THE GREAT ETHIOPIAN RUN – race report – Runner’s World, June 2023

I’m a bit worried I won’t be able to run after all this dancing. The start line of the Great Ethiopian Run, a 10k road race for around 40,000 people in the centre of Addis Ababa, is the opposite of tense. The crowd around me seem perfectly happy to stay in this spot all day, moving and shouting in unison to booming African pop music as the 8am sun beats down.

Ethiopia is a long way to come to run 10k, but this is a special one, the largest road race on the continent. If it seems a bit thin on the spectator front that’s because everybody in the city appears to be taking part. A couple of drones zip past above, the only way to take in the scale of the thing. Three different start zones along broad Ras Mekonen Avenue have been allocated green, yellow and red T-shirts, like an attempt to make the Ethiopian flag visible from space. 

The people are big football fans but running is really the national sport, thanks to a long history of distance running feats that stretches back to Abebe Bikala winning Africa’s first ever Olympic gold medal at the Rome marathon in 1960. Today Selemon Barega is the current men’s 10,000m Olympic champion, while Letesenbet Gidey holds the women’s world records for 5000m, 10,000m and half marathon. And you can’t forget Haile Gebrselassie, double Olympic and four-time World Championship gold medallist at 10,000m, not least because the 49-year-old co-founded this race in 2001 and pops up absolutely everywhere this weekend.

As he takes to the start line stage alongside Ethiopia’s first female President, Sahle-Work Zewde, and pop star Hamelmal Abate, who sings the national anthem, I can’t say that those around me look like serious runners despite their proud lineage. Some people are in cut-off jean shorts. Plenty of women have sliced up the lower part of their race T-shirt and created tassles. Enterprising street hawkers have painted numerous smiling faces in the flag colours. It’s a carnival itching to march.

On the other hand, looking across to the wide half-ellipse of grand Meskel Square, lines of skinny men and women are striding up and down in formation warm-ups, their synchronisation demonstrating that they’ve done this many times. A separate elite start for around 300 runners is highly competitive, with entrants travelling from Kenya and Uganda to have a go. Ethiopian Abe Gashaw becomes the first man to win the race three times, whizzing home in his super shoes in 28:32, and Tigist Ketema takes the women’s prize in 32:54. Both receive cheques for 150,000 birr (£2,300). Many of the greats have toed this line in the past, including inaugural victor Haile Gebrselassie and, 17 years ago, a young Kenyan called Eliud Kipchoge.

The main race is somewhat more freeform. Some people appear to have chip timers on their shoes but I don’t, and at the time of writing, the website’s results page is still empty. The moment the national anthem finishes the MC shouts “Stay where you are!” but we’re off regardless. Even though I’m in the green zone, within minutes we’re weaving around slowly moving red and yellow T-shirts who appear to have started their race wherever they please. One competitor cruises past on roller blades. If there’s a rule book, no one has read it.

The first couple of kilometres descend a wide boulevard with a railway bridge above, all the concrete echoing the shouts of excited runners. The weather is sunny and warm but not too hot to run. A man who sticks with me most of the way has a long-sleeved shirt under his race t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms beneath his shorts. The most noticeable thing for a visitor is the air here at 2,355m above sea level. On a couple of mild inclines I’m amazed at how shallow and rapid my breathing becomes.

With race adrenaline pumping even faster than usual I can’t help but try to run quickly, realising as the crowd thins around me that I’m missing a lot of the fun. Along Yohanis Street, past the green surroundings of the government’s Eyubelyu Palace, we meet more packs of strolling yellow and red T-shirts who seem to have come from a different road. “Ferenj!” they shout, meaning “foreigner”. “Run John! Run John!” Apparently as a white face I must be called John. They’re simply enjoying their morning.

For most people it feels less like a competition and more like one of those days when they temporarily pedestrianise your high street for Christmas shopping. A day earlier these roads had been stuffed with honking traffic, a casual Ethiopian approach to road regulations meaning that if the street is painted in three rows, four or five will be darting daringly across each other. There’s a joyfulness about the cars being gone for a few hours, the city on the move in a different, better way.

Five right turns later the golden arch of the 23-storey Wegagen Bank headquarters comes back into view and it’s all over. The aftermath includes a blingy gold medal, a bottle of the sponsor’s tangy malt drink and lots of selfies with people excited to spy a rare ferenj. I’ve had a ball, and sit for ages watching the remaining finishers. Must go slower next time.

The next Great Ethiopian Run takes place on 19 November 2023.


Hawassa Half Marathon

A longer sister race to the 10k in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian town of Hawassa is a mere 1,700m above sea level. Participants run along the shore of the town’s large lake.

Feb 2024

International Marathon de Marrakech

In mild January weather around 11,500 runners will journey a loop around this stunning Moroccan city. A flat, fast course passes endless palm and olive trees and the ramparts of the ancient city.

Jan 2024

Comrades Marathon

The world’s oldest, most popular ultramarathon covers 55 miles between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. Do it 10 times and you get a green race number that’s yours for life.

11 June 2023


Ethiopian Airlines flies direct from Heathrow to Addis Ababa once a day (

Quality hotels in the city include the Hyatt Regency around the corner from the 10k start line (, the architecturally impressive Skylight Hotel ( and the Radisson Blu (

The Great Ethiopian Run offers a package for international entrants that includes a pre-race pasta party at the official race hotel, the Hyatt Regency, where Haile Gebrselassie will mingle. Visitors can also experience a jog in the Entoto forest at 3,000m above sea level, where the giants of Ethiopian running have trained.