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Ethiopia – On the Run

Ethiopia – On the Run

Apr 2017

Words and pics: Nancy Richards

Short on time and out of breath, Nancy Richards does a 3-day dash around Addis.

MAIN PIC: Olympic running royalty Haile Gebreselassie autographs for fans.

Walking stick whirling in the air, an old gentleman in white robe and turban, is gyrating to a pounding beat, nut brown face split in a huge smile. He, and I, are part of the vibrating circle of guests, hands on hips, shimmy shouldering, in a dancing, laughing ritual to honour the happy couple. And right now time stands still in the togetherness of a community hall in dusty downtown Addis Ababa.

But with just a few days in Ethiopia’s capital every moment has to count. The wedding is just a big fat bonus. Because like 42,000 other people I am here to take part in Great Ethiopian Run, all 10 kms of it in the city streets.

IT’S A WRAP – a priest partakes at the nuptial celebrations.


An unexpected privilege, the wedding party was also a multi-layered cultural feast. Holy men chanting prayers emphasising the omnipresence of religion, little girls in frills and matriarchs in gossamer white shemma cloth dresses and shawls, peacock young men with sharp shiny shoes and a bridal retinue in canary yellow. The DJ’s music – a high-decibel rhythmic blend of traditional-pop - played on even when the lighting failed (Ethiopians take load shedding in their stride) and generator powered hand - held spotlights kick in.

PL’ATTITUDE – each participant has their own running style.

Fuelling the frenzied dancing is an epicurean spread – scrolls of injera, giant sour flatbread which unrolled become the base for everything else – the curds, raw meat balls, minced spinach, berbere spices, wat (curry), spit roast lamb and a patchwork of chopped salads, all eaten by hand. But finally, feted and photographed into the ground, it was time to head off to another gourmet event – a pre-run pasta party at the Hilton Hotel – where for the benefit of the ‘internationals’ taking part, the fare was familiar European.

EAT LOVE PRAY  – wedding guests take their turn at the buffet. 


A state of emergency declared earlier meant that the number of internationals in Addis for the Run this year was down to a couple of hundred – but the spirit to sprint was none diminished. Running and Ethiopia are synonymous. The altitude, landscape, sinuous physicality, tenacity and role models make it the number one sport – and one that’s impacted enormously on the economy. Legendary Olympic champion Hailie Gebreselassie who founded the Great Ethiopian Run in 2001, has poured his winning purses back into the country building up hotels, a car business and a world class athletics village.

SALES PITCH – a vendor at the shiro meda clothing market.

A 10km bus ride out of town up into the mountains took us to his Yaya Village for more feasting and dancing. A great venue for conferences and weddings, it’s designed as a place to stay, train, be coached and generally get your fitness levels up to speed. But you don’t have to go that far, taking a turn in Meskel Square in the city centre – I came across the famed tiered amphitheatre track. Run back and forth along the full distance and it adds up to a marathon! But best about the very manageable Great Ethiopian Run is that you get to trot with Ethiopians of all paces and persuasions – past coffee stalls, goat markets, bars, butcher shops and an astonishing assortment of unfinished buildings. Coupled with the altitude, the visuals had me stopping at every turn.

MOVEABLE FEAST – wheelbarrows do the job of window display.


Given the antiquity – not to mention ‘singularity’ of Ethiopia to quote Alex Perry, author of The Rift, ‘claimed to be the birthplace of mankind, one of humanity’s oldest civilisations, never colonised and with its own alphabet, religion, calendar and clock - the day starts at 1 with midday at 6’, getting some back story on it all is a must. Religion can be heard in the ritual chants echoing from the mosques and orthodox churches morning and night – but to witness the piety of the people receiving blessings in the church yards is to be reminded of real reverence.

MANY BLESSINGS – the devout of all ages come regularly to church.

A whistlestop of historical imperatives included amongst others, the skeletal remains of 3.2 million year old Lucy in her glass case at the National Museum; the palatial living, worshipping and final resting places of Emperor Heile Selassie (aka Ras Tafari, after whom the Rastafarian movement was named), the dancing statue of Bob Marley and the iconic paintings and ancient manuscripts at the Addis Ababa museum. Though not all Ethiopian history is glorious as I discovered at The Red Terror martyrs museum, a chilling display in memory of all those who lost their lives under the Derg regime.

RUNNING ON EMPTY – cool drink and coffee stops are mini oases along the route.

Whisking me through the car and vegetable cart traffic to all these destinations was Danny the Driver Fisaha. With running commentary and the patience of Job, he even negotiated the narrow streets and wily vendors of shiro meda – a market mecca market of cultural clothing for last minute gift shopping. From the limitless choice I invested in some sheema cotton netela (scarves) and a couple of tiny silver crosses. Sadly no room for the tempting terra cotta coffee pots – but time notwithstanding, it was a good run for my money.

GET YOUR GOAT – roadside live stock marketing.


Started in 2001 and billed as the Biggest Road Race in Africa, the next Great Ethiopian Race is scheduled for Nov 26 2017. There is also the Women First 5km, March 5 and Hawassa half marathon, April 23.


Accommodation in Addis varies from humble government hotels to top of the range 5 star. A good option for fitness fanatics is Yaya. 

COFFEE BREAK – traditional coffee ceremony served at Yaya Village.

Nightjar Travel