mike runs away from home

A little boy becomes a little man.

Month: April, 2012

The radio stati…

The radio station to which the majority of the city’s minibuses are tuned has started to remind everyone of Ethiopia’s expectations at least several times per hour. I hope Keninisa Bekele isn’t listening, or he’ll be a nervous wreck weeks before the Olympic 10,000m starts. Every fifteen minutes or so, the commentary from the 10,000m final in Beijing is played, with the announcer describing Bekele kicking away from Zersennay Tadesse of Eritrea with excitement in his voice but also with a clear sense that it was the inevitable outcome of the contest. In spite of two years of injury problems, Ethiopians can still only foresee one outcome for the London games. I haven’t even heard Mo Farah’s name mentioned.

I went to watch the London marathon in a hotel in town (until a power-cut at twenty three miles), and as everywhere else was showing football, the bar was full of athletes. Among them was Imane Merga, along with several other Ethiopian Olympic hopefuls and the Israeli Olympic marathon team (all of Ethiopian origin following a big emigration of Ethiopian Jews in the ‘90s). You would have thought that this group would have understood how difficult it is to perform on such a level, but the expectations they held for the Ethiopian athletes were just as high as those of the general public. Even before the power-cut, most of them had lost interest at the point when Feyisa Lilesa was dropped, in spite of the fact he had been running at 2.04 pace whilst desperately trying to hang on to Wilson Kipsang. ‘Lilesa has stopped,’ Gudisa told me, which meant that he’d slowed down to around 2.07 pace and would still finish in the top ten.

To put this into perspective, Lilesa finished over a mile in front of the first British man, but still won’t stand a chance of getting into the Ethiopian Olympic team. I was asked this morning at training who was going to be running for Britain, and had to admit that we have only one athlete with the Olympic ‘A’ standard whilst Kenya have over three-hundred (and counting). No disrespect to Dave Webb (he’s run a faster marathon than I have), but Britain’s marathon squad must be the only one that contains a woman (Paula Radcliffe) with a faster time than one of the male team members.

Attempts to explain the ever-declining standard of men’s distance running have been made for years now, but I think the basic reason is a shift in the culture of running in Britain. If you widen the base of a pyramid, its peak is supposed to get higher – so the huge increase in mass-participation running should, theoretically, improve the performance of the more serious runners. I don’t know how people jogging round marathons in four hour is really going to help anyone to run fast though, and it has skewed the perception of what represents a fast time in Britain. I ran a 10km tempo run this morning in thirty-three minutes, which I was quite pleased with given the altitude, and Gudisa just wrinkled his brow and said ‘it’s still a woman’s time, though.’ This attitude is clearly pretty helpful when it comes to trying to improve – and is probably far closer to that held by the runners in the heyday of British distance running to the attitude prevailing now. Altitude and genetics make a difference, of course. But having a large group of people training incredibly hard is probably more important.

The financial incentive to run well is clearly massive here, too. Most club runners aren’t paid much (as I’ve mentioned before the basic salary is about £37 per month), but running is their job. One of the runners in our group, Indale, recently won around £1,000 for 9th at the Rome marathon, which represents roughly two years of his salary. Obviously if the rewards were quite that high in the UK it would have some effect on performance, although the likes of Brendan Foster, Charlie Spedding and Steve Jones managed to achieve what they did whilst working ‘proper’ jobs, so it can’t be overly decisive.

The pressure that most of the athletes here are under explains why our coach, Mersha, seems almost personally affronted if I fail to run the times he wants me to in training. He keeps telling me that the reason I can’t run faster here is psychological rather than the simple physiological concern of a lack of oxygen. He introduced me to the National Team coach, who asked me if I was going to try to run the Olympic qualifying time for 10,000m, and then seemed offended when I laughed at the idea. He said I just needed to spend a bit more time in Ethiopia. This attitude (whilst I’m obviously fairly unlikely to run three minutes faster for 10km when I get back to the UK) can’t hurt for athletes here either. Mersha’s favourite phrase is ‘dramatic transformation.’ It’s pretty difficult to judge progress here given the altitude, but we’ll find out if his plan has worked in the British 10km championships in London on the 27th of May.

