In Search of the Secret
Ethiopia’s distance-running legacy.
It’s 5 a.m., and Addis Ababa sleeps.
The scaffolding and construction cranes building a “new” Addis are outlined like dark sentinels against the buildings they’ll be raising in an hour or two. The diesel-fueled vehicles that will shortly clog the streets of this vibrant city are not yet out in force.
But the runners are.
At Meskel Square, they run silently in the darkness, along the stone stadium seats. On the vast fields over at Jan Meda (“the king’s field”), they’re running. They’re running on Bole Road and on steep Menelik II Avenue, leading down from the palace. And they’re running up 3,200-meter Mount Entoto, where faint silhouettes do battle with the steep grade.
Before dawn, Addis is a city of silent, moving shadows.
As you drive away from the city, the first rays of sunlight touch the ridges of the surrounding mountains, revealing the rugged beauty and multicolored textures of this land. And revealing, too, tiny figures on distant hills, darting in and out of the stands of eucalyptus.
These are the heirs to a tradition dating back to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, when a shepherd’s son in bare feet — the immortal Abebe Bikila — stunned the world by winning the marathon.
Since then, Ethiopia — an emerging nation where most athletes don’t have access to world-class training facilities — has continued to dominate international distance running. And since that night, the international running community has asked, How do they do it?
National pride & role models
Unlike most other African nations, Ethiopia was never occupied long-term by a foreign power. So its people boast a long and proud history, and that pride extends to their accomplishments in running.
Over the past three Olympics — Sydney, Athens and Beijing — Ethiopian distance runners (5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, marathon) won 22 medals, including 10 golds. Their closest competitor in these totals is neighboring Kenya, with 11 medals but only one gold.
For most of the past two decades, the face of Ethiopian running has been Haile Gebrselassie, a two-time Olympic gold-medal winner in the 10,000 meters (1996 and 2000). At one time or another, he’s held 27 world records.
In a November 2010 article, Sports Illustrated referred to him as a “transcendental sports figure” because, “like Babe Ruth, who invented the homerun, Gebrselassie invented the modern distance world record.”
It’s no wonder that each time an Ethiopian climbs the medals platform and the flag is raised, the country collectively swells with pride.
Haile, now 39, devotes most of his time to building his business interests and to mentoring the next generation of Ethiopian runners, in whom he sees great potential.
Another hero for Ethiopia’s next generation is one of Haile’s contemporaries, Derartu Tulu. Now retired, Derartu won the 10,000 meters in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics — becoming the first Ethiopian woman to win Olympic gold.
But for Derartu, who grew up 220 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa in the village of Bekoji, there were no female running role models. “They didn’t know about women running for gold medals,” she laughs, speaking through a translator while relaxing in her comfortable home in Addis. “They knew women as running to get married and have children.”
Instead, she looked to the men who ran before her. “Our coaches would talk about Miruts Yifter and Mamo Wolde bringing home the gold medals and making Ethiopia known to the world,” she adds. “They would talk about Abebe Bikila running barefoot and would say, ‘You have to do better.’”
When Derartu was 16 she moved to Addis Ababa, beginning serious training the next year. There she met her earlier heroes, Miruts and Mamo, in person.
Miruts served as a role model for Haile as well. Haile, in turn, is inspiration for 18-year-old Mohammed Aman, who won the 800-meter World Indoor Championship in March 2012.
“I remember watching Haile Gebrselassie win the Olympics,” Mohammed says. “I was very young but it did have a lasting impact on me.”
A better life
Mohammed Aman ran barefoot in some of his early competitions because his family couldn’t afford shoes. But as an Olympic middle-distance favorite, he can surely afford them now. “I guess it shows that poverty is no barrier to success,” he says.
Mohammed’s life proves yet one more time, to the other young runners watching, that running might just become their ticket to fulfilled dreams.
Some of those who dream — and succeed — also return to invest in their villages. Like Haile, who grew up just outside Assela, 54 kilometers north of Bekoji, in a small, now-barren community where his family still owns land but where the sky presses close to empty, dusty ground and scattered acacia trees.
His running route, as a youth, often crossed through a narrow, rocky ravine near stands of khat and coffee trees. During the dry season, a shallow stream lazily flows across the ravine bottom. But during the summer rainy season that stream can turn deadly. Locals recall when the swift current took the life of a father and son trying to cross.
So in recent years, Haile built a bridge over the ravine. He has also built several hotels around the country and is involved in an impressive new high-altitude training facility outside Addis.
“I have a big dream: I want to see Ethiopia become something,” he says. “I want to share my success.”
Joseph Kibur is another runner who wants to help others fulfill their dreams. Joseph is an Ethiopian who won the Canadian Cross Country Championship in 1993, became a successful Internet entrepreneur and then went on to found Yaya Village.
“Most of our great runners are from rural areas dependent on subsistence farming,” Joseph says. “When one of these athletes becomes successful, the whole family — and sometimes a whole neighborhood — is lifted out of poverty.”
