Great Ethiopian Run 2003

Sun 30 Nov
Under beautiful blue skies, the start of the Great Ethiopian RunUnder beautiful blue skies and with the sun already feeling hot, I wait patiently amongst a sea of green tee shirts and white sun visors for the start of the Great Ethiopian Run.

Now in its third year, a kind of gift if you like from Haile Gebrselassie to the people of Ethiopia, the event is principally to give a chance to the man (or woman) in the street to take part in an international run, alongside (or more likely chasing behind) their national heroes. Last year the event donated US$10000 to famine relief and the same amount to the Ethiopia Athletics Federation.

18000 runners have registered, locals have paid the equivalent of US$4; I paid considerably more, but the disadvantage for the visitor is not only financial; there's a matter of acclimatising to the altitude of 2400m (8000ft) and I'm sure getting used to the temperature (already 24 C) would take years. Good job itís "only" a 10km I tell myself. There are quite a few westerners; most appear to be in NGO teams. The event has become popular with the diplomatic community too.

The massed runners are queued up in three major roads, all leading onto Meskel Square; where there is supposed to be a buffer zone before the start line. With five minutes to go the elite runners start making their way from the VIP tent to the start line. Among the masses thereís a strong fear of being left behind and in seconds the buffer zone disappears as many urgently sprint forward.

Two athletes, with 17 Olympic and world titles between them, Haile Gebrselassie and recently crowned world marathon record holder Paul Tergat, are at the rostrum to start the race and to see us all off. I clear the start line in less than 2mins, surprisingly quickly given the size of the field, and spend the first km dodging "teams" who seem to have given themselves permission to walk right from the start. The other things to watch out for are the open drains and broken curbs, even on the main roads you have to look where youíre stepping.

The first lap is only 3Ĺkm and I am delighted to have run past before the lead runners complete the second lap. Reaching the top of the hill at 4km I am grateful to a shopkeeper whoís spraying the runners with a garden hose. Unfortunately the running numbers have not been designed for the rainy season and mine soon falls off. Luckily I notice and stuff it in my bum-bag.

I become aware of a kid about half my height running along in front of me. He obviously isnít wearing the race tee shirt and I soon realise he hasnít got a number either. Such is the enthusiasm for the day that an estimated 7000 unregistered runners have joined in. Every now and again he slows a little to let me catch up, but heís not in my way, thereís room for us all. What is annoying though is heís doing so marvellously well running in flip-flops.

Thereís a pleasant down hill kilometre from 5km to 6km but on the long hill up to 7km I give in and walk a little. Someone has helpfully opened some fire hydrants causing wonderful jets of water high into the air and providing a most refreshing shower.

The crowd line the route the whole way around and seem especially encouraging towards the "faranji" (foreigners). The spirit of the other runners is tremendous too. One sidles up to me for the last 2kms and helps me to stay focused although IĎm not in the mood for chatting. Itís just so hot and I so much want to stop but all that endurance training (or is it bloody mindedness?) counts for something and I donít give in.

As I approach the line I am intrigued to hear the commentator naming Alistair Campbell (Tony Blairís former Director of Communications) who presumably has just finished in front of me (again, he beat me in the London Marathon too).

Hot but happy, finish line Great Ethiopian Run, AddisI cross the finish line at 1:07:14 and feel pretty pleased with myself. Sorry 26.2 Road Runners Club, but thatís the best I can do in this heat.

Ethiopian men and women have each won the first three places, much to the humiliation, no doubt, of the Kenyan contingent. First across the finishing line was Sileshi Sihine in 29:54 knocking 12secs off the course record set by Gebrselassie in the inaugural race two years ago. The first woman was Tirunesh Dibaba (winner of the World 5,000 metres in Paris) triumphing in 34:48.

Miles Wickstead, the British Ambassador had finished in under an hour and for the third year running won the Ambassadorsí competition (there were eight ambassadors and a number of others from the diplomatic community).

I feel compelled to mention there was apparently a chap called Hamzar, with one leg, who came in two minutes before me and there are reports that a goat crossed the finishing line although I donít think it got a medal because they were getting a bit scarce. Nevertheless Iím heartily encouraged with the thought that I finished about the same time as Wami Biratu, one of Ethiopiaís greatest runners (30 gold, 40 silver and 10 bronze in his time) although he is now 82yrs old.