On Wednesday ni…

by mphcrawley

On Wednesday night I went to a screening of ‘The Town of Runners’ with Gudisa and Edau, another runner in our training group who is from Bekoji, where the film is set. The film follows two girls as they try to make it as athletes, as well as giving a profile of coach Sentayu and a great impression of the town itself. The film is narrated by Biruk, who we met whilst we were in Bekoji, from his kiosk on the town’s ‘main’ (only) street. His commentary on life in the town, and on the gradual modernisation it is undergoing at the hands of the Chinese, is fantastic. When a mobile phone mast is built next to his kiosk he looks up at it wryly and says ‘I don’t think it will catch on.’ This was two years ago. Today, pretty much everyone in Ethiopia has a mobile, and I saw Biruk fiddling with his at the film screening on Wednesday.

Coach Sentayu comments at one stage in the film that it is impossible to tell which of the runners will turn out to be the best at a young age. Unfortunately, it seems to have turned out that the two he picked out as the most promising as thirteen year olds – the stars of the film – have struggled since. Like a lot of the young athletes who graduate from the coach’s group to the regional development camps, both were forced to drop out of school to pursue a running career that will only be successful for the exceptional few. The camps, unveiled with great fanfare a couple of years ago, turn out to be hugely disappointing. The girls are sent to opposite sides of the country, and faced with sharing unfurnished rooms with 5 or six other girls and, at times, having to go hungry because of dwindling food budgets. If you add to this the fact that the residents of the towns to which they are sent react with bitterness – one comments that the town could have spent the money on a road instead of an athletics camp – you realise that the romantic vision of young Ethiopians going straight from running to school through sun-streaked fields to Olympic glory is a far cry from the truth.

The other film I’ve seen so far at the festival is a documentary called ‘Salam Rugby’, about young Muslim women trying to play rugby in defiance of Ahmedinjad’s repressive regime in Iran. In spite of all of Seb Coe’s insistences to the contrary, and high-quality facilities all over the country, sports participation is still in sharp decline in Britain. It’s a shame that young people seem to lack the drive that those faced with far greater difficulties have in abundance. Perhaps having the extra obstacles actually acts as a catalyst to success. I thought it was funny that in ‘Town of Runners’, the only non-Amharic voices were Geordie ones – Steve Cram and Brendan Foster commenting on the clips of all the Bekoji-born World and Olympic champions on their way to glory. I’m not about to compare the hardship of living in the North East with growing up in a training camp in rural Ethiopia, but perhaps it had something to do with the work ethic all the great runners that the North East has produced have shown.

I’m trying to get as close to 100 miles for this week as possible – mainly due to the fact that having basically written that the reason for the decline in the standard of British distance running was the lack of hard training I should probably walk the walk (or run the run). As of Friday morning, I can observe that running an average of 14 miles a day is hard work, especially when training takes place at 5.30am three days a week.

I’ve also had to spend a decent portion of this week in Ethiopian Immigration trying to extend my visa. The first day I queued from 9.30 until 11.30 to be told that the only woman that works in the office was going for a two-hour lunch break. At this point I’d had enough. The second day I made it to the front of this first queue to be told to ‘go to number 77’, which sounded like some sort of Kafkaesque side-chamber but turned out to be another queue. Being British, I like queuing. There are plenty of aspects of British culture that I don’t like, but queuing seems to be the fairest way of dealing with situations where everyone thinks their time is more valuable than anyone else’s. Ironically (given my experience of visa offices in India), the only other queue-enthusiast in the office was an Indian guy, who asked me to save his place whilst he stood in front of the woman warding off anyone who tried to walk straight to the front. When I managed to get to the front of the ‘77’ queue, I was told I needed a letter of recommendation from the Climate Change Forum. Four hours well wasted – I’ll be back on Monday. At least as a foreigner I escaped the worst of the bureaucracy – if you’re Ethiopian and want to apply for a passport it involves a four day queue to obtain an appointment for five months time. A thriving portion of the Ethiopian economy seems to be made up of professional queuers operating outside immigration. Perhaps it’s the ideal job for an Englishman.

Apart from my attempt to run 100 miles this week leading to general tiredness, training is going better than at any other point of my trip. I’m no longer aware of being at altitude at all, and I’m able to run more or less the pace I would run at sea level. The other runners in the group are running a half-marathon this week, and as a sign of things getting serious before the race, coach Mersha insisted that we all stop at a farm on the way back from training today to drink fresh-from-the-cow milk. I managed to persuade him that it was probably safer if I didn’t, and Gudisa and I were allowed to take ours home. We boiled it with some ‘wush-wush’ (go-faster) tea and loads of sugar to make a kind of high-energy chai, which Gudisa says the Kenyans drank a lot of when he was there. Hopefully it’ll have the effect Mersha wants it to. He was quite keen on me running the race, but as it’s at 1,800m above sea level and Gudisa says if he runs an hour and four minutes he’ll be outside the top fifty, I think I’ll delay my half marathon debut to the Great North Run in September.

The belg rains, which have turned our forest into a bit of a mud bath, have finally stopped. This is a big boost to injury prevention, both from the point of view of not slipping on the mud, and the fact that I was doing some running on the treadmill when it was raining, and this tends to be when the electricity cuts out most frequently. I don’t know what happens when you’re running on a treadmill that suddenly goes from 15km/ph to zero whilst the lights simultaneously turn off, and I’m hoping I won’t have to find out now!