Training has gone pretty well this week, with the 10km tempo run faster than anything I’ve done so far. I also had a decent track session on Thursday morning, in spite of the fact that I had to train at 6am before the National team started and had ended up drinking with a group of Rastafarians I’ve met until pretty late the night before. They’re all of Jamaican origin but have moved here to relax, play music and ‘just live.’ I can’t think of many places in the world better for doing this (or many where you could afford to!) Between them and the fact that beers cost 30p here, I always end up having quite a lot to drink at the bar round the corner from the flat. The best beer is called ‘meta’ (it’s really conscious of itself as a beer), and the barman tends to bring you a fresh one whenever you’ve nearly run out. He rushes round the tables in a long white coat, like a doctor prescribing drinks, and reminding people to ‘techawot,’ a word that lacks an English equivalent but basically means something along the lines of ‘play’ or ‘drink and relax.’ It’s also used whenever there’s a silence in conversations, when it becomes the equivalent of the English ‘this is awkward, say something.’ I’ve been put on the spot like this quite a few times since I’ve been here in spite of the fact that my Amharic is generally insufficient to come up with a particularly interesting response.

The last couple of week’s training:

Sunday April 15th 12 miles, hard as Ambo is incredibly hilly.

Monday April 16th AM – 5 miles steady. PM – 8 x 2 minutes on grass.

Tuesday April 17th AM – 9 miles, again very hard with the hills. PM – Easy 5 miles back in Addis.

Wednesday April 18th AM – 7 miles easy. PM – 5 miles easy. Very muddy.

Thursday April 19th AM – 4 miles easy. PM 2 sets of 5 x 300m with one minute recovery and a lap jog between sets.

Friday April 20th AM – 8 miles easy. Tired. PM – 5 miles steady. Felt good.

Saturday April 21st AM – 10km tempo run, uphill and into the wind. Tough. PM – 4.5 miles easy.

Total – 89 miles.

Sunday April 22nd 12 miles easy. Tired today.

Monday April 23rd AM – 4,800m on track, 3 min rest, 2,800m. A strange session, but a good one. PM – 5 miles on treadmill.

Tuesday April 24th AM – 4 miles easy. PM – 6 miles on treadmill.

Wednesday April 25th 4 miles easy.

Thursday April 26th AM -1km, 600m, 1km, 600m, 1km, 600m on track with 200m jog recovery. PM – 5 miles easy.

Friday April 27th AM – 8 miles easy. PM – 5 miles easy. Felt good

Saturday April 28th 10km tempo run. Best run so far.

Total – 73.5 miles.

I’ve had a few requests for a photo of the the freshly streamlined me, so:




Easter in Ethiopia

After a few days back in Addis, Gudisa and I decided to make the most of the Easter holiday and go to visit his family, who live in the countryside near Ambo. Easter comes a week later here than everywhere else – another quirk of the Ethiopian calendar – and it’s not just Easter that is slow to arrive. It took us nearly seven hours to travel a hundred or so kilometres. As Gudisa puts it, only the runners go quickly here. The bus only goes so far down the dirt road towards the rural area in which his parents live, so we had a three-hour walk into a valley and out the other side to negotiate before we arrived at his house just before sunset.


On the walk to Gudisa’s house.


A break for ‘talla’, a kind of beer made from Barley.

Gudisa had warned me that ‘the problem thing in Ambo is the hilly,’ which I had dismissed because I thought that the 300-metre drop in altitude would cancel out the difficulty. It didn’t. You really can’t run anywhere from his house without encountering lung sapping, imperceptibly steep hills, so most of the running we did was fairly slow. We managed to cover a fair few miles though, fuelled by the near constant eating that comes with Easter celebrations here.

