Ethiopia: the land of runners

Words by Pål Vegard Hagesæther
Photos by Paal Audestad

Few nations can challenge Ethiopia in distance races. Runners of all levels of ability are flocking to Ethiopia to learn from the endemic talent here. The country’s highest-profile athletics legend recognizes that many tourists visiting Ethiopia country are missing something crucial. Aftenposten Magazine went to Ethiopia in search of some secrets.

If you drive through Addis Ababa early in the morning, before the sun has risen, beware of gangs. These gangs move quickly and silently in the dark. They may suddenly block your way or dash out of nowhere alongside your car. However, they are not gangs of a threatening type.

No. Rather, they are groups of strong, experienced, talented and determined elite Ethiopian athletes taking advantage of the city’s empty, pre-dawn roads to execute fast and gruelling sessions of altitude training. It is thrilling to observe. Welcome to authentic Ethiopian athletics.

41-year-old Polish amateur athlete, Wojtek Odzimek, has just finished third in an Ironman triathlon in Kazakhstan. He is one of a growing number of ex-patriates who are taking advantage of their time in Ethiopia to enhance their fitness and running experience by exercising with an elite, local trainer.

Today’s session with Gizaw comprised 45 minutes of interval repetitions. The training is organised by Run Africa, the only company in Ethiopia that pairs expatriate fitness enthusiasts with trainers like Gizaw. All of Run Africa’s trainers are full-time elite athletes in their own right, training with the company’s dedicated athletics club, Run Africa AC.

Run Africa’s marketing manager, Ilse van Mierlo (28), explains:
‘For every client we hand pick the optimum combinations of location, terrain, gradient and training intensity so as to help our customers adapt quickly to the altitude and get the most out of their training.

‘Our customers are both amateur and professional. Some have short stays of a few days or a single session, others stay for many months. Wojtek works long-term in Ethiopia, for example, while we have another French customer who comes from Dubai every few weeks.’

The programmes that Ethiopian athletes follow – and, therefore, that Run Africa of course emulates – are far from high-tech. Often it’s just worn trainers, a stopwatch and a muddy track.

‘In Ethiopia, people use the opportunities they have,’ explains Ilse. Originally from the Netherlands, she moved to Ethiopia in 2018 because of her boyfriend’s job. ‘I describe myself as an avid amateur runner, but the sight of elite Ethiopian runners scattering in the grey light before sunrise puts tingles of excitement through my feet every time! This is the real thing! In fact, can you hold on? I just want to run two laps with them now!’ And off she goes.

Why do people want to train in Ethiopia? The most obvious answer would seem to be the altitude. Addis Ababa is located 2,355 meters above sea level. Exercising this high, the body compensates for the slightly lower level of oxygen by producing more red blood cells in order to increase absorption of oxygen from the lungs. When the runner later descends to the lowlands again, the increased percentage of red blood cells gives increased endurance.

For top athletes, such altitudes are almost mandatory – whether living at such a height, as Ethiopians do, or whether coming here periodically to train. Former long-distance runner Marius Bakken, for example, has been on 15 altitude training stays in Kenya, although training using artificial height conditions has been banned in Norway since 2003.

‘Exercising at between 1,800m and 3,000m above sea level provides a valuable insight into the body’s lactic acid breakpoint,’ says Bakken, who is also a doctor and has studied the effects of altitude training on the body. ‘You know better how much you can tolerate, getting in key sessions just when your body is starting to collect lactic acid.’

How about amateur runners, meanwhile?
‘Height training is not as important for them as for elite runners,’ Bakken points out, ‘but everybody, regardless of their level, feels the effects. A stay in Ethiopia or Kenya can be very inspiring as these countries have a great running environment.’

‘As you can see, Ethiopia’s true success in running is not about altitude, but about lifestyle,’ says Lemma Edusa, 42, pointing to a group of élite athletes running hill repetitions.

Lemma’s routine is typical: he comes here every other day and runs ten kilometres before doing 400 arm lifts. He then goes to work. On Saturdays he runs 30 kilometres in the hills surrounding the city. Such a regimen of exercise has resulted in unusually good form for Lemma’s age: he can run 10 kilometres in 33 minutes! ‘I feel like a 20-year-old’, he adds.

The age range of the place is wide. Netsanet Ejigu, 16, has a day off school today. She ran for 15 minutes from home to get here. She will run 20-30 laps of the track before running on home.
‘I do it for health. I have no ambitions beyond that. We have many young runners who are better than me. That is why I would rather focus on education. I want to be an archaeologist.’

Back at Jan Meda race ground, Wojtek and his trainer Gizaw finish their tough interval session. Perhaps ironically, the keen Pole works for an international company but trains up to nine times per week, about half of them running. His next target is an upcoming triathlon in Morocco.
‘I am so happy with how my training is going here. I love working with Gizaw. I also love the altitude, the Ethiopian climate and the opportunity to start early in the day.’

This article was originally published in Aftenposten magazine (in Norwegian language) on 27 January 2020.
See also an eloquent article about Run Africa by journalist Megan Brownrigg in British running magazine Like the Wind or return to our News page.