East African Summer Part II: Ethiopia

Even before my plane landed in Addis Ababa, I had fallen in love with Ethiopia after reading about this beautiful and fascinating country through the eyes of Melissa Fay Greene in her novel There is No Me Without You. Being in Addis has not disappointed, I have loved every minute of my time here and cannot wait to return. While in Ethiopia I stayed at YaYa Village, an athletic resort built by world record holder Haile Gebrselassie and former elite athlete Joseph Kibur which I was excited to find not only because of all that it offered to a visiting endurance athlete, but because part of its profits fund a team of female distance runners who live on the compound, the YaYa Girls. The goal of the program is to train them for professional competition while also learning English and valuable life skills.  I had heard about programs like this that empower and equip women in Ethiopia, a place where often young girls drop out of school and move to Addis Ababa to pursue running, but without a support structure in place, can turn prostitution or forced into early marriage for lack of options. Image

YaYa village at 9,000 ft elevation is located surprisingly and conveniently close to the bustling capital of Addis Ababa (5 miles), yet feels worlds away. Nestled in the majestic forest of the Entoto mountains, natural beauty and trails abound.  The facilities at YaYa are by far the nicest of any training camp I have ever been to, even by Western standards.  I was very impressed by the level of thoughtful detail, from international electric adaptors in the rooms, comfortable beds, amazing food (a HUGE menu of Western and European options, as well as traditional), and even massage and running guides available on-site.  The gym is very nice (I am told that the Dibabas come to use it for their regular training) and there is a dirt track on site as well were I did some intervals with the YaYa girls. Bekele’s brand new all-weather track is just 500 meters down the road and is available for a fee. The YaYa staff were all incredibly friendly and accommodating, some wearing multiple hats like security guard and pacemaker.

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Eating homemade injera and shiro with the YaYa Girls

I really enjoyed getting to run and do workouts with the YaYa Girls, as well as get to know them outside of training.  Their training runs are “progression runs” in the truest sense of the word. Knowing a bit what to expect, I wore a Garmin on our hour training run just for kicks. We started out shuffling along at 10:15/mile pace, zig zagged and fartleked all over the forest in the most nonsensical patterns (despite there being a trail and dirt road), and progressed down to 5:45 pace by the end of the run. They taught me how to make Ethiopian food, including injera (their spongy crepe-like bread made out of iron-rich teff) and I can say my life is now nearly complete! (Ryan and I have tried making injera at home and once I think we let it ferment a little too long, resulting in a stomach ache!) I know from talking to Mesaret Defar over some injera in San Diego a few years ago that Ethiopian distance runners can’t get enough of this stuff and attribute the teff to their strength and endurance. So watch out, I know how to make injera now!

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New friends (and mid-run fuel) at the top of Mt Entoto

One of my favorite memories of Ethiopia was running up Entoto Mountain to 10,000 ft elevation on a mostly well-maintained road starting only 1.5 miles from YaYa.  When I reached the majestic Orthodox Church at the top, I stopped for a photo and was waved over by a group of young adults surrounding large plates of injera and shiro (traditional oily garbanzo bean paste stew), eating with their hands (the norm). “Join us!” they encouraged, and though I knew I had 3 miles to run back down, I figured, “Well, when in Ethiopia… why not?!” I headed over and one man reached out with a large chunk and fed me, much to their delight.  “Eat, eat!” they encouraged me, “this is our culture! You’re welcome”.  I had a great time enjoying this mid-run snack with them and chatting about Ethiopian runners and their careers.  In a few minutes the large plate was empty and I set off back down the mountain, with the company of a few kids along the way.  When I got to the bottom of the mountain, I inquired with some villagers whether it was possible to get a taxi the final bit back to YaYa though I had no money, and pay him when I arrived.  No need, they waved down an elderly man driving by in a flatbed truck, talked to him, and off we went!

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View from the top of Mt Entoto

Unlike in Uganda, my running around Addis was not an unusual sight for villagers. Rather than gaping stares or excited screams, I got nonchalant smiles and thumbs up or small cheers of encouragement as I ran by.  Running is a respected pastime in these parts and I felt completely safe everywhere I ran on my own.  Sometimes I would latch onto guys I spotted running fast to get pulled along on a fartlek (yes, like just like those “joiners” we get annoyed with in Central Park), but as to be expected from these ever-hospitable people, they didn’t mind at all and even encouraged me to keep up!

During my stay I was hoping to run into some of the track runners, but most were still finishing up their seasons in Europe. However, the last day I ran into Gebre Gebremariam (NYC marathon champ) and his wife Werknesh Kidane (World Cross champ) training with a large group of aspiring elite and already accomplished runners, a few of which were medalists in Moscow.  Debunking the myth that Ethiopians are secretive and unwelcoming of others training with them, they encouraged me to join them, but sadly I was off to Kenya.  However, as I continued my run, I ran into Mesaret Defar, who somehow recognized me, maybe from a dinner we shared at the Carlsbad 5k in 2007. “Why didn’t you call me, you should have stayed at my house, we could have trained together!” Mesi demanded after giving me a big hug.  I was taken aback by her genuine friendliness! I remember her offering to let me stay at her house back in 2007, but didn’t take her seriously, but in this moment she was very convincing.  Granted, I had just seen her run 14:30 in the 5k and I was far from being in any form of shape, but I would gladly stay and get my butt kicked around by the World and Olympic champion!  I would have probably changed my ticket and taken her up on then and there it had it not been a month since I had seen my husband, and he was waiting for me in Kenya.  So duty (and love) called, I promised Mesi that next time I was in the country I would call, and it was off to Kenya for the last month of my summer in East Africa!

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