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New Book Explores and Explains Ethiopian Distance Running Success

The author of Out of Thin Air lived and trained with Ethiopian distance runners for 15 months and gives us an insider look at their lifestyle and culture.

In 2015, Scottish anthropologist and 66-minute half marathon runner Michael Crawley flew to Ethiopia for 15 months of “deep hanging out.” That’s a catchy phrase ethnographers sometimes use to describe their work, i.e, getting to know a culture and its environment. It aptly captures Crawley’s method. He didn’t “study” Ethiopian runners through a microscope; he lived and ran with them.

The result, in Crawley’s engaging new book, Out of Thin Air, is an intimate and at times lyrical view of Ethiopian running, from Abebe Bikila to the current crop of crazy fast marathoners. Crawley penetrates the very ebb and flow of daily running in Addis Ababa. He gets up for a 2 a.m. mountain run; he’s always on a team bus to some new workout location; he enters the national cross-country championship and manages not to get lapped — though he finishes in last place just a year after taking 7th in the Scottish championships.

When he arrives in Ethiopian, Crawley seems to do everything wrong. On his first run with local athletes, he realizes he won’t be able to keep up. But since they are zigzagging across a broad mountainside, he breaks off solo to cut a more direct path straight upward, where he can reconnect. The second time he tries this stunt, someone grabs his wrist and yanks him back into the line of runners, declaring, “We run together.”

Later the explanation continues: “Training alone is just for health. To be changed, you must run with others. You need to adapt to their pace.” This insistence on group training develops into the book’s strongest theme.

Running in Ethiopian eucalyptus forest
Author Michael Crawley runs on zigzagging paths in the eucalyptus forest. Photo: Michael Crawley

Un-scattered Focus

After his workouts, Crawley, the academic, has a lot to do. He writes up lengthy notes while the moments are still fresh in his head. He arranges interviews with important coaches and runners. He reads books in his field. He travels across the city to meet with a language teacher so he can learn Amharic.

The runners in his training group frown on this scattered life. To them, it indicates that Crawley lacks gobez. We might translate this as “focus,” but Ethiopians consider it the clever or smart management of total training commitment. Without proper gobez, a runner can not achieve adaptation or change — the very foundations of successful running in the Ethiopian view.

One day, Crawley learns that Abebe Bikila was not the first and fastest Ethiopian runner in 1960. That honor belonged to Wami Biratu, a name unknown to the outside world. Biratu is still alive at 92, so Crawley visits as soon as he can.

He finds that Biratu is over-6-feet tall, powerfully built, and still running in the annual Great Ethiopian Run. He’s mostly deaf, but eager to talk. He even manages to produce a mid-race photo of himself with a comfortable lead over Bikila.

Biratu says he has been running for 64 years, and never once dropped out of a run or race. His response to Crawley’s first question lasts 40 minutes. His advice for modern day runners: “Tell them to drink water. Water gives you power. If you mix it with other things, you lose power.”

Portrait of a Culture

Many books have been written about running in Kenya, a former British colony where schools teach English. Few have been written about Ethiopia, where English is far less common. We tend to conflate the two countries, since both have high altitudes and fast runners. From Crawley, we learn that they are quite different.

Kenenisa Bekele didn’t have to run to school; he lived across the street. The marathoners aren’t the poorest of the poor. They are supported by regional and national clubs with corporate sponsors. Thus they get housing, food, a coach, modest equipment, and the important bus transport to carry them to various training locations. Some days, they spend more time in the bus than on the trails.

Of course, all hope to be discovered by an agent and invited to an international race with prize money. But the athletes realize it will take a lot of patience and process, especially endless miles running on the heels of greatness. Everyone understands they must join a team. Individual excellence is possible only via evolution from the group.

A British citizen and scholar, Crawley has grown up seeing the world through Westernized eyes. In Addis, his perspective changes. “Ethiopia unveiled to me a far more intuitive, creative, and adventurous approach to the sport,” he writes. “I discovered and adapted alternative ways of thinking about sports psychology from people who have never heard of sports psychology, and for whom the secrets of running are far too enigmatic and mysterious to be distilled in a test tube.”

Lelisa Desisa on a group run
Lelisa Desisa and training partners on a group run in Ethiopia Photo: CoopsRun Photography

Crawley answered several questions about running in Ethiopia for us:

Please describe a long run in Ethiopia. What’s it like to be part of a training group there?

MC: On Monday mornings we would catch the team bus at around 5 a.m. to drive to a coroconch road, which was the Amharic term for “rough road.” It’s an onomatopoeic term which comes from the sound of the foot crunching on a gravelly surface. This was intended to strengthen the legs without being too hard on them.

