given the 2,400 meters of altitude. Gudisa, my training partner, just wrinkled his nose and said, “it’s still a woman’s time, though.” Altitude and genetics foster improvement, of course, but having a large group of motivated athletes training incredibly hard is probably more important.

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