I paid six hundred birr (about 24 pounds) for a sheep for the festivities – people here eat no meat or dairy products for two months before Easter – and disappointed everyone with my reluctance to kill it myself. I did observe the sheep being slaughtered in the ‘traditional’ way, though. I think if you eat meat you should at least be willing to observe the animal’s demise, and all of Gudisa’s younger siblings seemed fascinated by the process so I felt like I should be involved. We ate mutton and injera for nine consecutive meals, usually with several neighbours, most of Gudisa’s nine siblings and a selection of their children, all crowded into the one-room house in which we also all slept.

There is no electricity in the area, and apart from a mobile phone the only piece of modern equipment Gudisa’s parents owned was – inexplicably – a battery-powered loudspeaker and amplifier. They used this to amplify music from the phone and as an ingenious baby-silencing device. It turns out that if you hold a loudspeaker in front of a crying baby it is so bewildered by the sound that it stops crying immediately.

Ambo is in the Oromia region, which meant that even my limited Amharic was of little use to me. This meant that I spent a lot of the time as the centre of attention, but unable to communicate with anyone. I was, apparently, the only farenji (the word is derived from either “French” or “foreigner”) to have visited the area since an Italian soldier briefly stopped by to father Gudisa’s great-great-grandfather. Gudisa’s father’s only English phrase was “drink water!” which he encouraged me to do with great frequency. The “water” was actually areke, a local spirit that tastes a bit like eau de vie and is drunk from breakfast time onwards during festivals. We spent a lot of time visiting neighbours, who plied us alternately with coffee or areke to ensure that everyone was sufficiently caffeinated / inebriated at all times.


‘Water.’ It’s not water.

On the last day, Gudisa and I managed to run the 18km from the house to the village from which the bus went back to Addis in time to claim places on the bus home – I was a little concerned as we were told that after 7am all the seats would probably be gone. This adds extra pressure to trying to run up an enormous hill, but proved a good incentive. Having arrived just after seven we secured our seats and sat drinking coffee until the bus decided it was time to actually leave. There are two rushes for buses here. The first is often by people sent by friends or relatives to secure places on the bus for them, and the second is by those coming to actually claim the seats. As there is no specified departure time, this is all pretty confusing, and I was glad to have Gudisa with me!

In all, we’d managed to get a good three days of training done at the same time as visiting one of the remotest places I’ve ever been, and I feel privileged to have experienced a truly Ethiopian Easter celebration.


Gudisa’s father and two of the neighbours

I realise I’m a bit behind with posting training, so the last two weeks are below. We’ve made friends with Binyem, who is in charge of access to the track in the National Stadium, which is good news for the next 5 weeks training. He is letting me train after the national squad, which means I turn up to watch them train and then do my session with some of the best runners in the world watching while they stretch on the infield. I shouldn’t think they’re hugely impressed. Watching Mohammed Aman fly through 22-second 200m repeats before you train has a way of getting you fired up to run, though. Unfortunately I won’t be seeing Bekele training there – he puts his recurring problem with calf injuries down to the track’s firm surface, and is spending $400,000 dollars on building himself a softer one 20km outside Addis.

Sunday 1st – 12 miles easy. I still seem to have a slight cold.

Monday 2nd – 8 miles easy.

Tuesday 3rd  – AM 4 miles steady. PM – 2 mile warm up, 2 sets of 7 x 400m with 1 minute recovery and 5 mins between sets in 71 seconds in the National Stadium.

Wednesday 4th  – AM 8 miles. Hard due to the mud that has accumulated since the belg rains started. PM – 4 miles on the road.

Thursday 5th  – AM 7.5 miles fartlek on a dirt road. PM 4.5 miles easy.

Friday 6th  – 8 miles steady.

Saturday 7th – AM 2.5 mile warm up, 40 minutes ‘tempo’ on grass. Not too fast – in Bekoji at 3,000m above sea level! PM – 4 miles easy.

Total – 77 miles

Sunday 8th AM – 2.5 miles warm up, 400, 800, 400, 800, 400 with 1 minute recovery, 3 minutes rest, 400, 600, 400, 600, 400 with 1 minute recovery, 3 minutes rest, 4 x 200m with 1 minute recovery on the track in Bekoji. PM – 4.5 miles easy.

Monday 9th  – AM 8 miles, easy pace but still hard due to the altitude. PM – 5 miles easy.

