Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Air Up There: A Look Into Ethiopia’s Distance Running Legacy

Most Ethiopians tried to avoid running on the roads, with the exception of Saturdays, when hundreds of runners would gather on a straight stretch of road outside Addis to do tempo runs between 10 and 35K
 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.

Coach Sentayu, who has guided a number of Olympic champions, presiding over a track session.
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.

The standard salary for a runner who makes it to the club level in Ethiopia is around 1,000 birr per month — a paltry 50 dollars, but enough to live on if you keep things simple. And it doesn’t get much more simple than a daily routine of two runs, three meals and a three-hour nap, which is the standard for most of the athletes here. The complete focus that athletes are able to give to their training, combined with the financial incentives they have when compared to runners from other parts of the world, make all the difference. One of the runners in our group, Endale Tekilead, recently won around $1,200 for ninth place at the Rome Marathon, which represents roughly two years of his salary.

The pressure that the athletes are under – both from themselves and as a result of the vast amount of competition they face — explains why our coach, Mersha, seemed almost personally affronted whenever I failed to hit the times he wanted me to run in training. I had to adjust to a fairly uncompromising view of what represents “good” running. With no recreational runners to make you feel better about your training, the perspective you end up with is one that I expect is far closer to that which was held during Britain’s distance-running heyday.

Attempts to explain the ever-declining standards for running at the world level in the UK have been made for years now, but I think the basic reason is a shift in the culture of running in Britain. If you widen the base of a pyramid, its peak is supposed to get higher. The huge increase in mass-participation running should then, theoretically, improve the performance of the more serious runners. The regularity of 4+ hour marathoners has skewed the perception of what represents a fast time in Britain. In Ethiopia, if you are running it is either because it is your job, or because you have to get somewhere and you have no other form of transport. At one point during my stay I ran a 10K tempo run in Addis in 32:30, which I was quite pleased with given the 2,400 meters of altitude. Gudisa, my training partner, just wrinkled his nose and said, “it’s still a woman’s time, though.” Altitude and genetics foster improvement, of course, but having a large group of motivated athletes training incredibly hard is probably more important.

Having started my trip in Addis, I traced the route that many Ethiopian runners take to the top backward, as I then travelled via Asella to Bekoji, a small town of 17,000 which happens to be the birthplace of multiple Olympic medalist and world-record holder Kenenisa Bekele (and his younger brother, Tariku), reigning Olympic 5,000 and 10,000-meter champion Tirunesh Dibaba, and two-time Olympic 10,000m gold medalist Derartu Tulu, along with numerous other world champions. The town has recently been bought to light by the film ‘Town of Runners”, which follows the fortunes of two young athletes as they try to follow in the footsteps of the town’s great champions. While there I trained for a week with coach Sentayu, a physical education teacher with no formal coaching qualifications who, aside from Brother Colm O’Connell in Iten, Kenya, is peerless when it comes to identifying young athletic talent.

On my first day he came to meet me at a quarter to seven and we ambled along his familiar route to the track, our progress frequently halted as ‘coach’ greeted everyone we passed. Over the course of a career that’s lasted 30 years there aren’t many families who haven’t contributed at least one young athlete to Sentayu’s vast training group. I’d been training in Addis Ababa for over a month by the time I went to Bekoji, so I thought I’d acclimated pretty well to the altitude. The air in Bekoji, however, is noticeably thinner, and even on the walk uphill to the stadium I was emitting conspicuously large amounts of water vapor into the cold morning air.

The group of runners had gathered at 7 AM to wait for coach Sentayu. After listening to what he had to say with rapt attention, they gave him a short round of applause before starting their warm up.
At the stadium we were greeted by the sight of 200 young runners sitting on the grass banks waiting to hear Sentayu’s words of wisdom. After a short pep talk we warmed up for 20 minutes — quite a disorientating process, with phalanxes of runners darting around the infield in various directions – and then got started with the morning’s track session. Everyone was doing different workouts, and I was told to alternate between 800 and 400-meter repetitions. Former mile world-record holder Jim Ryun used to describe the wait for the sudden feeling of fatigue that hits you when you’re running intervals as being similar to waiting for a bear to jump on your back. Running in Bekoji, the bear is with you more or less as soon as you start running — and it doesn’t go away. Sentayu described the air as ‘special,’ but it made me feel extremely ordinary as I struggled to breathe while all the local athletes flew past me. It’s safe to say that those who succeed in impressing Sentayu on this rural track will find few tracks in the world that they can’t dominate.

The training in Bekoji was very simple. If you’re looking for training secrets from a man who has probably coached more Olympic champions than anyone else, I’m afraid there aren’t any. The advice that I was given by Sentayu was to relax my arms and shoulders, as he said this is vital to allow the lungs to do their work. He demonstrated several deep breaths in and out. “Oxygen, carbon dioxide, oxygen, carbon dioxide!” — a simple mantra, but mine was more like “Oxygen! Oxygen! Oxygen!”

When I asked his opinion on the most important types of training for 10K runners, his response was succinct: “Short hills – for strength here (he grabbed his hamstring). Long runs, for endurance (more deep breaths to indicate aerobic training). And speed.” To emphasize his final point he banged his fist on the table, the cadence and volume increasing until he had the attention of all the other customers in the café where we had breakfast after that morning’s training.

Sentayu demonstrated an oscillating wave in the air with his hand to articulate the alternation of hard and easy training that he prescribes his athletes. The easy training, he says, is just as important as the hard running, and was supposed to be genuinely easy.

Interestingly, Sentayu was dismissive of the romantic idea that most Ethiopian champions laid the foundations of their success by running vast distances to and from school. He pointed out the close proximity of Bekele and Dibaba’s houses to the school in Bekoji. Their success was dependent upon the training he assigned to them, first as their P.E teacher and then as their coach. It took awhile for Sentayu to do the math and calculate how far his athletes would run at different ages. He said he would usually work out how many kilometers he wanted them to run in a given week and then divide that total by seven. Usually it was between 17 and 30 minutes per day – enough to provide aerobic stimulus without risking injury to the young runner. No secrets, and no brutally hard training regimen, either. Just patient, consistent training in a place with few distractions and ‘special’ air.