IF YOU are an Irish distance runner, no matter how casual, certain names shadow your progress as you pound out the training miles week after week: Sonia O’Sullivan, Catherina McKiernan, Eamonn Coghlan, John Treacy.
Ireland may not produce the numbers to rival the great running traditions of Ethiopia and Kenya, but we have been punching above our weight in the middle and long distances since Ronnie Delaney won 1500-metre Olympic gold in 1956.
In November, as I struggled to finish the Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa, my lungs burning, my legs heavy, I tried to find inspiration from the fact that ahead of me, far ahead, was John Treacy, still running in his 50s, and at the finish line, waiting to greet me (and thousands of other runners), the race’s sponsor and perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time, Haile Gebrselassie.
The Great Ethiopian Run is Africa’s biggest racing event. Waiting to begin the 10K run is an experience like no other. As far as the eye can see, runners clad in the same yellow T-shirts jig in place, laughing, chanting, singing. The race begins and the huge mass surges forward, 35,000 strong this year, keeping up the revelry as the runners glide along the route. Along the way, locals cheer you on and live bands urge you forward with sinuous rhythms. It is a tremendous event, full of positive energy and great spirit.
But it’s hard to appreciate the atmosphere when you’re running at 2,300 metres. Almost all race participants are African – few serious foreign runners dare challenge the Ethiopians on their own turf. Addis Ababa’s altitude turns a small hill into a mountain and a short sprint into an ordeal. It’s like running with weights on your ankles. Yet as I struggled along, Ethiopians passed me out with ease, not huffing and puffing but singing and blowing horns and responding enthusiastically to the streetside support.
The Irish were well represented. Over 100 runners from the organisations Orbis, Vita and Concern participated in the race. I was part of the Concern team, which was led by John Treacy. The race was the culmination of six months of fund-raising, but it was just part of the trip, which also included visits to a number of Concern’s programmes, including an urban primary school and a centre for the support of women and children with HIV.
One of the general goals of the event’s organisers is the eradication of absolute poverty in the country within the next decade. As important, however, is the race’s celebration of Ethiopia’s achievements in distance running and its focus on the country as a vibrant, modern African nation with huge strengths and potential.
Most Westerners, when I tell them that I have been to Ethiopia, immediately associate the country with famine. Hunger and poverty remain a challenge, and organisations like Concern are dedicated to minimising their spread, but lost in the media storm around development are the country’s great physical beauty, its long history of fierce independence and resistance to colonialism, its rich traditions of music and dance, its ancient religious forms, and its contemporary mix of different peoples (85 languages are currently spoken there).
I first travelled to Addis last March to attend the Ethiopian Music Festival (like the Great Ethiopian Run, now in its tenth year). I learned how important music is to the people, and how deeply they respect their native traditions, which reach back into pre-history without interruption. I experienced for the first time the sublime ecstasy of the country’s music and dance, the city’s urban pace and village rhythms.
Ethiopians do not take the gift of their culture for granted. It is less than two decades since the fall of the Mengistu regime which, from 1974 to 1991, used curfews, intimidation and censorship to reduce music, dance and other cultural life to the dismal role of revolutionary propaganda. Now live music and dance, like running, are again part of the country’s lifeblood.
But it was the people who made me decide to return. As Dervla Murphy wrote more than 40 years ago in her book In Ethiopia with a Mule, the people are the richest reward of a visit there. Two days after the race, my daughter and I rented a van and drove 70 kilometres north of Addis, along dirt roads to the remote hills near the Muger Gorge. The countryside was beautiful and the wildlife diverse and fascinating, but most striking were the children who clustered around us at each village we stopped along the way.
It was midday, and they were on their way home for lunch. Their school uniforms were purple and orange and yellow, and as we drove away they loped easily alongside the accelerating van, clutching schoolbooks, smiling and shouting, running faster and faster without effort, as if born to it.