My Biggest Takeaways from Running in Ethiopia

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5 tips to help you glean more joy and fulfillment from the sport than ever before

Running is my gateway to the world. Thanks to the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which funded a year of solo travel centered around my greatest passion—long-distance running—by age 24, the sport had led me to nearly that many countries. It introduced me to lifelong friends of every conceivable background and opened my eyes to the wildly different ways that people across the globe live and train.

Of the 22 countries I visited on that trip (from England and Switzerland to New Zealand to Japan), the running culture in Ethiopia challenged my assumptions about the sport, influenced the way that I approach my own training, and captured my heart along the way. I fell so hard for the running style I discovered in the Horn of Africa, in fact, that I recently returned for my second training stint.

At the Great Ethiopian Run | Photo courtesy of Becky Wade

Here are my top five takeaways from running in Ethiopia.

Opt for Rugged Terrain

Though smooth trails and dirt roads are abundant in rural Ethiopia, I rarely saw the local runners using them. Instead, they blazed their own paths through the forest, around eucalyptus patches, and back and forth across the biggest training hotspot of all, Mount Entoto (elevation 10,500 feet). I was told upon arriving that their preference for rough terrain is part of the reason that Ethiopians historically do very well in international cross-country competitions, and after two months of hurdling fallen branches, careening down rocky descents, and tiptoeing around menacing roots, I totally understand why.

Follow the Leader

Unlike the running tradition in the U.S., in which group runs assume a pack-like formation, the Ethiopians I ran with typically trained in single-file lines. As a result, the runners tucked in behind the first position have little control over the pace, route, or overall distance. Sometimes it’s nice to shut your mind off and leave the navigating to the leader, while also benefiting from his or her warning snaps whenever an obstacle like a ditch or rock arises. However, a different kind of endurance is required to run at the mercy of another person, not knowing whether you’re in for a casual plod or a progressive push from start to finish. Either way, it pays to be adaptable, as that’s what separates good competitors from great ones.

Brush Off the Rough Ones

The locals I trained with were skilled rebounders. By that, I mean that they tended to think big-picture and were not easily rattled by poor workouts or races. I remember approaching a friend right after he dropped out of a major cross-country race that he’d been targeting for months, preparing for the uncomfortable task of consoling him after what I’d assumed was a failure in his eyes. Instead, he greeted me with a trace of a smile and, before I had the chance to open my mouth, said, “Next time, I will be up there” as the leaders ran past us in their battle to the finish. Moments later, during his cool down jog, he was already eager to get back to training and dreaming about his next opportunity to toe the line. Speaking as a lifelong perfectionist and a harsh self-critic (both common among endurance athletes), that lesson resonated. Not every race will be a home run, but none of them need be tragedies either.

Photo courtesy of Becky Wade

Run by Feel

The most valuable lesson I learned from my Ethiopian friends was to listen to my body and respect its signals. Not only are Sundays complete rest days for most runners there, I saw many instances in which an athlete took an unplanned day off or cut a workout short because he or she was feeling unusually tired. Depending on the day, a recovery run could also feel more like a leisurely walk, which served the purpose of shaking out one’s legs and preparing them for the hard efforts to come. I can’t tell you how many injuries I’ve sustained in my 15 years of competitive running by pushing through a few more intervals or rallying through a long run when something didn’t feel right, simply because it was what I’d planned to do and I was too stubborn to adjust. Had I adopted the principle of running by feel much earlier, I’m confident I would have avoided much of the damage. What the Ethiopians I ran with seem to have mastered is treating their workouts and recovery runs with the same degree of intensity, and maximizing the gains of both as a result.

Go for It

So far, I’ve witnessed three highly competitive races in Ethiopia: the Great Ethiopian Run (Africa’s largest road race) and two National Cross-Country Championships. Each time, I was shocked by the way the runners began—an all-out sprint for the first few minutes, it seemed—and the gradual carnage that ensued. What I learned from talking to some of the runners involved is that the competitors' racing mindset is quite different from the one I’m used to. While in the U.S., more often than not, we try to execute either even splits (first and second halves run at the same pace) or tactical races (usually conservative starts followed by ferocious endings), these Ethiopians runners operated much differently, pushing super hard from the gun and running as long as they could at that pace until they simply could not.

Great Ethiopian Run starting line | Photo: Becky Wade

Sometimes it works out and they’re rewarded with high finishing positions or fast times. And sometimes it doesn’t—I estimate that at least a fourth of the field dropped out before the finish line in the most recent race I watched, clearly spent from the punishing first few kilometers. But to them, the chance of doing something great is worth the risk of fading hard. And to me, that’s an attitude worth remembering.

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