‘I think you should run,’ the coach told me, ‘but you’re not ready for 12km here yet.’ I couldn’t have agreed more. I’d only been here two weeks and I definitely wasn’t properly acclimatised yet. ‘You can run the junior race,’ he said, ‘it’s 8km.’ I told him that whilst I knew they were a bit lax on birth certificates here, twenty-eight was probably pushing it in an under-twenty race. ‘OK you can run half of the big race then,’ he said.
The ‘Big Race,’ is the Jan Meda International Cross Country Senior Men’s 12km. Outside of the World Cross Country, it probably competes with its Kenyan counterpart for the title of Second Most Competitive Cross Country Race In The World. When I went to pick up my number from the Federation I asked a fellow competitor how many people would be running. ‘Only some hundreds,’ he told me. ‘This one is difficult. Only the best three from each club can run.’ Scary news. I was hoping there would be at least a few weaker runners I could compete with.
I asked another friend if he would be running. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘Jan Meda is very heavy, more than other places.’ The field was originally for horse racing, and the 2km rectangular loop features a long uphill drag, a short flat section, then a downhill including three hurdles before you get back to the hill again. The start is at the bottom of the hill. I warm up tentatively, not wanting to use up too much energy before the race starts, and bump into Ed, a fellow Englishman who lives here. ‘Hagos Gebrhiwet just pinned my number on my back for me,’ he told me. ‘That’s a bit of an honour,’ I replied. ‘It would have been,’ he said, ‘if he’d put it on the right way up.’
I’ve been told by the coach to run 3.20 / km for three laps, a steady enough pace which I should be able to cope with at this altitude but not too slow – you wouldn’t be too far down a field in a British cross country running that pace. I start at the back of the pack and try to run as relaxed as possible up the hill. ‘I must be running slowly enough,’ I think. The leaders are already miles ahead and I’m not far off dead last. I go through the first uphill kilometer in 3.05, and realise that this is going to be a long twenty minutes. Once you get into oxygen debt here your legs just become less and less responsive, and the downhill doesn’t seem to help, especially with the three hurdles. Ed speaks fluent Amharic, and he translated the bits of the officials pre-race talk I didn’t understand. ‘He says there are three hurdles,’ he said, ‘they’re close together. Each one gets progressively higher.’ He was right. By the last one it was pretty difficult to find any spring at all in my legs.
Luckily, though, I wasn’t the only one struggling as a result of the early pace. I passed a few people, and was at least able to enjoy the look of surprise on their faces for a split second. A few of them kept going, but most dropped out the second I passed them. On the third lap, by which point you could probably hear me breathing on the other side of the course, a couple of people turned round, saw me coming, and were able to duck under the tape at the side of the course in time to avoid the indignity of being overtaken by the farenj. I stop at 6km having run bang on 20.00, and people in the crowd try to push me back onto the course. ‘Beka,’ I tell them: ‘enough.’ Once they get the message I get a small and undeserved round of applause.
‘If you work here properly for one year,’ one of them tells me, ‘next year you will be defeating no problem.’ I’m not so sure about that!
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.