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.

Mike Crawley of Britain spent three months in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, living and training at the Running Across Borders camp, an organization that aims to provide opportunities to young people through running. He shares some insight into his experiences in the following piece. Read more at his blog,

Coffee and long distance runners are two of Ethiopia’s most valuable exports, and when one steps outside at five thirty in the morning it is to the sight of women preparing coffee on charcoal stoves and weary runners sleepily making their way toward the forest. Most of my days in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, started this way: with a five-minute walk to wake up and a run of at least an hour. Ethiopians, who alongside their East African rivals from Kenya account for a high percentage of the top long-distance runners in the world, do a lot of their running at quite an easy pace, weaving in and out of Eucalyptus trees in the forests to shouts of encouragement from people walking to work. ‘Iso ambessa’ was my favorite of these phrases, – meaning ‘keep going, lion’. Unlike in my native Britain, the shouts that runners receive in Ethiopia are exclusively positive. During my time in Ethiopia I lived at the Running Across Borders training camp, and did most of my running with a young runner called Gudisa. We were frequently joined on these morning runs by other athletes, who would run along behind us for a while before disappearing into the trees.

Photo Gallery: An Inside Look At Running In Ethiopia

My instinct when going out for a run is usually to find a route that allows me to cover a decent amount of ground — an out-and-back or a big loop — but in Addis we would often run for over an hour without going more than a mile from the house. The tendency is to run zigzags up and down the hills, with whomever is leading the run seemingly picking the route entirely at random while changing pace every now and then with pure enjoyment. Ethiopians have a natural aversion to running on the roads – the only exception being Saturday’s tempo run – so nearly all of their running is done on soft surfaces, meaning they can do a lot of it without worrying about risking injury. There is a definite sense of camaraderie and playfulness when running in Ethiopian, which certainly makes the hours of running pass more quickly, as opposed to other parts of the where most people mostly train alone. There are few chances to compete in Ethiopia, and yet hundreds of young runners are patiently putting in their the miles, hoping to make it onto a team and eventually win the chance to compete abroad.

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