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The trails keeping Ethiopia’s distance runners in sprint condition

The secret to those explosive finishes could be the training regime conducted in single file along unpredictable forest paths
( Apparently there are hyenas in this forest. I’m running behind Tadele Geremew Mulugeta, an Ethiopian marathon runner, zigzagging back and forth on tiny narrow trails, leaping over rocks, ducking under overhanging branches. It’s not like running in Kenya.

I’ve come to Ethiopia to learn something about Kenya’s greatest (nay, only) distance-running rivals. In Ethiopia, all the athletes come to live in the north of Addis Ababa, where forested mountains rise up above the city to an altitude of over 3,000m.

Unlike in Kenya, where the athletes live in training camps, the Ethiopian runners live scattered around the chaotic, rubble-strewn neighbourhoods, mostly in modest, rented accommodation. But early every morning, the hills are alive with the sound of pattering feet as hundreds of runners criss-cross the pathways, snaking their way up and down the steep slopes.

Because the trails are so narrow, the athletes run one behind the other, playing a game of follow-my-leader. Tadele, the leader today, is constantly changing course, switching pathways, often shunning the trails altogether to leap across rocks. Behind me two other runners make up our train.

Because of the terrain, you need to keep your eyes closely focussed on the ground. Every now and then another group of runners, all one behind the other, will cross the path or zip past on a parallel trail. You don’t see them until the last moment. It was like this that Tadele once stumbled into a pack of hyenas. What happened?

“No problem,” he says. They ran away.

The only thing we bump into today, however, is runners and donkeys. At one point, out of the trees, a group of runners appears with Haile Gebrselassie at the head. His face flashes by and is gone. Was it even him?

“Haile,” one of the runners behind me confirms.

Tadele is being easy on me. Tired from a third place finish in the recent Belgrade marathon, he is only in light training for now so I’m able to keep up. But all this leaping around and running up and down is a great workout for the legs, even at a relatively slow pace.

The next day, I run with another group and the pace picks up. By the end I’m hanging on for dear life, not wanting to become detached and find myself lost in hyena-infested woods. Fortunately, the zigzagging way they run allows stragglers like me to keep up by cutting corners. Whenever they get too far ahead, they double back to pick me up.

Finally, just as I think I can’t go on, they slow down. “Finished,” says the leader. But we aren’t quite. For the next ten minutes, we race back and forth along the trails doing short sprints, slowing for a moment at the turn and then going again. It’s interesting to note that Ethiopians are famous for sitting behind their rivals in races – at least on the track – and outsprinting them at the end. Paula Radcliffe knows this only too well.

As well as training one behind the other, just as they race, sessions are always finished with a series of sprints. Whether you’ve just done an easy jog or a hard 35km, 10 minutes of short sprints are always the dessert.

Then they all go through a series of arm drills, waving their hands in the air as they walk back and forth. I don’t know who devised this method of doing things, but it has certainly caught on. Everywhere, when you see runners finishing their training, they’re all doing the same short sprints and series of arm actions.

A bit like the Kenyans, the Ethiopians have found a system that works. It has produced some of the greatest runners in history, from Gebrselassie to Kenenisa Bekele, Derartu Tulu and Tirunesh Dibaba. There is no need to change anything.

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