Look at any medals table across the last 60 years and one thing is obvious: the Ethiopians are extremely good at endurance running. The first gold medal for Africa as a whole came for Abebe Bikala of Ethiopia, winning the Olympic marathon with no shoes in Rome in 1960. Skip forward two decades and Miruts Yifter “the shifter” was taking double golds in the 5,000m and 10,000m in Moscow. Between 1993 and 2000, Haile Gebrselassie won four World Championship and two Olympic golds in the 10,000m, before moving up to marathon distance in the subsequent decade and breaking the world record twice. Selemon Barega carried on the 10,000 tradition with his gold in Tokyo last year.

The women are just as great. Fatuma Roba took gold at the 1996 Atlanta marathon, Derartu Tulu won 10,000m gold at both Barcelona 1992 and Sydney 2000, Tirunesh Dibaba did her 5,000/10,000 double at Beijing in 2008, and Yalemzerf Yehualaw is the current London Marathon champion. Even Sifan Hassan, the reigning Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion, represents the Netherlands but was born in Ethiopia and lived there until she was 15.

There have been numerous attempts to explain Ethiopian running success. A 2011 documentary film, Town of Runners, looked at running culture in the central Ethiopian town of Bekoji, which has produced so many successful athletes that the Guardian called it ‘The fastest place on Earth’. The author and anthopologist Michael Crawley spent 15 months living and training with a group of Ethiopian athletes to write both his University of Edinburgh PhD thesis and a more accessible, excellent 2021 book, Out of Thin Air

Other studies have credited Ethiopians and their great distance running rivals the Kenyans with ‘favourable somatotypical characteristics lending to exceptional biomechanical and metabolic economy/efficiency’, or examined the ‘Y chromosome haplogroup distribution’ of Ethiopian athletes. But is there anything a less scientifically minded British club runner like me can learn? I went to Addis Ababa to take part in the Great Ethiopian Run, an extraordinary, carnivalesque example of the appeal of mass participation running in Ethiopia. I also watched the riotous children’s races the day before, spent time with Haile Gebrselassie and went running in the revered Entoto forest above the city with some elite runners and a coach, Abderazak Alewi. Here’s what I found:  

They run at altitude

The most obvious Ethiopian advantage is also the one that is hardest to replicate at home. The capital city Addis Ababa, where so many top runners are based, sits at 2,355m above sea level. Even if you were in a position to run up Ben Nevis regularly you wouldn’t be much more than half that height. Studies show that running with lower oxygen levels in the air has great benefits to heart rate and lung function. ‘Running is all about oxygen. Up here your lungs expand to hold more,’ explains coach Abderazak after watching me uncharacteristially huffing and puffing up a slight incline in Entoto, around 3,000m above sea level. But if that was the only factor, distance runners from the even higher capitals of Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia would be dominating the Olympics. There must be more…

They start young

Many Ethiopian children have begun their training without realising it. Famously, Haile Gebrselassie’s family farm was 10km away from his school in Asella, 130km south of Addis Ababa, and he didn’t have access to a bus or a car. ‘My running began not for fun, or for competition, but just as my daily activity,’ he told the Times of India. At the children’s races on the Saturday morning before Sunday’s Great Ethiopian Run, even the under fives can be seen pelting around a course outside the Ethiopian Youth Sport Academy, while older children warm up in disciplined lines. Running is a normal thing to do.

They start early

We meet at 5.30am for the half hour drive up and up into Entoto forest, arriving at dawn in a clearing amid the eucalyptus trees where there is already a football kickabout going on. On the way out of the city we pass multiple groups of runners on the side of the road, taking advantage of this dark period before the notorious traffic reaches full honking intensity. ‘In our town, the kids get up very early to run and their parents aren’t surprised,’ says coach Sentayehu Eshetu in the film Town of Runners. ‘In another town they would ask: “Have you all gone mad?”’