Tuesday 10th  – 2.5 mile warm up, 10 reps of a hill that took about 1 minute 50 to get up, 1.5 mile warm down.

Wednesday 11th  – AM 8 miles easy. Felt ok considering yesterday. PM – 5 miles steady.

Thursday 12th  – 12 miles hard with group.

Friday 13th  – AM 2 mile warm up, 2 sets of 4 x 1km with 1 minute recovery and 5 minutes between sets in 3.06 average. PM 4 miles easy.

Saturday 14th  – DNR. First rest day of the trip.

Total – 72 miles

Bekoji’s coaching guru: Training with the man behind the world’s greatest distance runners.

I spent 5 days last week in Bekoji, a small town about 200km from Addis at 3,000m above sea level. The journey – Gudisa said it would be ‘about three hours’ – took seven hours, so by the time we arrived it was too late to get any training done, and we arranged to meet coach Sentayu the following morning.

At quarter to seven he came to meet us, and we ambled along his familiar route to the track, our progress frequently halted as ‘coach’ greeted everyone we passed. Bekoji is not much bigger than a village, and over the course of a thirty-year coaching career there aren’t many families who haven’t contributed at least one young athlete to Sentayu’s vast training group.



In the course of the short walk to the stadium we pass the houses in which both Deratu Tulu and Keninisa Bekele grew up. Bekoji’s few thousand inhabitants have a tally of eight Olympic golds and counting.

I’ve been training in Addis Ababa for over a month now at 2,400m, so I’ve acclimatised pretty thoroughly to the altitude. The air in Bekoji, though, is noticeably thinner, and on the walk uphill to the stadium I was emitting conspicuously large amounts of water vapour in the cold morning air.

At the stadium we were greeted with the sight of 200 young runners sitting on the grass banks waiting to hear Sentayu’s words of wisdom. After a short pep talk we warmed up for twenty minutes – quite a disorientating process, with phalanxes of runners darting around the infield in various directions – and then got started with the track session for the day. Everyone was doing different things, and I was told to alternate 800 and 400 metre repetitions. Jim Ryun used to describe the wait for the sudden feeling of fatigue that hits you when you’re running intervals as being like waiting for a bear to jump on your back. Running in Bekoji you don’t have to wait too long to feel this way. Another runner joined me mid way through the session, and much to my surprise he was struggling to keep up by the end, which definitely helped to keep me going. Unfortunately for my ego, when I asked Sentayu about him, his response was ‘his name is Rata. He hasn’t got much power… or energy.’ I suppose by association he was implying that I didn’t either!


The Group.


Rata, my training buddy on the track.

For anyone looking for training secrets from a man who has probably coached more Olympic champion distance runners than any other, I’m afraid to say training in Bekoji was very simple. Apart from the track session and a session of 15 (!) reps of a 500m long hill, we did a lot of slow running across farmland. The fact that you can do vast amounts of aerobic running on a soft surface in a beautiful place can’t hurt, but I think it’s mainly due to the altitude that the runners here are so good.

The advice that I was given by Sentayu was to relax my arms and shoulders, as he said this is vital to allow the lungs to do their work. He demonstrated several deep breaths in and out. ‘Oyxgen, carbon dioxide, oxygen, carbon dioxide!’ A simple mantra. Mine was more like ‘Oxygen! Oxygen! Oxygen!’

When I ask his opinions on the most important forms of training for 10km runners his response is succinct: ‘Short hills – for strength here (he grabs his hamstring). Long runs, for endurance (more deep breaths to indicate aerobic training). And speed.’ To emphasise his final point he banged his fist on the table, the cadence and volume increasing until he has the attention of all the other customers in the café where we had breakfast after training.

Back in Addis this morning I did the best job I’ve done so far of keeping up on a 12 mile ‘hard’ run with the group, so hopefully his short period of tutelage has helped to an extent.

I leave you with a random photo of the Bekoji market place and the news that, as most of the feedback on last week’s blog revolved around my hair being too long, I’m off to get my head shaved and go from one extreme to the other…


Why West Brom?

