By Weldon Johnson, LetsRun.com
November 21, 2018
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When I arrived at a roundabout on the outskirts of Addis Ababa at 6:03 a.m. on Monday, I was surprised to see a 20-passenger minibus on the side of the road, full of professional runners waiting for yours truly to arrive so they could begin their 45-minute drive to the rural area of Sendafa to get in their 30km long run.
I thought I was just going to be encountering coach Getaneh Tessema (husband and coach of three-time Olympic medalist Gete Wami), who was going to drive me to the countryside to observe his athletes training. I didn’t really comprehend that his athletes lived in the smoggy, congested Addis Ababa and often left the city to get in the bulk of their training.
The day before, at the finish of the Great Ethiopian Run, I had remarked that Canadian journalist and friend of LetsRun.com Paul Gains had said I needed to go to Sendafa and see the training groups there. Next thing I knew, I had been introduced to Getaneh and Daan van den Berg, who invited me to come observe their training group. The group is run by sports agency Global Sports Communication, the same group that runs Eliud Kipchoge‘s camp in Kaptagat. Getaneh is the coach and group leader and Daan is Global’s athlete representative for Ethiopia.
Later that night, I texted Getaneh and asked when I should come out to Sendafa to see the training camp. Daan replied for Getaneh, saying this wasn’t like Kenya, and there wasn’t a training camp in Sendafa; the athletes just went there to train. I didn’t comprehend that the bulk of the athletes actually live in the city.
It was largely quiet on the bus as we exited Addis Ababa and soon began to breathe cleaner air and see beautiful countryside. Before we made it to a completely rural area, we passed hundreds of large buildings spiraling into the air, completely unfinished, with many not looking like they were active construction projects. Addis Ababa is a bustling city with a lot of growth, but these unfinished buildings and the unfinished buildings I saw in the city proper showed this growth isn’t perfectly planned. (A guy on the street trying to get me to buy some traditional Ethiopian goods told me the new prime minister has put a halt on new construction until old construction is finished).
As the minibus went down the highway at speeds that were slower than most of the cars, a Toyota Helix SUV passed us and gave a honk. In it was Tsegaye Kebede, who won the World Marathon Majors $500,000 jackpot in 2013 and is also a member of the group. Some of the more established members of the group take their own transportation to the training site and bring other runners with them.
Don’t let the word site imply any sort of physical structure. Once the minibus exited the main road, the driver made a few turns, and soon we were on a dirt road. Eventually we stopped in a grass clearing where there were already handful of cars and SUVs parked. This was today’s training site.
The runners exited the minibus and joined the other runners standing in the field. It was a crisp, cool morning, and everyone began to prepare for the day’s run, shedding layers of clothing, using the bathroom “facilities.” The workout was a 32 km “easy” run for the men who went the furthest, while some of the women went 7 km less.
The group, known only as Getaneh Tessema’s group, has quite a few accomplished runners. On the women’s side you have recent Toronto Marathon champ and 2:22 marathoner Mimi Belete, who now runs for Bahrain and has also run 4:00 for 1500, 2:23 marathoners Desi Jesi and Shasho Insermu, plus 2:25 marathoner Zinash Mekonnen. The men’s side is more accomplished with three 2:04 marathoners still waiting for their first World Marathon Major breakthrough: Mule Wasihun (2nd in Amsterdam), Birhanu Legese (6th!!! in 2:04:15 in Dubai), and Solomon Deksisa (3rd in Amsterdam). Two of the more accomplished guys, Legese and Deksisa, are part of Global’s more high-profile NN Running Team (Kipchoge, Geoffrey Kamworor, and Kenenisa Bekele are NN Running Team members as well).
Soon we’d see other groups of runners run by. Many different groups based out of Addis use this area for training and on any day there are likely hundreds of runners (and a few race walkers, believe it or not) using this area for training. Global Sports has three different groups based out of Addis and another one in a remote part of Ethiopia, all of which Daan helps oversee (he’s based in the Netherlands and most weekends is at a race with athletes, but comes to Ethiopia often).
There was no formal stretching, no drills, nothing high-tech at all (unless you consider Garmin high-tech). Eventually, an assistant blew a whistle and the runners gathered around. Coach Getaneh likes to address his troops before every run. He spoke for a couple of minutes and soon everyone was laughing. On Sunday afternoon, Feyisa Lilesa (the Ethiopian runner from the Oromo region who had thrown up the “X” sign at the finish of the Rio Olympic marathon to protest the treatment of the Oromo people and then lived in exile in the US, only to return to Ethiopia last month after the new government invited him to return in its spirit of reconciliation) had his homecoming celebration deep in the Oromo region. Daan and Coach Getaneh had heard about the homecoming and had gone to it on short notice. Daan, who grew up in Tanzania, speaks Swahili, and is very familiar with Africa, said the event was held in a very remote region yet there were thousands of people there to meet Lilesa. It was held in an open area and was so crowded Daan said he never even saw Lilesa. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. And apparently, white people are quite the novelty in this area, as a few locals told Daan they loved him. Coach Getaneh made a joke about this in his speech to the runners.