They warm up extensively

Before we head into the forest, Abderazak leads a lengthy series of stretches, including a lot of standing on one leg with your hands on your hips, swinging the other leg back and forth. It’s slow and thorough. I’m finding it a little tedious, itching to get moving in this unfamiliar landscape, but it has to be done, he insists. ‘Sometimes we take 30 minutes warm-up, sometimes 10. It depends on the training plan,’ he says. ‘But having that warm-up time is very crucial. If you just start the training you will face a lot of pain. The cool-down afterwards is also necessary, but especially warming up is very important.’

They take it seriously

‘The difference between the athletes is discipline,’ Haile Gebrselassie tells me. Abderazak says that at one point he was trying to play football and basketball as well as being a runner, and it didn’t work: ‘Running requires giving your life. It requires courage and commitment. We are all very serious about our training.’

They train as a team

It is rare to see an Ethiopian out running alone. Michael Crawley writes about an Ethiopian system whereby some running clubs are funded by local businesses, receiving ‘a salary and three meals a day in the canteen.’ Before the start of the Great Ethiopian Run I watch lines of runners jogging and skipping in sync across Meskel Square near the start line. ‘Team training is very necessary,’ says Abderazak. ‘Having someone with you makes you do more exercise, more training, and gives you support when you are feeling weak. They will give you courage so you will not give up early.’

They run in a line

As we jog through the forest, my inclination is to run beside my companions so that I can talk to them. But they stay in a line, one behind the other, clicking a finger and pointing at the ground whenever I need to be aware of an obstructive tree root or dip. Crawley explains it in Out of Thin Air: ‘“Following someone’s feet” means more than just keeping up with them; it literally means mimicking their stride, placing your right foot when they place theirs, your left when they do, moulding your stride to their cadence perfectly.’

But they don’t run in straight lines

The clearing that we run around in Entoto looks a bit like a hilly golf course, with lots of awkward undulations. Once we enter the forest I am quickly led away from the broad main path, instead weaving between and around the trees and regularly changing direction. ‘We train in the forest in zig-zags for two things,’ says Abderazak. ‘You get good air to breathe, and when you zig-zag your body becomes more flexible, so you will avoid some pains.’

They rarely go to the track

This is simply by necessity rather than because they don’t want to use a running track. There aren’t as many tracks in Ethiopia as in the UK, so it’s harder for your team to get a slot. The group Abderazak coaches has a track session booked once a fortnight. ‘We go to the track when we need to do intervals, or to test our speed for 5k and see how we are feeling. But most of the time we use the asphalt in the forest.’

They don’t eat before training

We leave for Entoto before breakfast and return in time for lunch. The only sustenence offered in the meantime is bottled water. A 2011 study of ‘Food and macronutrient intake of elite Ethiopian distance runners’ noted that ‘no fluids were consumed before or during training with only modest amounts being consumed following training.’ Usually once training is over, Abderazak says he might splash out on a banana.

They drink beso

Instead of protein shakes, many Ethiopian runners drink beso, a solution made with lightly roasted wholegrain barley flour, honey and water. ‘This is Ethiopian power bar,’ says one of Crawley’s training buddies. Meanwhile the main carbohydrate is injera, a gluten-free flatbread made from teff flour that looks like a thicker, spongier crepe. ‘Most of the athletes buy the flour for beso and make it themselves,’ says Abderazak.

They have rivals

Ethiopians are as aware as anyone else that there is another great running nation: Kenya. Without that friendly rivalry, it’s possible they wouldn’t have achieved as many of those great wins. Haile Gebrselassie says his close Olympic races against Kenya’s perpetual silver medallist Paul Tergat are the ones people still ask him about. Today, of course, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge is the top guy. ‘My records especially were because of the Kenyans,’ Haile tells me. ‘How can you break a world record without them? Thank you to the Kenyans!’

They want to carry on their history

Finally, Ethiopian runners are fully aware of the past athletic greatness of their people, and determined to maintain that status. ‘For other countries, participating in the Olympics is a big deal. For us, if you are not in first place, people will not even give you a clap,’ says Abderazak. ‘Bikala showed us that we can get the gold. Now it is tradition. Here in Ethiopia, running is serious!’