I thought I’d start this week with a question that’s been bugging me since last weekend. I’ve been able to watch most of Newcastle’s games since I arrived here, in a kind of corrugated iron barn attached to a bar near where we live. They seem to have access to all sorts of channels, and usually find the Premiership games on one of the Arabic sports channels. Access to the barn costs two birr (about eight pence), and so far I haven’t seen anyone buy a drink. People seem to arrive for the first game of the day and stay for the whole afternoon. What struck me last week was the fact that most of the people in the barn were passionate West Brom fans, and seemed pretty knowledgeable about the club and players. Why would anyone lacking a geographical connection to West Bromwich decide to support them? Obviously I’d have found it easier to understand if I’d been in a room full of adopted Geordies, but of course with Newcastle’s current blend of French-Senegalese flair, who could blame people for supporting them?

This week I was finally granted access to the National Stadium, to train on the only all-weather track in Ethiopia. Scottish Athletics provided me with a letter of recommendation, which I’ve been taking to the Ethiopian Athletics federation every couple of days for the past three weeks, in the hope that the only man who actually has the authority to do anything would be there. The Chief Executive is also a House Representative in the government and, apparently, has fingers in numerous business pies too. In spite of the fact that there are around twenty other members of staff, their main function seems to be to check facebook accounts and watch twenty-four hour news, and there was no way anyone else was going to be able to do so much as stamp a letter without the chief’s permission. The advantage of spending so much time in the Federation is that I met Mohammed Aman (world indoor 800m champion), and Gebre Gebremariam, who seems to be a bit of a player. He was distracted when Richard and I asked him to sign some vests by two girls from the National team, who he kept pushing together, saying ‘inshallah.’ Perhaps he was expressing his hope that they’d both end up on a podium together in the Olympics, but I’m not sure.


RAB are currently trying to get a visa so that Edau (above, left) can run the Balmoral 10km. Given that he can run 29 minutes for 10km in training at 2,400m, he shouldn’t have too many problems winning the race. Getting permission to travel to the UK is usually far more difficult, however.

The Climate Change Forum are also facing a few problems with bureaucracy, as the government has just passed new laws regarding the financing of NGOs, which reclassify a lot of expenses as ‘administration costs’ which used to be ‘programme costs.’ As NGOs are obliged have a ratio of 70:30 of programme and admin costs this obviously causes a few issues, and apparently DFID are being forced to hire lawyers to protect the projects that they have under way at the moment. The preparations for Earth Day in Ethiopia have been seriously affected by the new rules, and so have plans to carry out small-scale community projects in May (which are somehow now ‘administration costs’ too). The tightening of regulations on NGOs goes back to the elections in 2001, when numerous civil society organisations accused the government (which is still in power now) of vote rigging. With another election coming next year, the government has banned any organisation that receives more than 10% of its funding from abroad from undertaking any activities in human rights, gender equality, children’s rights and a host of other issues.

On a lighter note, here’s are some photos. The first is a picture of my next door neighbour, Eyo. He doesn’t care for trousers.


This is where we trained on Saturday. It looks like Edau is doing some kind of dance, but it could be one of the many elaborate Ethiopian stretches.


Indale, who ran 2.14 for 9th place in the Rome marathon last week, and looks as tired as the old man standing behind him…


A very Ethiopian house:


Last but not least, for the running geeks, here’s last week’s training:

Sunday 25th – AM 12 miles steady.

Monday 26th – AM 8 miles steady. PM – 4 miles steady

Tuesday 27th – AM 3 x 3km on dirt road (5 mins recovery). PM – 4 miles easy

Wednesday 28th – AM 7 miles easy. Slight cold at the moment. PM – 4 miles easy.

Thursday 29th – AM 4 miles easy. PM – 4 miles steady (tried to go to the track at the National Stadium, but there was a football match on)

Friday 30th – AM 8 miles steady. PM – 4 miles easy.

Saturday 31st – AM 12km tempo run at 2,700m in 41.01. Pretty tough. PM – 4 miles easy.

Total – 82.5 miles.