By Michael Crawley
September 28, 2017
Editor’s note: Michael Crawley is a Ph.D. student at Edinburgh University and recently returned from 15 months of fieldwork living and training alongside Ethiopian runners. He is now finishing his thesis and working on a book about the culture of Ethiopian running.
In Ethiopia, he lived in a suburb of Addis Ababa called Kotebe and happened to share his favorite local haunt, Hirut café, with Guye Adola, who last week ran the fastest debut marathon of all time in 2:03:46.
DOING THE UNTHINKABLE WITH FOUR DAYS’ NOTICE
When I called Guye Adola a few hours after he ran the fastest debut marathon in history in Berlin on Sunday, I didn’t really expect him to pick up, but he did. “Inde?” I said, an Amharic phrase of surprise and indignation. “You ran and three?”
Ethiopians don’t bother with the hours when they list marathon times. The “two hours” is assumed. You’re an “and three” or an “and ten” runner. It was a few months before I realized that when people were talking about me, they were saying I was an “and nine” runner, generously removing 10 minutes from my marathon time to save face in fast company. On the phone, Guye burst out laughing, and I could hear people celebrating in the background.
I’d managed to find a German stream of the race in the morning, and expected to see “the big three” of Eliud Kipchoge, Kenenisa Bekele, and Wilson Kipsang behind a phalanx of pacemakers. What I didn’t expect was to catch an occasional glimpse of a familiar face behind them, keeping to himself but looking pretty relaxed in the early stages. When they got to 15 km, Guye still looked good – the coverage showed a slow-mo of a mix-up at the drinks station, where Kipsang looked concerned at the possibility of not getting his bottle and Guye missed his, shrugged and smiled.
This looks promising, I thought, but it’s early stages yet.
“I didn’t even know you were running Berlin,” I said on the phone when Guye stopped laughing.
“Oh, Mikey, neither did I,” he replied. “They only told me after training on Wednesday morning!”
In light of Kipchoge’s meticulously planned and executed (and recently published) training leading up to Berlin, this was nothing short of astonishing. Guye told me he had finished his morning run on Wednesday when his coach called and asked if he fancied a trip to Germany. Guye went on to say that he was advised to run with the second group, to treat this first marathon as a learning experience. This is what he was planning to do until the morning of the race, he told me, before laughing and adding, “but once I reached the start line I thought, I want to taste what it is like to run with the leaders, and maybe I can help Bekele.”
UPDATE: After this story was published, Adola’s coach, Gemedu Dedefo, tweeted that Adola had known he was running Berlin for four months but did not tell his friends until four days before the race.
Guye has a history of not knowing when, or even where, his races are. I remember him walking into the Hirut café in Kotebe the evening after winning the Ethiopian trials for the World Half Marathon Championships (in 63:22, at 7,200 feet above sea-level) last year and announcing he was going to Birmingham for the World Championships.
“I think it’s in Cardiff,” I told him.
This was two weeks before the race.
We looked up the World Half Marathon Championships on Facebook and there was a big picture of Mo Farah.
“Oh, so Mo Farah will be there?” he asked.
He seemed pleased. We spent a few minutes calculating the Ethiopian date (their calendar is different) and he left in a good mood. There can’t be many runners in the world, at any level, so unconcerned with when their races are or who their rivals are. This kind of happy-go-lucky approach isn’t supposed to work for the marathon, but it is Guye all over.
When I left Ethiopia, Guye was just starting the arduous process of converting himself from a half marathoner (he has a best of 59:06) to a marathoner. He came to the café less, and when he did, he seemed more tired than usual. He’d been one of the few runners who occasionally wanted to share a beer, but now he ordered laos, a hot drink made from melted peanut butter, for recovery purposes.
He trains with coach Gemedu Dedefo, who has one of the strongest stables of marathon runners in the world. With Gemedu, there is a strictly meritocratic policy about marathon running. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 59:06 guy; if you don’t finish the 40km training run at the front, you don’t race. Guye told me that for the first few months, he had to run these long runs largely on his own because he couldn’t handle the pace the group ran at.
Not that the marathon completely crushed the life out of him. I remember running in Sendafa one morning, struggling with the hills after being dropped by my own group at 8,800 feet above sea level. Gemedu’s group steamed past me like I was standing still, with not a word. Twenty seconds later, someone slapped me hard on the back, knocking the wind out of me.
“What the hell Mikey?” It was Guye. “Run like a man!” He made the now familiar Ethiopian “follow me” gesture, clicking his fingers and pointing to his heels. Needless to say, I couldn’t.
When I asked him about his start in running, we again had to convert from the Ethiopian calendar, which is eight years behind our own.
“I started in 2000,” he told me, “while I was studying.”
The year 2000 in Ethiopia was 2008 in the rest of the world. He didn’t make his international debut until 2014, when he was 23, which struck me as a long time for someone so obviously talented.
“I ran at school a bit,” he said, “but our coach at the time didn’t know much about running, he just coached us with guesswork. But then I decided to try to make running my job, so I started looking at the Facebook posts of a coach from our region, and I used Google to find training sessions. I’ve always done a mixture of what my coaches tell me and what I learn myself.”
He started in Ambo, running local races, and eventually winning a 10,000m race at the regional level. He found a club in 2009. “They paid a salary,” he tells me with a wink. “Well, enough pocket money for soap and stuff like that.” It wasn’t until two or three years ago that he moved to Addis with a manager.
He told me that in his breakthrough race, when he won the bronze in the World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen in March 2014, he would have done better if he had studied the course.
“I came round the last curve and I was getting ready to sprint,” he said, “but then the finish line was right there and the Eritrean was already celebrating.”
He combines a curiosity about the sport and a desire to learn how to improve his training with an attitude to racing that is far more laid back than your average club runner.
Back to Berlin.
“What did it feel like to run at world record pace?” I asked him.
He didn’t think about the pace, he said, he just focused on racing like he usually does.
“Anyway, they kept telling us we were five or six seconds outside the time (world record pace), so I decided not to worry about it.”
He told me he felt “fine” until 37 km, when his feet started hurting.
“I thought about Abebe Bikila then,” he added. “He ran barefoot! What a hero. May God keep his soul in heaven.”
I asked him what it was like to train for the marathon during Ethiopian rainy season, which turns the ground to a cloying, energy-sapping mud.
“Kenenisa said he was only 90% fit because of the rain,” I told him.
Here he had some advice for Bekele.
“He doesn’t train in a group, that’s why,” Guye said. “He probably looks at the rain and thinks, I don’t really fancy that today, I’ll wait until it stops. With a group, you support and encourage each other.”
Guye is full of praise for his training group and especially for his coach, Gemedu. I wonder whether Gemedu waited until the last minute to tell Guye about Berlin on purpose; Guye seems to thrive on lack of pressure and expectation.
And what about future marathon plans?
“I don’t know, we’ll see in the future,” he says.
I wonder if he’ll get more notice next time.
Editor’s additions: Last year, after the 2016 World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff — where Adola fell at the start along with Geoffrey Kamworor (who ended up miraculously winning the race) and ended up just 16th — Michael Crawley wrote another piece for LetsRun about Adola. Below we share a few of the best excerpts from that piece, which got lost in our inbox and was never published.
Adola waited to make his marathon debut until 2017 as he wanted to go to the Olympics in the 10,000
“What’s next?” I ask him. “Is there a marathon in the pipeline?”
“People have advised me to run marathon now,” Guye says, “but I don’t want to. The Olympics is only once every four years, and I want to try to make the team for 10,000m. The trial is in Eugene… Is that America?”
It is, I tell him, before calculating the number of weeks until May 15 for him.
“The Ethiopian standard will be 26 or 27 [minutes],” he says. “So I will prepare well. I don’t want to dwell on this race. I don’t like to be stressed or worried about anything. There are athletes who berate themselves when they don’t get results. But that’s no good for your health, your mind, or your work. When we came back from Cardiff, I was trying to make the team laugh. It probably seemed like we’d won. People might have thought, But they didn’t win! but that doesn’t bother me. I know that if I work hard, the result will come.”
Editor’s note: The Pre Classic was actually held on May 27 last year, and while several top Ethiopians ran the 10,000m there, the actual trials were held in Hengelo on June 29.
Adola despises the DNF — he’d rather run slow than drop out
“[The 2016 World Half Marathon Championships was hard] but I didn’t want to drop out. Many athletes, if they can’t win, they drop out. They think, If I can’t win, what will people say about me? But I don’t care what people think, I wanted to finish the race, even if having 63[:26 finishing time] will damage my profile.”
Adola said even if he hadn’t fallen at the 2016 World Half, he wouldn’t have been a big factor
“I was not good. I had typhoid, so I was on antibiotics and I had no power. So I tried to catch them but I couldn’t. I was not on form.”
Then, a glint in his eye.
“With my old form, I would have got them. Even if I gave them two kilometers, because they were surging and I was going by my pace, I’d have got them!”
“I think 2:36 the first kilometer, which is hard because we had been here adapting to 2:55 pace, or sometimes 2:45 for one or two kilometers. And also the weather demanded a lot of power. If you don’t have power and you start to feel empty, the wind will blow you all over the place,” he said, shaking his head. “In other races abroad, I’ve complained that it was hot, but I was exaggerating. In this one, the weather really was tough. So I really have a lot of admiration for him (Kamworor) today, I can see that he has real, real power.”
About the fall at the start of the race, he said, ‘They were all pushing from behind. There was a lot of pressure. We knew that we had to go very fast from the beginning, otherwise as everyone is full of energy they will push us here and there. I don’t know whether he was tripped, but Kamworor fell. If he hadn’t fallen to his left side I could have got away, but he did and there was nothing I could do. I thought maybe I could jump but then I would have really hurt myself. So anywhere, there I was. We both tried to get up onto our knees, and actually the first time he helped me up, but again we were returned to the ground. We tried again and we were pushed down again. I hurt my back, someone ground their foot on my back. So there was a lot of pressure from behind but I was able to hold most of it and Kamworor got away then. I saw him throw his cap away and then he was off as if he’d been stung by a bee.”
“Eventually, I got up and started running here and there,” he said, indicating weaving in and out of club runners with his hand. “Lots of the mass runners had passed me by this point.”
Adola is working hard on his English
When Crawley asked Adola why he was such a regular at the café, he replied, “I really want to learn English properly so that when I go abroad I can communicate. We can help each other, you will improve your Amharic and I will improve my English.”
A single café in Ethiopia has seven or eight world-class runners in it at a given moment
John, who owns the café with his wife Hirut, after whom it is named, comes over.
“How many world-class runners do you reckon you’ve got in tonight?” I ask him.
“Couldn’t tell you,” he said.
“Seven or eight,” I tell him. “You’ve got a 2:09 marathon runner and one of the fastest half marathon runners in history at this table alone, and Haile says that guy over there with the pizza has run 2:05.”
The Ethiopians had sympathy for the fact that the author had only run 2:19 for the marathon
Marathon times here are told without the need to specify the number of hours. Your time is kasimmint (“and eight,” or 2:08) or kasr arat (“and fourteen,” or 2:14). When I tell people I’ve run kasr zetayn (2:19), they look at me sympathetically and say, “Don’t worry, stay here for six months and you’ll run 2:10.”
Editor’s note: Crawley briefly held a 2:19:39 marathon pb before the course was found to be 380 meters short.
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