The long run
It was then time for business: the long run. The men’s group departed first and then the women went right behind them. The only thing noticeable was the runners were crawling at first, using the first part of the run to gradually warm up.
Coach Getaneh followed the group in an SUV and so did the minibus, with myself and Irish journalist Cathal Dennehy, whom I had encouraged to come along. At 5:30 a.m., when we weren’t exactly sure where we were going and were told only to be at the “Yerer Goro Roundabout,” not 100% sure that someone would be there to meet us, we both admitted to thinking we’d bail if the other didn’t show up. I was working on 3.5 hours of sleep because the day before I went to dinner with Merhawi Keflezighi, and then watched the end of the Dallas Cowboys game (which ended at midnight local time), before sitting down to write something on the Great Ethiopian Run and what happened that day.
Assistant coach Assefa Mezgebu, his wife Mitu Getahun, and Daan were also running with the women’s group, which consisted of 17 women and two men (the men’s group was roughly the same size). They wouldn’t go the whole way, and fortunately had the minibus trailing behind to pick them up. If the name Mezgebu sounds familiar, it should, as he was the bronze medallist behind Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat in the greatest Olympic 10,000m ever at Sydney 2000. The next year, he actually beat Gebrselassie at the World Championships at 10,000, but finished behind Charles Kamathi of Kenya and had to settle for silver.
Cathal and I sat in the back of the minibus behind the driver, trying to hang our heads out the windows to take pictures of the runners. The run itself was very similar to the runs I had seen in rural parts of Kenya: multitudes of runners on dirt roads in a beautiful setting at altitude as the local residents went about their business and kids walked to school in their uniforms. As we saw other groups of runners, I learned that not only does Global have four groups in Ethiopia alone, but there are other agencies with teams in addition to Police and Armed Forces teams. I began to think the Ethiopian secret may not be any different from the Kenyan secret: hundreds, if not thousands, of skinny, motivated athletes training at altitude with a chance for glory and riches if they run fast.
Considering the recent doping scandals in Kenya and to a lesser extent Ethiopia, and the calls for me on the LetsRun.com message board to go into a pharmacy and buy some EPO, I know what some of you more jaded people may think the secret is. And considering what happened the last time I went to Africa (Kenya last year) and wondered what a training group’s secret was (the #1 runner in that group was Olympic marathon champ Jemima Sumgong, who was busted for EPO shortly thereafter), I can’t really blame you (see: LRC My Trip to a Possible Doping Camp in Kenya: What I Saw When I Spent a Day with Olympic Champion Jemima Sumgong). Plus I had met with Floyd Landis on Tuesday before departing for Ethiopia and heard him tell me how he thought elite endurance sport was still very dirty. So I’ll admit to making doping jokes with Cathal all weekend and wondering if some of what I was seeing might be a mirage.
But what I was actually observing, a long run of around 4:00/km (6:30/mile) for the men, was very real and very simple. While recent history has shown that while some at the top are cheating, and maybe many more get away with it silently, I’m fairly certain the overall Kenyan and Ethiopian success at distance running is real and may just come down to a numbers game of very highly motivated, naturally talented, hard-working athletes training in a near-perfect environment (minus the 1.5 hour round-trip commute in Ethiopia!).
The other thing I observed, besides the running, was the bus driver. He would trail the runners and occasionally pull up alongside them and hand each runner their specific bottle out the window of the minibus. Some drank water, but many others were drinking the recovery drink Maurten. The driver had 21 bottles on the center console of the minibus, magically held in place by a perfectly placed cane that was designed to prevent them from falling. Now this might work on a paved road in the United States, but this was a bumpy dirt road. I was amazed the bottles didn’t fall, until they did. Not sure what he would have done if I hadn’t been there to help pick them up, put them back on the console, and reposition the cane, but 90% of the time it was pretty amazing to watch his driving/bottle act.
We trailed the women more than the men, so I didn’t get to observe them as much. The running itself was pretty ordinary, yet still beautiful. Occasionally, we’d come up on Coach Getaneh with his SUV parked on the side of the road, encouraging his runners or telling them which turn to take. Supposedly he was telling the men to slow down at times. My impression was the pace gradually increased throughout the run, starting from a crawl.
I’m pretty sure the women got bottles more than the men, but as Daan noted, considering this group was primarily marathoners, it’s important for them to get used to fueling on runs. The other thing I found interesting was that, at least at the beginning, Tsegaye Kebede was leading the men’s group. He may no longer be the fastest guy in the group, but he’s the most successful and just like I witnessed Eliud Kipchoge leading his group in Kenya, I couldn’t help but feel this was the alpha male, the diminutive Kebede, showing his leadership role.
