Friday, 5 August 2011

Marathon Men

Yes, that's me. Right at the back. It's the taking part that counts. Photograph by Yigermal Getu Tarekegn, the best tour guide in Ethiopia (

It’s six in the morning, yet I’m running late. By the time I enter Ethiopia’s national stadium in Addis Ababa and rub the sleep out of my eyes, Haji Adilo’s athletes have already completed several laps. They glide round the track in an unchanging formation, tight as aerobatic pilots, matching each other’s stride. After an hour they’ve barely broken sweat. They slow to a halt, change out of their clothes while crouching behind an advert for the city’s first 3D cinema, and gather round coach Haji for a post-run pep talk. The sun is still to rise.

I’m in Ethiopia to learn how to run. It’s certainly the right place for a lesson. If it weren’t for the country’s Kenyan rivals to the south, no other nation would get close to the podium. Ethiopian men hold world records over 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon, while the nation’s women are almost as dominant. “For Ethiopians, running is an obsession,” says former marathon runner Adilo. “But to be successful you need both talent and determination. It’s not enough to be one or the other – you need both.”

Every week, Adilo coaches almost 100 athletes, all of whom hope to emulate the heroic feats of Kenenisa Bekele, who won the 5,000m and 10,000m gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, or Tirunesh Dibaba, who matched his achievement in the women’s competition. But few will dare to dream of being as brilliant as the man whose smile beams out from hundreds of billboards across the city, the greatest long-distance runner in history: Haile Gebrselassie.

When I meet him later that morning and he reaches for my hand, it’s that smile I see first, a toothy grin instantly recognisable from finishing lines the world over. Over two decades of competition, Gebrselassie has broken no fewer than 27 world records and, in 2008, at the age of 35, he ran the fastest-ever marathon. He’s been in the office since 8am overseeing his vast business empire, incorporating property, coffee, cars, cinemas, gyms, luxury resorts and two schools, although he stresses that investment in education is not about making money. Before starting work most days, he runs 20km in the Entoto Mountains and, after our interview, he plans to go running again. He’s a busy man with much on his mind – he talks of a possible future career in politics – but one thing takes precedence over all others: the London Olympics. Although he’ll be 39 years old next summer, and his injuries have taken their toll – he flirted with retirement after a disappointing 2010 New York marathon – he says he’s now fully fit and ready for the challenge.

Not one to rest, Gebrselassie has also accepted another, more paternal role, to pass on his knowledge to the next generation. He works with G4S 4teen as a mentor to 14 young sportspeople from around the world, all of whom share his dream of success in London. Despite the fact that only one of the hopefuls is a long-distance runner, he is using his experience to train everyone, from a sailor to a boxer. “Whatever the sport, there are three things you need to become a champion,” he tells me. “You need discipline, commitment and hard work.” He certainly knows a thing or two about hard work. As a child, he ran 10km a day to and from school; his distinctive running style resulting from carrying schoolbooks under his left arm.

This was in the Arsi Province in the centre of the country, an area many Ethiopian athletes now hail from. “If your neighbour becomes an Olympic champion, you think ‘why not me?’” he says. “Arsi is 3,000m above sea level, so when athletes come down to compete at lower altitude, they have a big advantage – more oxygen.” I look through his top-floor office window, towards his training circuit in the mountains that rise above Addis Ababa. To continue my long-distance running education, I need less oxygen and more hard work.

The following morning, I rise early for a trip out of the city. En route to the top, I stop at the Orthodox Church of St Mary in Entoto, the home of dozens of gold and silver medals (it’s customary for runners to donate their trophies to the church), before catching up with a group of long-distance pros sipping water at the midway point of a 25km run. They’re in no mood for interviews – their schedule is tight – but they don’t seem to mind an out-of-shape European with a notepad and camera running alongside them. Next to them rapidly becomes behind them, and after a kilometre or so I’ve lost touch. The roads are steep and the air is thin, and bearing in mind several of my opponents will be running in London next year, I don’t think I’ve performed too badly. I simply need weaker competition.

For the third morning in a row, I wake well before dawn and take a shared taxi to Meskel Square, where hundreds of children are wide awake and playing football before breakfast. Beside them is a vast, 300m-long amphitheatre with wide steps, which doubles as a running track for the city’s amateurs and the odd professional. If the locals are not good enough for a coaching session in the nearby national stadium, or on the foggy mountain roads, they come here to run with the people. Despite the rain, there are still 100 or so hardcore athletes in training.

As I climb to the top step, several runners approach me. Their stories are often similar. They used to be contenders but have suffered from illness, injuries or loss of form. One man, Taye Aduna, blames a leg injury for his lack of medals, but he’s still here every morning, working hard and hoping for a break. “Ethiopians love long-distance running,” he enthuses. “It is part of our culture and our identity.”

It’s impossible not to be inspired by their stories. I think of Haile Gebrselassie’s words and make a pledge to be disciplined and committed – at least for the next 45 minutes. I scrape the mud off my trainers and begin a light jog along the bottom step. I run out of Meskel Square, down Jomo Kenyatta Avenue and across the river. I run through muddy puddles and past the shoeshine boys perched opportunistically next to them; past the Bank of Abyssinia and its yawning security guards; past donkeys and phone salesmen, and street cleaners with straw hats; and past the booksellers with English-language books piled high on the pavement.

I run past taxis stuck in traffic, past the restaurant, past an orthodox church and the neighbouring mosque, and behind kids in Chelsea shirts giggling as they run past me. By the time I reach Kaldi’s coffee shop, I’m sweating and panting, but I’ve run the length of Haile Gebrselassie Street. The man himself would be proud – and finally, albeit wearily, so am I.
For more information on G4S4teen, please visit

Originally published in the August issue of Gulf Life magazine

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