Running in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

by Keith Williams One of my "day jobs" is serving as US Program Director for an Ethiopian non-profit called Betasab Global Family Initiative. Betasab matches orphaned and otherwise vulnerable children with childless mothers, forming self-sustaining family units.

I went to Addis Ababa in early January to see the program first-hand. I was still in a funk after the Brooklyn Marathon, but I was determined to get in a few runs. I wrote this essay - which is cross-posted on the Betasab blog - after returning to the States.

There are many ways to explore a new urban area. Most cities have taxis and buses; perhaps you can rent a bicycle or hire a horse-drawn carriage. Using your two legs is an option, too.

A few factors come into play when weighing the possibilities. Covering more territory sacrifices detail. Cost can be taken into account, along with flexibility - you can't change the route a bus takes.

For my birr, there's nothing like running to discover hidden parts of a city. It hits the sweet spot: faster than walking, with the only cost a pair of running shoes (and I have a few friends who would argue that even those are unnecessary). Something intrigues you? Come back later.

Addis Ababa's 7,700-foot elevation qualifies it as the world's sixth-highest capital city. The altitude takes some getting used to. At first, I had trouble putting together complete sentences, and I'd get winded on a single flight of stairs.

You also have to worry about pollution. A haze usually nestles in the capital valley. Many cars, vans, and trucks, lacking catalytic converters, spew thick black clouds of exhaust. Woe to any person caught directly in this wake.

As eager as I was to lace up my running sneaks on Haile Gebrselassie's home turf, I thought it best to wait a few days.

My friend Willa Kammerer, who was doing media work for us, was game to hit the pavement as soon as I was ready. Our initial route was to the house of Ephrem and Firewoyni, our Ethiopian staff, a walk we had made several times. Completing the circuit, we made our first discovery: a donut vendor. The sweet frosting and the price - 3 birr (17 cents USD) apiece - made the hard dough easy to swallow.

We branched out, emboldened. Crossing a river. Coasting down a steep hill, flanked by metal shacks. Dodging wandering goats and donkeys. Steadying ankles on the cobblestones. Getting lost and using the sun to navigate. Seeing old landmarks from new angles.

Most exciting was the reception. Long pants are the norm in Addis, so seeing a white guy in shorts with a white girl in spandex provided conversation fodder for hundreds of locals. We received frequent thumbs-up, and several drawn-out catcalls: "Wooooowwwwwww". (I'm flattered.) (Oh, those were for Willa?) One guy stroked my ego by announcing, "He is a great athlete!"

Straying from our usual main roads afforded us some difficult memories as well. An elderly man with club feet, lying on the pavement in the midst of rush-hour pedestrians. The shanties and the poor families who live in them, peeking out to see if anything had changed from the previous day. Maybe we brought a moment of amusement to their lives.

Running added to our overall experience. We climbed steep stairs, and made note of a 24-hour burger place (just in case). We had some unique cultural interactions, like running through a Sunday street-soccer match, and having a group of guys drop to the pavement to do pushups to impress us (err, Willa). If we weren't running as fast as Haile Gebrselassie, it was only because we were too busy taking in the surroundings.

Shameless plug: follow Betasab on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Keith Williams