The Long Run: Running Wild in Ethiopia

The author (left) running with Haile Gebrselassie (front) in Ethiopia. Photo: Jenny Jurek

In the African nation, running is more of a social activity.

Last month I had the thrill of traveling to Ethiopia for a unique cultural running adventure. When we weren’t busy volunteering at a camp to help improve eye health, helping to develop sustainable education practices, visiting schools, and learning how to cook traditional Ethiopian cuisine, we were running with some of the world’s best distance runners. My runs in the Tigray countryside and amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Addis Ababa provided insight as to what makes the Ethiopian running culture so special. And through it all there was one simple aspect that stood out: the runners of Ethiopia use their surroundings, whatever they may be.

Every day, as the call to morning prayer and mass could be heard echoing in the darkness of Addis Ababa, runners of all ages and abilities gathered at Meskel Square for exercise. The rows of an outdoor auditorium turned into a running labyrinth as adults and children ran the dirt maze, snaking their way down a row until they reached the end and moved up to the next level, repeating the process until they reach the top row, totaling 5 kilometers. Some people did dips and pull-ups on the scaffolding of the adjacent billboards; another group did sprints up the center aisle stone steps; still others used cement pillars for a calisthenic circuit routine.

With no real equipment, Meskel Square isn’t a state-of-the-art or even official gym, but I was amazed at how hundreds of people were able to accomplish a morning workout so effectively and efficiently. I couldn’t help but think of the times I question having the right training equipment or terrain and needing the latest technology to get the best workout.

RELATED: Ethiopia’s Distance Running Legacy

The next day in the hills above Addis Ababa at YaYa Village, we ran with the great Haile Gebrselassie. At 9,000 feet above sea level, the vegetation is a mix of high grassland, small bushes and eucalyptus trees. We followed in a line behind Haile as he darted overland, bouncing along the natural carpet of grass and ducking in between trees. It was almost like we were a herd of playful gazelles chasing Haile, never knowing when he would take a sharp corner and slip through a small passage between bushes.

For 30 minutes we played his game of follow the leader in an area no larger than a square kilometer, and I honestly felt like a kid again. I was amazed at how effective this natural obstacle course running could be for developing technique, speed and agility, not to mention fun. It made me think of how I might add this type of training on my own running routes.

Two days later, I led our group to the Mekele track for the Sunday sunrise routine of the local junior athletes. When we arrived in the pre-dawn light, the simple dirt track was abuzz with activity. Hundreds of children and adults were running in groups around the track, doing calisthenics on the infield and bounding up the bleachers. Some of the girls and boys were ripping around the track in jelly sandals or bare feet.

The energy emitting from the track was an electrifying blend of inspiration and motivation, enough to make anyone want to run laps and maybe run just a little faster or farther. Running around the outside lanes, I reveled in what I was witnessing. These young Ethiopians were using each other to get out and run no matter their equipment, ability or training goal. There is a reason why these young runners weren’t out doing their own individual runs on the roads. Maybe running is more social than we like to believe?

The atmosphere I discovered on my trip — a joy of running, a sense of community and a passion for the simple aspects of life — is what makes the Ethiopian running culture so rich and produces some of the world’s greatest distance runners. Sometimes the secrets to success are in our own backyard.

This column first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Competitor magazine. 

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About The Author:

An ultrarunning champion and noted author, Scott Jurek teamed up with The Himalayan Cataract Project and Imagine1day to help restore eyesight and develop sustainable education with Accelerate Ethiopia. Read about it at www.accelerateethiopia.com.

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