Some of the runners would stop and run into the grass to pay Mother Nature a call. Not sure if they ever caught back up. Others weren’t going the full distance and would stop along the side of the road for the minibus to pick them up. Eventually, we made it back to the starting point, where everyone was gathering when they were finished. The loop had been 30km and the people running the farthest would add on another 2km. Then it was time for an extensive post-race recovery fueling session.
Just kidding. I did observe one runner using a band to stretch, and Kebede stretched against his car. But while the runners had gotten bottles during the run, the only post-workout fueling I witnessed after a 30km run was some bread being passed around. I take that back. While we were driving, kids on the side of the road would hand the hand us a plant, “shmba,” pulled from the fields, that had some peas on it, and the coaches and us would eat them. Some of the runners we picked up waiting on the side of the road already had some shmba in their hands when they got into the car. However, as Cathal noted, there might be some room for improvement on the post-run recovery.
Soon we piled back into the minibus and others piled back into the private cars and everyone began the 45-minute drive back to outskirts of Addis. Who knows how long it took everyone to get home (during the day in Addis, you can easily only drive two miles in 45 minutes depending on where you’re going), but the long run was in the books.
The runners don’t always travel this far outside of Addis for their runs, but for their long runs, they most definitely do. Runners living in the city and training in the countryside is definitely an Ethiopian phenomenon. In Kenya, most of the runners live and train in remote areas (one notable exception: Rongai Athletics Club, whom we profiled earlier this year, which is based out of Nairobi). Daan said there are other differences between Kenyan and Ethiopian runners. He said Ethiopian runners are more likely to train year-round and not take an extended down period like the Kenyans do in the winter (that may be one reason you see so many Ethiopians at the Dubai Marathon every year in January and not very many Kenyans). He also said the Ethiopians are more like to question why they are going to a certain race and ask about the financial opportunities at each race.
One thing that is common to both Ethiopian and Kenyan runners is that running is an opportunity for a better life. Distance running fans will never see or hear of the vast majority of runners training on the roads of Sendafa or Iten. Some of those who are more successful might be lucky to net $5,000 a year running road races in Europe (average per capita income in Ethiopia is $783 a year). Of course, everyone wants to be a star and win the big races and the fortunes that come with them (Getaneh’s wife Gete Wami won the inaugural World Marathon Majors $500,00 first place prize in 2007), but fame and fortune is only possible for a select few. Yet watching the runners in Ethiopia or Kenya go about their craft is one of the most simple, beautiful things that I’d better not get tired of watching.
Thanks to Getaneh, Daan, Assefa, and Mitu for their hospitality.
If you walk into Kenenisa Bekele’s hotel in the middle of the afternoon, what do you see?
After witnessing the Global Sports long run in the morning and catching up on some much-needed rest, I had a few hours to kill, so Cathal and I decided to check out Kenenisa Bekele’s hotel, which was around the corner from where we were staying. The Beer Garden Inn, where I was staying, was very basic, so my expectations weren’t that high. But for anyone in Addis, I’d say you definitely need to go to Bekele’s hotel.
We walked in and asked if we could get a coffee and were directed to the left to the bar. It was the nicest bar area I had seen in a hotel in Addis, and immediately I realized it was full of famous runners and agents. Zersenay Tadese was at one table holding court. Agent Federico Rosa was at a table on the other side of the bar, talking to a few people including Ibrahim Jeilan, the 2011 world champion at 10,000m who defeated Mo Farah in a very memorable race.
Obviously these people may not be there every day, but we were told that Bekele himself is often there. And while we didn’t see any rooms, the website says a Corner King Deluxe is only $85. We wish we had stayed at Kenenisa’s while in the city, even though the TripAdvisor ratings aren’t that great. If you want to stay outside of the city, we’ve heard Haile G has a hotel that is supposedly great for training (and it gets good TripAdvisor ratings) and is close to Kenenisa’s track.
Disclosure: The Great Ethiopian Run, via its sponsor, the Ethiopian Tourism Board, paid for Weldon’s plane ticket from DC to Ethiopia and paid for his accommodations in Ethiopia.
More from LRC Goes to Ethiopia: Day 1: LRC LetsRun.com Goes To Ethiopia, Day 1: Arrival In Addis Ababa, Meeting Haile G, & A Run-In With The Ethiopian Military
Day 2: Day #2 in Ethiopia: I went to a kids race in Ethiopia…they give out finishers medals… ask me anything
Day 3: Day 3 In Ethiopia: Hagos Gebrhiwet Wins, Haile G Dances, And … No Porta-Potties?
Day 4: Kenenisa Bekele’s Bar & Training “Camp” With A Guy Who Beat Gebrselassie At Worlds