Sunday, 30 March 2014

Meeting Haile

They say you should never meet your heroes; they’ll never live up to your expectations!  Well this morning I had little choice.  Just after I sat down for breakfast, Haile started waving and calling me over.  I hope that I didn’t disappoint!

Seriously though, Haile Gebrselassie is one of few people that I’ve ever really wanted to meet, and I was disappointed not to have met him when I visited Ethiopia in 2010.  I did ‘race’ against him in the Great Birmingham run in 2011, but was just behind the elite startline, so that doesn’t really count.  This morning we had a quick chat about training, the weather, and his impending task of pacing the new breed of marathon runners in London in two week’s time.  But the moment was extra special because I didn’t have to go up to him and feel like I was making a nuisance of myself.  He was the one that initiated the interaction.

He said that he can't train as long as he used to - anything more than two hours is too much for his ageing body!  Or maybe having pizza for breakfast is begining to take its toll (well it was my breakfast time, so I can only presume it was his too).

What a hero!

Thursday, 27 March 2014

A scene from Jerusalem and a trip through Nazreth

Pat turned to us and said, ‘It’s just like a scene from The Bible!’

He was so right!  As we looked down from the steps onto the surrounding churchyard, it seemed like we’d been transported 2,000 years back in time.  Give or take a bit of concrete, it was what you’d have expected Jerusalem to have been like around the time of Jesus ... people dressed in long white robes and long white shawls ... chunks of bread and alms being distributed to the poor and the disabled ... the elderly on wooden crutches and walking sticks that could easily have been centuries old .... sheep, goats and donkeys wandering freely outside ...

This is Entoto, one of Ethiopia’s most secret mountains.  The hill which rises to 3,200 m above sea level, overlooks Addis Ababa, the sprawling capital, to the south, and Sululta, and Yaya Village where I’m staying, to the north west.  The eucalyptus forests which stretch across Entoto and the surrounding hills are one of the most popular training grounds of Ethiopia’s illustrious distance runners.

As we make our way down the rocky road from Entoto, we stop to take in the view.  We spot satellite field, the large flat grass area which is also popular among the athletes, and where we have been doing most of our training.  The field is easy to spot thanks to the large adjacent satellite dish that gives the area its name.  Sululta looks so flat from here.  It’s difficult to believe that it sits at 2,800 m above sea level.

I previously visited Ethiopia in November 2010; a visit which incorporated participation in the Great Ethiopian Run and some research for Notes from Higher Grounds.  I felt then that I hadn’t fully explored the running options that Ethiopia has to offer, and when an opportunity arose to stay at Yaya Village in Sululta, just 11 km north of Addis Ababa, I had to take up the offer.  As soon as I had the price of the flight put together, and a three week gap in my schedule, I headed back to Africa.

Yaya Village opened in 2011.  It is a 4-star resort co-owned by Ethiopian-born Canadian international athlete Joseph Kibur, and the man who needs no introduction, Haile Gebrselassie.  The rooms are among the best I’ve stayed in, and the food is very, very good indeed.  Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful.  The gym is perfect for serious athletes, and there is a soft tartan track, owned by Kenenisa Bekele, just a few minutes away.  The running options in the vicinity are very good, with a mixture of forests and open grassland, and the occasional incline to negotiate.

The accommodation block at Yaya Village

The best bit is that Elaine, an old friend of mine from university, and her boyfriend, Pat, also happen to be, purely by coincidence, staying at Yaya Village at the moment.  Together we’ve been exploring the sites of Addis, availing of the novel entertainment options on offer, and reminiscing about old times.

Our best outing to date was probably the one that cost the least.  For about €3, the three of us managed to punch in a very enjoyable Saturday afternoon in Sululta, not previously known as an entertainment hot spot.  We enjoyed tea, coffee, and popcorn, which forms part of the Ethiopian traditional coffee drinking ceremony, in a local restaurant, before heading across the road to a cafe that was showing the Chelsea v Arsenal game.  There, for less than 10p each, we got to take our place on a wooden stool in a room of spectators fixated on the final 30 minutes of the action.  Football spectating in Ethiopia is very different from the alcohol-fuelled chaos of the UK and Ireland.  All goal attempts were applauded though it was evident that most of the audience were Arsenal supports, the referee wasn’t booed once (though it must be said that we weren’t there for the sending off, and case of mistaken identity), and the fans seemed genuinely interested in the football and were obvious supporters of the game.  Finally, inspired by the action, we purchased a football from a small stand up the road, and tried it out when we got back to the camp.

One of the main items on my agenda during this visit to Ethiopia was to make the trip to Bekoji.  The small town, located some hours south east of Addis, has produced an array of Olympic champions, world record holders and world-class distance runners, including Tirunesh, Ejigayehu and Genzebe Debaba and Kenenisa and Tariky Bekele.  It is essentially Ethiopia’s answer to Iten, and after seeing the Town of Runners, a feature-length documentary on the area, I wanted to see why the place was so special.  On Tuesday, we finally made the trip.

Any journey on African roads is hectic, but this one was particularly noteworthy.  The six-hour trip was alternatively terrifying and spectacular; simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.  I have long wondered why our local road has no road markings; noting to remind drivers to stay to their own side of the road.  Having seen major roads between Ethiopian cities without these necessary markings, I may scale back my ‘dotted white lines for Irish country roads’ campaign.  A new expressway is due to open along much of this section of road in coming months, which will greatly improve the situation, but in the meantime, drivers must share this dangerous roadway with all manner of animal, continue to pass overloaded HGVs on blind bends, and utilise their obvious nerves of steel.

On Ethiopian roads, the way ahead is not always clear ...
... but when it is, the scenes are both beautiful and interesting.

Though there are obvious disadvantages, riding up front also had is perks, and I feel that I had the best view of the spectacular countryside as we made our way from Addis, through Debre Zeyit and Modjo to Nazreth, and along somewhat quieter roads through Asalla before arriving in Bekoji just before dusk.  There were baboons, goats in the middle of the road, and cows with a complete immunity to traffic and donkeys which appear to work harder than anywhere on earth.  There was a lot of decending and climbing – resulting in just over a 100 m gain in altitude, and scenery which changed multiple times from mountainous to hilly to pancake flat.  The trip may have been long, but it was never boring.

Yesterday morning we got to observe the ‘gymnastics’ session of Bekoji’s main group of athletes, meet with the famous coach Sentayehu Eshelu, and take a short run along the dirt roads, and steep hills of the town.   An impromptu sprint race from the visiting ferengies brought adoring cheers from the spectating locals, but I have a feeling they have little to fear in terms of athletic competition.  After a quick breakfast, there was only one thing left to do – make the trip back to Sululta!

The beautifully coordinated drills for which the Ethiopians are famous

My first 10 days have flown by, but there have been many high points.  A ‘carry-on’ coffee episode made me laugh so hard that I almost cried, Ian’s close call with the Ethiopian police has been the source of endless banter, and I learned that Ethiopians have a novel, but straightforward, way of distinguishing their men from their women.  I have met more world-class athletes than I care to count, got a great new perspective of the country, and had plenty of time to relax and enjoy my time away.  There has, of course, been plenty of training, lots of eating, and a little bit of tanning.  Too soon, it’ll all be over.