Ethiopia’s all-round runners

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While big-name athletes from other nations might be giving Bathurst a miss, Ethiopia will be fielding their strongest team. Why? Because it’s in the culture

In September 29, 2019, while doing research in Ethiopia, I was invited to the Ararat Hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to come and watch the Berlin Marathon with several members of the Ethiopian national team. The athletes there (Diamond league champions Getnet Wale and Hagos Gebrhiwet, among others) were preparing to leave for the World Championships in Doha. 

One year previously, Eliud Kipchoge had been perfectly paced to a world record of 2:01:39 in the German capital and many had already come to the conclusion that the Kenyan would be considered the greatest distance runner of all time. 

At the start of the 2019 race, several journalists and fans had written Kenenisa Bekele out of contention, casting the three-time Olympic champion and 5000m and 10,000m world record-holder in the role of “yesterday’s man”.

While the race went out at world record pace, going through the halfway mark at 61:05, Bekele dropped off the front of the pack at 35km. It appeared to confirm many people’s suspicions that the star was toast. Most commentators and fans online counted him out. 

However, the Ethiopian athletes with whom I shared the hotel lobby maintained the utmost confidence. Bekele steadily reeled Birhanu Legesse in, overtook him at 38km, and made up so much time over the last few miles I, too, came to believe, that he could actually break Kipchoge’s record.

Athletes and coaches screamed in the hotel lobby as we watched him fall short by just two seconds on the grainy television feed. 

Bekele is a household name in Ethiopia, and unsurprisingly revered by all Ethiopian athletes. It’s not surprising, either, that those athletes had so much confidence in his abilities. In the process of doing research over the years, I’ve found that Ethiopians have a lot of confidence in each other.

Belief – in training, in benefits from the country’s athletics system, weather, and culture – plays an important role in athletics success. But Bekele is an embodiment of something even more – the slow, gradual progression of Ethiopian athletes who are skilled at multiple distances, on multiple surfaces, over time. 

While new fans and some international runners were quick to discount him, I heard athletes and coaches talk about much more than his Olympic victories and world records on the track. In fact, between 2016 (after Bekele won the Berlin Marathon) and 2019 (after a series of unfortunate injuries) I continuously heard stories about his cross country prowess. I also just heard stories and testimonies on the importance of cross country running more generally. 

Kenenisa Bekele (NN Running)

Going slow to go fast

On a summer research trip in 2016 I spent a few weeks in Bekoji – the birthplace of Bekele, his brother Tariku, the first Black African Olympic gold medallist, Derartu Tulu, Fatuma Roba, the Dibaba sisters and countless other Ethiopian legends. Although many of Ethiopia’s top runners come from throughout the country, Bekoji has gained particular notoriety for not only this crop of superstars, but also the legend and coach Sentayehu Eshetu.

After I met Coach Sentayehu for the first time, he invited me to a farewell party before the athletes left to go to their homes from the training camp for the rainy season (July – August). They would return to the Derartu Tulu Training Camp in Bekoji for the Ethiopian New Year in September. 

Coach Sentayehu, in his remarks to the athletes, stressed something I would come to hear several times in the coming years – to be a good runner, the young, aspiring athletes would need to be well-rounded.

Tirunesh Dibaba and Almaz Ayana (Getty)

“Many athletes want to go straight to the roads,” he said. “I know you think the money is there, but you must learn all the disciplines. You need to first run well in cross country and get strong, taking incremental steps like Kenenisa [and the other homegrown stars].

“If you go too fast your career will be short and futile.” 

This is an odd thing that runners in Ethiopia stressed in various registers – you must go slow to go fast. 

Going slow to go fast is embedded in the training styles, environments and attitudes in the country. Much like the Kenyans, Ethiopians often begin easy runs very slowly. On a recent trip in December I went for an eight-mile run at 8:46 mile pace with a 60-flat half marathoner. But moreover, Ethiopian runners are keen to run on dramatically uneven surfaces, making it harder to run fast. Find a forest with marked trails and they will zig zag, making their own trails, to seemingly find the most obscure footing, making the running more difficult and subsequently slower. 

» This is an edited version of an article that appears in the February issue of AW magazine. To read the full feature, click here

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