My alarm goes off at 4.55am; the bus leaves from the bottom of the hill at 5.20am. Zeleke, one of the athletes from our group, unexpectedly emerges from Haile’s room. ‘What are you doing here?’ I ask. ‘My house is near the forest. It’s early. I don’t like the hyenas when it’s dark,’ he says. You can’t argue with that. I start running with the group, but I get dropped going up a hill after 7km. Thick, cloying mud that can’t be shaken off. The group was told to run 3.48/ km. They drop me with a 3.35 uphill kilometer. I back off, but finish 23km in one hour thirty, one of the best long runs I’ve done here.
Two runs today. The first at ‘arat shi,’ with two friends. ‘Arat shi’ means 4,000, but it can’t be quite that high. We start running incredibly slowly – six minutes per kilometer probably – weaving in and out of tightly packed eucalyptus trees as we make our way up the hill. Gradually the pace falls towards 4.00 / km, as the temperature rises ten degrees from the chilly dawn we started running in. Arat shi is a good 25 minute walk from our house. We stretch and chat for half an hour afterwards and walk slowly home. Breakfast tastes good. For my evening run I head to the ‘kerb chakka’ – the close forest – which only takes ten minutes to walk to. I do an Easy thirty minutes, listening to music and running up and down runner-created paths. Injera for dinner. I don’t know if there’s anything in the theory that the high iron-content helps, but it’s worth a try. In bed by 9.30pm.
One of the rare ‘bus’ days when I get to set my alarm for after 5am: luxury. We go to the dirt track at Legetafo, a mere twenty minute drive away. We all do 400m reps. The group have 45 seconds to ‘jog’ 200m recovery though, so I train separately with one minute recovery, jumping in on the occasional rep. We’re at over 2,500m here: a minute doesn’t feel very long at all and I get some quizzical looks from other runners from how hard I am breathing. Some words of wisdom from our coach, who changed the session half way through to 300m reps with 100m jog. ‘By the way running is really boring,’ he said. ‘Usain Bolt even said he preferred cricket.’ A look of disgust. ‘That’s why sometimes I will change the session.’ I ask Abebow if he’s feeling better today: he had an off-day on Friday. ‘I’m good today,’ he said. ‘I did some proper work over the weekend with Berhanu – two hours on Saturday, two hours on Sunday.’ Ditching the rest day this week had obviously done him good. He complained of sore feet after the session. Fasil pulled each toe hard, until it cracked loudly, as Abebow turned away in pain. I thought he was going to break his toes, or pull them off. ‘Better?’ I asked afterwards. ‘Yeah’ he said, grinning. An easy thirty minutes in the evening.
Tired. Sleep until 7am. Walk to training as everyone else is coming home, feeling a bit like I’m coming back from a night out while commuters hurry to work. Run a nice easy hour. The only other person in the forest is Tirunesh Dibaba. ‘I saw Tirunesh!’ I tell Haile. ‘Oh yeah, she is just coming back from having a baby’ he says, and when I look confused he explains that the only reason to run late in the morning, when it is hot, is to lose weight when you’re coming back to fitness. No running in the afternoon; beer and samosas instead, and an early night.
It takes a long time to get to ‘low altitude’ – 2,200m – so my alarm goes off at 4.30am. Strangely enough, it feels easier to get up at this time than 6am. I get on the bus at 5am and go back to sleep, and when we arrive and I’m jolted awake it seems like everyone else has done the same. They peer out, bleary-eyed, from inside their hoods. The main group run a scarcely comprehensible 5 x 4km at 2.57/ km, with 1km ‘recovery’ in 3.42. The session does a better job at ‘race simulation’ than the coach was probably intending: half of the athletes are in the bus after the third rep. I do 1km reps and hope that the pace feels easier with 30% more oxygen next week. The drive back takes over two hours, but our bus ‘conductor,’ who also happens to be able to hand out five bottles of water whilst running at sub-30 minute 10km pace in jeans, goes round collecting a ten birr ‘banana tax’ from everyone. He jumps out at a fruit stall and returns with 13kg of bananas, which disappear in about five minutes. We don’t get back until lunch time. I sleep for an hour; one of those sleeps when you don’t know where, or who, you are for a few seconds after you wake up. A very gentle jog in the afternoon. Haile tells me to drink ‘at least’ five litres of water to loosen my legs.
Rain. Haile and I had been planning to run at 7am in the forest up the hill. He said I should do ‘one hour then hill reps’ because I had a race coming up. I woke up to the sound of rain at 6.30 and a text saying, ‘it’s raining. Go back to sleep and we can run this afternoon.’ I’ve pointed out before that if we didn’t run every time it rained in the UK we would hardly ever run, but today I’m glad for the excuse. We do the session in the afternoon, and it’s harder because of the inch of mud sticking to the bottom of our shoes.
Rest. One thing I didn’t expect to learn here is how to take a rest day, but everyone in our group takes Sunday off, so I do too. Nobody runs, but they do emphasise the importance of ‘walking around all day’ so their legs don’t get tight. We wander over to Abere’s house for lunch – an enormous salad with seven avocados and lots of green chillies – then to Berhanu’s for some juice. He’s just bought a Chinese juicer at a race, and it only takes him two hours to come up with three glasses of mango juice. We sit around chatting and watching Ethiopian music videos until Berhanu says, ‘well, I’m bored. Better go for a run I suppose…’
Michael Crawley is one of our sponsored athletes, and focuses primarily on the roads. He is also an ESRC-funded PhD student at Edinburgh University, studying the culture of long-distance running in Ethiopia. Over the next few months he will be living and training in Ethiopia, and learning one of the main languages used there, Amharic. He will be writing about his experiences of training in various locations around the city with different groups of athletes, and about trying to turn himself into a better runner in the process.