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