How much might these athletes earn?
“Appearance fee and prize money vary based on performance and the type of race,” Joseph says. “The typical international marathon winner can earn between [US]$20,000 and $50,000. But a few pay more; the Dubai Marathon actually pays $250,000" to each of the first-place finishers, male and female.
"If the runners rank in the top 10 worldwide in their events, sponsorships might add another $40,000 to $80,000 for each endorsement, or higher.”
It seems safe to say, then, that top runners can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars — and sometimes, if they’re in the class of Haile Gebrselassie, even millions.
“Ethiopian runners are very hard workers,” says Melaku Deresse, long-distance coach for the Ethiopian national team. “The hardship of life and unavailability of training facilities would not stop them from winning.”
Everywhere you go in Ethiopia, you hear it again and again: The country’s runners have an incredible hunger to be the best.
A few years ago, a Canadian 1,500-meter runner named Hilary Stellingwerff traveled to Ethiopia to train. One day she ran a 16-kilometer loop with local runners at an altitude of 2,700 meters. As might be expected, the terrain, altitude and distance added up to a punishing course. Even after three weeks of training, Stellingwerff was still six minutes slower than a young female runner who hadn’t qualified for the Ethiopian national team.
In her article in the May/June 2009 issue of Canadian Running, Stellingwerff said her group crossed paths with at least a hundred other runners on this course.
“Our athletes don’t want to be defeated by anybody,” confirms Dr. Yilma Berta, marathon coach for the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. “If they want to compete, they have to win. They have that kind of motivation, that kind of passion.”
The benefit of altitude
Most successful Ethiopian runners are from high altitudes such as the Arsi region (home to both Bekoji and Assela). And that’s no surprise. For one thing, runners who train at higher altitudes have adapted to a lesser amount of oxygen. This means they are that much stronger at sea level or lower altitudes — where most distance races are run.
And in the Ethiopians’ case, training on steep mountains helps build up leg strength and endurance, endowing the region’s runners with their legendary finishing kicks.
But success is due to far more than altitude alone. The overall lifestyle in most Ethiopian villages adds hard, traditional farm labor to the workout of a would-be runner. And then there are, simply, the miles and miles and miles underfoot.
A culture of running
If they run to and from school each day*, “Ethiopian runners have an extra 10 to 15 years of aerobic endurance training compared to the average Western runner,” Hilary Stellingwerff points out.
The village of Bekoji — altitude 2,800 meters — has produced four Olympic gold medalists: Derartu Tulu, Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele and Fatuma Roba. The road into town proudly displays a banner announcing the village and picturing a female runner.
Here, a legendary local coach named Sentayehu Eshetu presides over informal training sessions on a red-ochre soil track with a panorama of the mountains. “Coach,” as he’s called, has been doing this for 25 years — on a voluntary basis. And his training sessions attract almost 250 young people†.
In Bekoji, running is not just for the track. It’s also for the streets, the mountain slopes, around and through herds of goats or burden-laden donkeys, and alongside street markets piled high with colorful fruits, vegetables and crafts.
Here, as in other rural areas, running is simply the most efficient way to get from one place to another. And it’s a way to dream about escaping simple village life for something far grander.
A genetic link?
The Great Rift Valley (which encompasses the Arsi region) stretches across East Africa for about 6,000 kilometers. And it’s where researchers often come to search for the secrets of Ethiopia’s success.
“Running & FitNews,” published by the American Running Association, described a 2004 British survey of 114 Ethiopian track-and-field athletes. That survey found that 73 percent of Ethiopian marathoners hailed from only two regions of the country, one of which is Arsi.
Genetics? Maybe. After all, nearly 70 percent of the marathoners in the study ran to school.
But then again, maybe not. Even Vinne Los, a Dutch physiotherapist who lives in Ethiopia and works with some of the top runners, discounts the idea of a genetic answer.
“There was some speculation about a different position of the Achilles tendon,” Los says, “and the fact that the top Kenyan athletes and top Ethiopian athletes have genes that come from the same valley.
“But the biologist Yannis Pitsiladis did a lot of research on the DNA of all the top East African athletes for the past 10 years and didn’t find any special gene that could lead to top performance.”
So far, no researchers have been able to prove genetic links that would explain the Arsi phenomenon. But a lifetime spent running in high altitude is surely a factor in creating multiple generations of fast athletes.
So why do so many great runners come from Arsi in particular, and from Ethiopia in general? What is it about this East African country that keeps its runners heading to the awards podium?
All of the above reasons, perhaps: patriotism, role models, altitude, hard work, a culture of running and a determination to make life better. As long as Ethiopia continues its running dominance, so will the search for answers.
Hint to future researchers: Maybe that search should start at 5 a.m. at Meskel Square. Or the fields of Jan Meda. Or Mount Entoto. . .
† Learn more about Bekoji’s secret to running in the documentary Town of Runners, recently released in the U.K. and sponsored by Ethiopian Airlines. (Watch the trailer.)