by Becky Wade
After I became interested in running, East Africa grabbed my attention. It was impossible not to notice the slight-framed, dark-skinned athletes at the front of major marathons, and to wonder how they train and where they come from. The Kenyans in London had given me some clues in their slow warm-ups, communal meals, and run-by-feel philosophy. But it wasn’t until I lived in East Africa that I began to understand the forces behind the world’s supreme distance-running region.
In the last two months, I’d seen that Ethiopia is much more than a running factory, churning out world record holders and marathon champions through a system refined in the fifty years since Abebe Bikila’s Olympic Marathon victory. What this country has over the rest of the world (and shares with its neighbor Kenya) is a culture that breeds many of the qualities that happen to make good distance runners: discipline, resilience, self-awareness, and most of all, a desperate drive to succeed. The role of poverty cannot be ignored, as running is for many an attempt to rise above it, with ultrasuccessful runners like Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele (who was building his own hotel and track next door to Yaya Village) offering both a measure of inspiration and false hope. For every person who successfully makes a career out of running, there are thousands of others who remain in obscurity in the forests. But the fact that those running stars, and dozens more, are household names reflects the cultural significance of the sport in Ethiopia.
Spirituality is also a factor in Ethiopia’s running success. Ethiopians are a people of strong faith, with 75 percent of them practicing Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity or Islam. For most of the country, faith seeps into every aspect of life—running included. While Sunday is a standard long run day in many parts of the world, there it is a day of rest; Sunday was the only day I couldn’t count on seeing other runners at Satellite or Entoto. The inseparability of running and religion, first demonstrated by the story of Derartu and the Devil, was confirmed again and again during my stay, as I saw runners brush off bad workouts with conviction that God would provide on His own terms; utter quiet prayers on the starting line of the Great Ethiopian Run; and drop to their knees in thanksgiving after especially good workouts.
I was surprised to discover that running is not a big recreational sport in Ethiopia. In fact, with the exception of the Great Ethiopian Run, I didn’t see recreational runners, at least in Sululta. Those whom I ran with or passed on my daily runs to Satellite Field, through the fields near Yaya Village, and up and down Mount Entoto appeared to be athletes who were taking their training very seriously. As I learned, many families discourage their children from running because it cuts into their fieldwork and the family’s food supply. I met one female who snuck away in the early mornings to run before she was expected in the field, in the hopes that she’d eventually be able to provide for her family with her legs rather than her hands.
My experiences in Ethiopia transformed me, both personally and athletically, and I was afraid of undoing the progress I was making. It was clear that I was becoming fitter—my runs hardly felt easy, but at least now I could keep up with my Ethiopian friends when they unleashed their speed at the end of some runs, and my Entoto outings got longer and longer each week (though I never surpassed that accidental three-hour run).
I’d also made strides in other areas, influenced by the locals I spent time with. Flexibility, in my daily schedule as well as on runs, a necessity in a watch-free society. Patience, for waits at minibus stations, severed Internet connections, and multiple loops around the same eucalyptus trees. Elevated work ethic, in grueling, oxygen-deprived runs and in everyday life, as I hand-washed my clothes and purified every drop of water I drank. Body awareness, gleaned from the Ethiopians’ confidence to take days off, stop runs short, and run at speeds that felt right in the moment. Cohesion, in shared meals, group runs, and hours of bonding in the Yaya Girls’ room. And generosity, learned by example through Banchi and Tsigereda’s Christmas party, my local friends’ insistence to pay for my minibus rides to Fatasha and Addis Ababa, and Zewdenesh’s elaborate home-cooked meal. My friendship with Dan, who was by my side throughout my two months in Ethiopia, helped me keep the challenges of this new existence in perspective, and went unmatched by any other of my trip.
It was hard to leave knowing I wouldn’t be able to reunite with my Ethiopian friends anytime soon—not only because of the inconvenience and expense of my getting to East Africa but also the barriers to securing an Ethiopian passport, the lack of a reliable postal system in Sululta, and the rarity of computers in rural Ethiopia. I hoped that I might see Banchi, Mesi, or Derartu on the international racing circuit someday, perhaps at one of the World Marathon Majors. But the reality was that, like the vast majority of Ethiopian runners, the odds were against them, and our reunion would be dependent on my return.
In typical fashion, the Yaya Girls were nowhere to be found when I was loading up Joseph’s car for Bole Airport. I’d tried to explain the night before that I was leaving for good the next morning, and to please let me tell them goodbye before I left at 9 a.m. (three o’clock Ethiopia time), but clearly they hadn’t understood. Even when I asked Amente to translate my words, they just laughed, wrapped their arms around my shoulders, and said, “No, Becky! No.” Either my recent trip to northern Ethiopia confused them, or, as I began to fear as I finished my rounds of Yaya Village, thanking and hugging each of the staff members, perhaps I had overestimated the relationship I’d built with Banchi, Mesi, and Derartu.
I scanned the Yaya campus one last time, and out of time to procrastinate further, began to get into the car. Before I made it all the way inside, three figures entered the big iron gates and came sprinting my way. If they hadn’t understood before, my tear-filled eyes and luggage got through to them now, and they yanked me out of the car and into a tight group hug. As I tried to hold back my tears, and then just let them roll, it became clear that the country and the people who long ago had captured my attention had, in the last two months, captured my heart, too.
About the Book/Author:
Becky Wade is a professional long-distance runner who competes for ASICS. A graduate of Rice University, she is a U.S. Junior National Champion, a four-time All-American, and the winner of her debut marathon, the 2013 California International Marathon. One of four Wade twins, she currently trains in Houston, Texas under coach, Jim Bevan, and her mentor, Dr. Joe Vigil.
Fresh off a successful collegiate running career with multiple NCAA All-American honors and two Olympic Trials qualifying marks, Becky was eager to connect with her counterparts across the globe and broaden her perspective of the universal phenomena of running—the oldest, purest, and most global of all sports. With the funding and support of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, she packed a year’s worth of running clothes and shoes, said goodbye to family, friends, and teammates, and took off on a solo journey to explore international running communities.
Visiting England, Ireland, Switzerland, Ethiopia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Sweden, and Finland, each with a unique and storied running history, Wade reached out to runners and coaches in each place, who welcomed her into their homes and onto their teams. Over the course of the year, she ran over 3,500 miles as she experimented with diverse training styles and discovered new recovery techniques. Whether riding around the streets of London with Olympic champion Usain Bolt, hiking for an hour at daybreak just to start a run on Ethiopia’s Mount Entoto, or getting lost navigating the bustling streets of Tokyo, Wade’s unexpected adventures capture the heartbeat of distance running around the world.
Upon her return to the United States, she incorporated elements of the training styles she’d sampled into her own program, and her competitive career skyrocketed. When she made her marathon debut in 2013, winning the race in a blazing 2:30, she became the third-fastest woman marathoner under the age of 25 in U.S. history, qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Trials and landing a professional sponsorship from Asics.
From the feel-based approach to running that she learned from the Kenyans, to the grueling uphill workouts she adopted from the Swiss, to the injury-recovery methods she learned from the Japanese, Becky shares the secrets to success from runners and coaches around the world. The story of one athlete’s fascinating journey, Run the World is also a call to change the way we approach the world’s most natural and inclusive sport.
Meet Becky in person and pick up your copy of her book at BookPeople THIS Wednesday (July 13th) at 7 pm.
Details here: http://www.bookpeople.com/event/becky-wade-run-world