Directly after my race at the Mountain to Fountain 15k, I drove the dogs out to their grandparents in Big Bear Lake and met up with Ryan in LA to fly to Ethiopia for a 3 week training stint (4 weeks for Ryan) at Ya Ya Village athlete hotel (for more on YaYa village see my blog from last summer). Conveniently we happened to be on the same flights as a contingent of Ethiopian runners that competed at the LA marathon, including the women’s winner Amane Gobena, which was fun to get to know them and hear a bit more from their coach about good places for marathoners to train around Addis. It was Ryan’s first time in Ethiopia, and I had been just for a week last August during the rainy season and thus wasn’t really able to see the trails. Unlike when I was in Africa last summer in base season, I had a bit less flexibility to just hop in and do whatever they were doing, I needed to be preparing specifically for races coming up. However I was hopeful we would be able to connect up and overlap with runners there often. I live at altitude, so unlike many Americans/Europeans that go to Africa merely for the altitude and do their own thing, the objective for me is to train with them and learn from them, both about running and life in general.
Sure enough, my first day there I ran into Kalkidan Gezahegne, (2010 World Indoor gold medalist in the 1500m at the age of 16). Kalkidan and I remembered each other from Boston Indoor Games in 2011. We were both at the track for a shake out the day before the 3k, and she looked a bit alone and out of her element, so I invited her along for the run. She didn’t speak much English then so it was a bit awkward but I could tell she appreciated it, little do we know that 3 years later we would train together in Ethiopia! Her English is much improved since, and it was really fun to experience Ethiopian running through tagging along with her and chat about the differences between Ethiopian and American running culture.
I would often run afternoon runs with Kalkidan and a few other guys that her husband/coach coaches on the “satellite field”, a large open grass field. The runs would be in a single file line, lead by the fastest guy in the group, an unsponsored 5k guy that by his beat up running gear and mud hut home you would never know is capable of (in my opinion from watching his track work) running sub 13 in the 5k (he will actually be running Doha diamond league as a breakthrough opportunity, excited for him!). The runs would start at 11 min mile pace, but quickly progress down, until we hit about 6:45 pace where we’d stay the final few miles of the 40 min run- no cake walk on rolling terrain at 9,000 ft. (I was thankful these were not in the forest- when Ethiopians run there they zig-zag around in the most nonsensical patterns that is enough to drive us Western runners mad!) Afterwards they would often do “gymnastics” (the classic Ethiopian synchronized drills) while I would do some strides (which they called “fartleks”). They all got a kick out of the fact that I would stop and stand still in between strides, rather than shuffle along (at a near stand-still) as they did.
I also got to tag along a bit with the “Jama group”, Aden Jama’s team including recent 3-time world record holder Genzebe Dibaba, 2 time gold medalist Kaki, the recent 2014 Indoor gold medalist Souleiman, and others, the majority from neighboring Djbouti. Of course I was curious to watch Genzebe train as she is on fire right now, and for her sake and because I want to continue to join them in the future, I won’t divulge too much detail of their program. But needless to say they work hard and they hit the weights hard! I was kind of sad I had to leave to run Cherry Blossom 10 miler because I would have loved to do some more training with them.
As I found last time I was there, even the best Ethiopian runners were quite welcoming to Ryan and I. In Ethiopia in general, one of the things I love about it is despite the fact that foreigners are almost nonexistent, they are very nonchalant about our presence. We once had a bus continue on and take us privately to our destination for free, refusing money, simply because “here in Ethiopia, we respect foreigners”. You will have little kids shout “firenge!” (white person) while running by and sometimes get called “China” (the Chinese have been building roads in Ethiopia, so are likely the first or only experience the locals have had with a firenge and they can’t really tell the difference).
One of the main things I took away form interacting with the Ethiopian runners is their confidence. After finishing a run with Kalkidan one day, she proclaimed that I would win gold medals. I’ll take it! They expect success and talk about it as if it is inevitable. They also didn’t seem to look to their workout times for confidence, which is a good thing, because trying to run intervals on a track at 9,000 feet elevation is no joke. I was hitting times I probably could have run in high school. You just aren’t able to run race pace, so I don’t think they expect to, and just work hard and expect that when they go down, they will have what it takes.
I tried to apply this mentality to my race at Cherry Blossom 10-miler, also the US 10-mile Championships. I really had no idea what I could run, especially after training up there and not getting my normal feedback, but I knew I was strong and decided that I was just going to trust I was fit enough to go with the leaders. I could have made a case for playing it conservative; I was jet-lagged, had just traveled 30 hours 2 days before the race, and at Houston half I had gone out aggressively and spent 10 miles running alone. But I also felt I had unfinished business after underperforming at Houston, so it was a risk I was willing to take.
As expected the race went out hard upfront, yet I felt surprisingly comfortable, and was getting excited knowing we were on American Record pace. I was sitting back a bit because I didn’t want the African runners to see me- I’d learned that sometimes in Africa when a white person goes to the front in a workout, it causes fireworks, so I tried to stay out of view. Somewhere after the first few miles though we went around a roundabout and the pack didn’t take the tangent very well, and I couldn’t help but hug the turn. That was a mistake- I was spotted and a hard surge was thrown in, just as I thought might happen, though it took me by surprise.
I was able to work my way back to the pack where I stayed until another hard surge was thrown around the halfway point. In hindsight, I wish I had done more to cover this move, but I ran a 5:03 that mile, so maybe it wouldn’t have been
possible. This type of racing was definitely a new experience (afterwards Janet said it is common for Mamitu to run this way, good to know for next time!). I ended up spending the next 5 or so miles trying to catch back up, and slowly slipping further back, though not fading as badly as I did in Houston. It was enough to still run under the old American Record pace, though I watched as my Team Run Flagstaff Pro teammate Janet set a new one ahead of me. Though I didn’t get the record, it is the first time I have run under one, and it was a neat moment!
Unlike Kenyan runners, where English is largely spoken thanks to British influence, I’ve found Ethiopian runners are less likely to speak English as proficiently. Since Ethiopia was never colonized, they maintained their original historic language and alphabet, and they are always surprised but delighted when a foreigner makes attempts to converse in it. Ryan and I have started learning it in our free time, so it was fun to surprise the Ethiopian runners at Cherry Blossom with my new skills. As I rode the bus back with winner Mamitu Daska, chatting about my time in Ethiopia and the strong Ethiopian presence in DC, it was a neat moment of realizing the power of running to unite cultures. Looking forward to learning some more and practicing at Boston Marathon in a few weeks!