Running in the Birthplace of Running | Where’s YiOu?

by YiOu Wang
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Running in the Birthplace of Running | Where’s YiOu?

Before traveling to Ethiopia, I knew very little about the country other than its association with distance running — Haile Gebrselassie and the Dibaba sisters are among the greatest runners in history. I was excited to learn about where they were from.

We landed in Addis Ababa and immediately felt a huge transition from South Africa. In contrast to Cape Town, Addis was chaotic, smoggy, dusty and everything was under construction. We then took a small plane south to a camp on the banks of the Lower Omo River. Here, close to the border with Kenya and South Sudan, tribes live much as they have for the past several thousand years.

We had a memorable visit to a local community of the Kara people. That evening they were in a festive mood because there was full moon, so the entire village gathered to dance. The men were adorned in traditional body paint, feathers and had more than a few automatic rifles. They stood in a semicircle strictly arranged in order of age. The women and children stood in the middle and sang and clapped. They invited us to dance and we joined in the celebration. Even a dust storm could not dissuade them from their celebrations.

They wore their traditional clothing complete with body paint, sandals and belts made of bullets.

The next morning two warriors from the Kara tribe joined me for a run on the muddy jeep tracks that skirt the bank of the Omo River. They wore their traditional clothing complete with body paint, sandals and belts made of bullets. We had a fun time investigating each other’s running apparel and shoes and running past herds of cattle and goats. Universally, wherever I ran in Ethiopia, the locals would cheer, clap, give thumbs-ups and run alongside. Ethiopia’s distance runners are its hero’s and for many years, runners were supplying a large portion of the foreign currency flowing into the country.

Universally wherever I ran in Ethiopia, the locals would cheer, clap, give thumbs-ups, and run alongside.

In contrast to the low-elevation Omo Valley, the Ethiopian Highlands are a continuous landmass of rugged mountains and plateaus between 5,000 and 15,000 feet. It is the home of coffee, distance runners and an ancient sect of Christianity. Our first stop was Lalibela, home to the UNESCO World Heritage site of monolithic rock churches. These churches date from the Seventh through 13th centuries and are hewn from solid rock. We spent a day running and hiking through the mountains around Lalibela with a local guide, Desta. We were able to cover a three-day trekking loop before dinner because running is awesome.


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We then traveled by car to Aksum, the ancient capital of the Aksumite Empire, and onward to the Semien Mountains. In a country almost completely deforested due to population pressure, the Semien Mountains are a last home to the native forests and animals. By coincidence, the manager at the Limalimo lodge in the Simien Mountains was an old friend of a friend. He had played lacrosse in college with fellow pro ultra runner and good friend Dylan Bowman. Small world!

Ethiopia is a country with tremendous potential. In the capital, Addis, there is a hum of excitement about future ventures. We watched hundreds of aspiring distance runners gather every morning at dawn to run switchbacks in Meskel Square. It is not the easiest country to travel. The roads aren’t great and although we loved the food, not everyone does. We got fleas when we visited the churches in Lalibela, and it can be difficult to say no to every boy and girl who asks for money.

Despite the challenges, I am glad we went to see parts of Ethiopia that will look very different in just a few years.

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