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: