Buna & Bread: An Ethiopian Adventure

Chapter 14: The Great Ethiopian Run

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia…

After ten days and close to 1,500 miles of Ethiopian roads, it would have been nice to sleep in after our late arrival back in Addis.

But no!

Jim and I had to wake up at 7:30am, so we could take part in the Great Ethiopian Run. The Great Ethiopian Run is an annual 10K race through the capital that celebrates this country’s obsession with running. Running is the national sport. Even more than soccer. Even more than ping pong and foosball (despite seeing homemade tables in every village we had passed on our trip).

And judging from the fact that Mexico Square was filled end-to-end with people in their green race shirts, it looked like all of Addis had turned out.

Circles of people formed, dancing, singing and blowing on trumpets to warm up. Friends found each other in the crowd hugging and smiling. Various charities held banners high above their groups, waving flags and chanting slogans. It was like we had wandered into a giant party after the keg had been fried.

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On the terraced hill above the square, some “real” runners were doing sprints back and forth to loosen up. They strode like gazelles. Tall, thin and fluid in every movement. Their strides gobbled up meters effortlessly. These are the guys I hear on the radio giving post-race interviews when I’m at the halfway point of a marathon.

Worldwide long-distance running god and fellow Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie was on hand to give a short speech and officially start the race. This dude has broken 24 world records, has numerous Olympic medals and world championships. Including the 2006 PF Chang’s Rock & Roll Arizona Marathon. A career highlight I’m sure. He says he got so good because, as a child, he would run 10 km to and from school. If you’ve ever seen him run, you can see he still holds his left arm slightly crooked like he’s holding his books.

They let the elite runner’s go first. Followed by the wheelchair racers. Then there was massive confusion over when the race started for the rest of us. Crowds would surge forward, cheering and hollering. And then stop suddenly. We’d mill about for awhile and then another surge would begin and be aborted. It got underway soon enough and 30,000 official entrants (and thousands of non-registered ones) began moving. We were packed so close together you were bouncing up and down more than moving forward. Which seemed appropriate, given the musical chanting that the crowd took up, but it was more like The Great Ethiopian Meander at this point.

Check out the scene immediately after we crossed the start:

[Yeah, bet you’d like to see it. Me too. Clip coming soon.]

We couldn’t even break into a trot until the 3km mark when the crowd loosened up a bit. There were still logjams of humanity we had dash around from time to time. These usually occurred near government buildings where people would stop to chant “V! V! V!” to stoic blue-uniformed national policemen pacing the Palace walls with automatic weapons. We thought they were big ‘V for Vendetta’ fans, but Melissa told us later they were supporting the opposition party to the current president.

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People flocked around the numerous TV cameras too. The race was being broadcast live by Ethiopian TV, but crews from BBC Sport and ESPN were also on hand (“Next up on The Ocho…”). I would love it if my family back home was watching the Vikings and see a clip from the race during halftime of my grinning pasty mug trotting through the streets of Addis Ababa.

While there were occasional pale-skinned ex-pats running the race—there was a special trophy for the first foreign ambassador to finish–we were few and far between. I was used to the stares of people seeing a white guy. But a white guy running? I couldn’t count the number of comedic double-takes we got from spectators. Most would cheer and reach out to gently pat your shoulder as you ran by. Little kids would scamper alongside for a few blocks or squeal with glee if you gave their outstretched hands a high-five.

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Live bands would be playing periodically along the route. . The portable sound systems they were using seemed to be taken from the NYC subway intercom system circa 1980. It turned the tunes into a sort of sonic weapon riot police would use to disperse crowds. Instead it actually drew crowds of onlookers right into the middle of the streets where we were running. Jim and I would get lost in a riptide of bodies and eventually weave our way back onto the race course and find each other half a block further on.

We were a sweaty, singing, bouncing, living river of green. It was an amazing way to experience a foreign capital.

Despite the slow start, it seemed like we were back in Mexico Square and crossing the finish line all too soon. My hip hurt a bit (fuckin’ bus), but I was proud to have taken part of such a nationwide celebration. Everyone even got a medal. The ribbon was the black, green and red of the Ethiopian flag and the medal had an image of the Great Stelae in Axum. Hey, I’ve been there.

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Back at Jim and Melissa’s house we cracked open a couple bottles of Arrogant Bastard Ale to celebrate our road trip and the run. These beers were a rare treat. The Embassy allows people a certain tonnage of goods they can order from back home. While there is a decent variety of food in Abbas, there are some culinary holes like salsa, turkey and probably your favorite beer. No offense to St. George, but damn, that tasted good.

Yet there was a bitterness that didn’t have anything to do with the beer. It was the realization that the major events of this trip had finished and I only had a few days left before heading home.

[In Our Next Episode: “Tennis anyone?”]

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