These runs would be done on an empty stomach for the most part, although we would have an opportunity to drink water or an energy drink (for those that had them) every 5km because the bus would drive ahead and then wait. The runs would usually be progressive, starting out slower than 4:00 per kilometer (6:25/mile) and moving down towards 3:20 (5:20/mile) or even quicker at the end, on a road that was fiercely undulating, with some hills lasting a couple of kilometers.

There wouldn’t really be much of a cool down after a run like this, and if there was, it would be at almost walking pace (I was admonished if I ever tried to jog a warm down a bit quicker with “that looks like warming UP.”). Some athletes would bring beso, a roasted barley powder, to mix with water and drink as a kind of recovery drink after training, but most would just drink water. On occasion we wouldn’t get back home until almost lunchtime (after a 5am start) because of traffic going back into Addis, and by that point I’d be so hungry and feeling almost faint sometimes. It didn’t seem to faze the Ethiopians much.

What is all this talk about zigzagging on runs? Why do you think it might be important?

MC: We ran three sessions a week very hard, and the rest of the running was seen as being a means of recovering from those sessions. Often these easy runs would be done in dense eucalyptus forest, where the tightly packed trees meant we had to run a kind of zig-zagging route, running backwards and forwards and sometimes turning back on ourselves completely.

I was told that the idea behind this was to avoid a monotonous running motion and to engage different muscles, as we were constantly running on a camber. This very slow running was even referred to as a form of massage. The forest was also quite a difficult place to run in other way — strewn with rocks and tree roots as well as the trees themselves. This meant that it was difficult to do anything but run slowly. I think the Ethiopian athletes went there to make sure that they ran slowly and recovered. I got the sense that they took slowness almost as seriously as they took speed.

Physiologists and anatomists have largely failed to explain the East African running phenomenon with their various bio-measures. What did you learn from your ethnographic approach, the “deep hanging out?”

MC: You’re right that most of the attempts to find genetic or physiological explanations for success have failed, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. What was interesting about the Ethiopian runners I spoke to was that they didn’t believe in “talent” in the way that we might. They believed in “adaptation” — in the notion that given the right training environment (both in terms of the particular environmental resources you have access to, and the people surround yourself with as training partners) and enough time to rest in between training sessions, anyone could “adapt” to becoming a world class athlete.

I don’t necessarily believe that is that case, but I do think that a lot of physiological testing seems to be about determining peoples’ limits, and the Ethiopians I knew weren’t interested in that. The other thing about physiological tests is that they measure the capacity of individual bodies. In Ethiopia success is seen as collectively produced through the mechanism of the group and the sharing of energy.

Could you supply several running-related words or phrases that you heard frequently in Ethiopia, and what they implied about the Ethiopian approach?

MC: Lememid means “adaptation.” This was often the word that was used for “training.” It suggests a process of gradually getting used to particular training volumes and speeds, as well as the notion that given enough time and the right environment anyone can adapt to being top class.

Badenb sera means “work properly.” I found it interesting that athletes rarely talked about training “hard.” Rather, they spoke about training “properly” — with commitment, and patience, and by listening to the pace the coach wanted you to run.

Enkulal kes ba kes be egirua tehedalech is slightly tricky to translate but means basically: “Step by step an egg learns to walk.” This one is about taking your time and trusting in the process.

Rucha hiwote new means “Running is my life.” For the most part, deciding to become a runner meant that you treated running as a full time job, involving a holistic re-ordering of your whole life.

Why do you think Ethiopia has enjoyed 60 years of world-class distance running success?

MC: Abebe Bikila, who won the Olympic marathon in 1960 running barefoot, was discovered almost by chance by a Swedish army major who was brought to Ethiopia by Emperor Haile Selassie to train the Imperial bodyguard. Before the Olympics, Selassie told Bikila that  “to win in Rome would be like winning one thousand times.” When Bikila returned home, he was a hero. The desire to emulate Bikila was clearly very strong, and associated with an almost military heroism.

This meant that a culture of very serious running developed, learned by literally following in the footsteps of other athletes. There’s a particular Ethiopian distance running expertise characterised by a view of success as collectively produced and dependent upon the right balance of environments and the occasional embracing of “dangerousness” in training and racing, of which Ethiopian runners are very proud.

There is also, and this came as a surprise to me, a significant amount of institutional support for athletes, with a huge number paid as full time runners by clubs sponsored by organisations ranging from banks to cement factories. The sheer number of people supported in such a way that they can declare that ‘running is life’ means that the top of the pyramid is very high indeed.

Photo: Bloomsbury