By, Sara Hall
A good chunk of 2017 I have been back training in Ethiopia, a place that started to become home while frequently visiting our kids in the orphanage during our adoption process and simultaneously preparing for our races in the same high altitude places as some of the world’s best runners. There are many fun, beautiful things about training here, but being back after an extended time away has reminded me how nothing about training here is comfortable. At home I log my miles on the perfect surfaces of the uninterrupted bike paths of my hometown in Redding or the endless even dirt roads of Flagstaff. Everything is very predictable, controlled, set up for the optimal conditions to prepare me for my goal race.
Training in Ethiopia on the other hand is wild and unpredictable. The extremely high altitude and uneven surfaces are just the beginning. Running on the roads for long runs and tempos is never a relaxing experience where you can just focus on your effort and pace. As with most things in Africa, “personal space” is a lot smaller than we are used to in the west, and when it comes to drivers it’s no exception. On top of this, you have to watch out for horse carts, donkeys, stray dogs, meandering villagers, and occasional unruly youth throwing rocks or cracking their whips to scare you. A large percentage of vehicles envelop you in a cloud of black smog (no smog checks here!) so I debate what’s better, holding my breath at 9,000 ft. where air is scarce or breathing it in.
When I was training with a team here going into Tokyo Marathon, I never quite knew what to expect on any given day. It may be an “easy training” day, but the pace would quickly progress to low 6 minute miles on a rutty grass field at 9,000 ft. (which was not easy for anyone). Workout times and distances were often lost in translation, and I knew just one thing- that I better bring my A-game and keep going until the group stopped. I was training with Olympic gold medalist, world record holders, and people that far out-classed me, but I loved the challenge of seeing how long I could keep up.
There are very few foreigners in Ethiopia, so as a white person I am definitely a spectacle, especially in the rural areas. I can’t run anywhere without everyone staring at me unabashedly. Quite often the ensuing comments are encouraging, like “Berchi!” and “Aizersh!” which basically mean, “be strong, good job!”. But almost as often I get someone yelling “CHINA! CHINA! CHINA!!” at me (the few foreigners that are here are usually Chinese, contracted to build roads and other city infrastructure, thus it’s assumed that anyone white is Chinese). I usually ignore this good-naturedly, but sometimes I can’t help but playfully respond “Habesha!” (which means “Ethiopian!”) to hopefully show them how silly it is to yell someone’s nationality at them (all with a smile of course!)
As much as these challenging aspects can wear on me, I also feel that they have made me a stronger runner mentally and physically. A friend once told me as I was heading out to a race “No matter what, keep your peace”. It has really stuck with me and is something that I draw on constantly. No matter what my external circumstances, it is up to me to keep my peace internally. Rest is not just the absence of work, you can be very busy but be at rest and not stressed internally, something I have to remind myself as a mom. No one or nothing can take your peace if you don’t let it.
Similar to training here, races are not perfectly controlled environments with someone running exactly the pace you want to run. They are wild, there are unexpected distractions and things threaten to knock you off your game. In the marathon, you go through good patches and bad patches, and you have to stay calm no matter how you are feeling in the moment. So now when I’m suffering at 9,000 ft. up a hill, trying to keep my pace, and donkeys are cutting me off and people are yelling “CHINA!” at me and a bus wooshes by me from behind, I am practicing keeping my peace. And then when I head off to race, like recently when I ran the ASICS Gold Coast Half Marathon soon after 3 bouts of bacterial/food illness and traveling 23 hours, I chose to keep my peace, and was rewarded with my 2nd fastest half marathon to date.
My pastor once said “The storm you can sleep in is the storm you have authority over” (Bill Johnson), referring to Jesus asleep in the boat while they were sailing through a storm (Matthew 8:23-27). The disciples were freaking out and couldn’t understand how he could be sleeping. But the Prince of Peace knew the end from the beginning, and that he had nothing to fear. With authority he spoke to the storm and said, “peace, be still”. And so can we to whatever storms are in our life when we choose to keep our peace.