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Exploring Addis Ababa through the Great Ethiopian Run

We all know that running plays a significant role in Ethiopian culture. But what do races here actually look like?

Haile Gebrselassie with Canadian Ambassador Philip Baker at today’s Great Ethiopian Run. Photo: Paul Gains

By Paul Gains

After returning from the 2000 Sydney Olympics with his second consecutive 10,000m gold medal, Haile Gebrselassie made plans to launch a race in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. His intention: give a platform to the next generation.

Never  could he have foreseen how enormous the Great Ethiopian Run would become.

More than 44,000 participants dressed in identical red and yellow T-shirts ran and walked the 10K course (which starts and finishes at historic Meskel Square) on Sunday Nov. 26. The race is Africa’s largest road race. When it was over Solomon Berga (28:36) and Zeynen Yemer (32:30) were crowned 2017 champions receiving their awards from Gebrselassie himself.

RELATED: Racing barefoot: Haile Gebrselassie’s last race

Winning this race comes with a decent cash prize. First place earns the equivalent of $4,660 Canadian dollars.

Considering that the race is run at 2,337m above sea level and the temperatures on the weekend hovered at around 20C with no cloud cover, these performances were incredible. For Canadians keeping tabs on international races like this one, there’s a good chance they could be spotting these winner in Canada at one of the two IAAF Gold Label marathons in Toronto or Ottawa like some of their predecessors have in the past.

The carnival atmosphere for this 17th edition of the race was all inclusive and lively with a pre-race reggae performance adding to the overall experience.

The elite race set off at 8:00 a.m. from an adjacent street in order to protect the elites from being swarmed by their fans. Thousands were lined up at the mass start before 7:00 a.m. some dressed in costumes and with their faces painted. Half an hour after Gebrselassie had fired the starter’s pistol, people were still crossing the start line.

A large contingent of staff and family members of the Canadian embassy gathered near the start under the direction of ambassador Philip Baker. “I went out and felt fine in the first 5K in around 26 minutes but it’s downhill the second half is uphill and at this altitude…” Baker said afterwards with a smile. “Then I died. I am glad I survived. You are constantly dodging people and water bottles but it’s fun.”

Beneath his humble persona lurks a competitive streak. In his youth, he was a respectable middle distance runner having run 15:45 for the 5K. Politics followed and he’s now in the third year of his post at the Canadian embassy in Addis.

Because traffic gets quite intense in his area, he says he’s limited to training on the treadmill. Running in Addis, usually comes with having to combat traffic. As Baker mentions, some of his staff run up in the hills in Entono. “Running as you know is deeply ingrained in the culture here. But to jog along city streets without traffic, well it’s a rare treat,” he says. 

A year ago when the government instituted a State of Emergency, due to unrest in some areas of the country, the embassies decided it would be in bad taste to participate. So the return this year was a welcome relief.

Other stars of Ethiopian distance running including Meseret Defar the 2012 Olympic 5,000m champion, 2008 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Tsegay Kebede and 2017 world 5,000m champion, Muktar Edris were also on hand. The party continued at Meskel Square long after the live national television broadcast had ended as runners gathered for photos on the street and at local bars along the route. Thrilled to finish, the ambassador was ecstatic when Gebrselassie agreed to take a photo with him near the finish.