Photograph: Julia Bleasdale
Fri 14 February 2014
The rhythm of daily life in the Ethiopian highlands starts early, with the coolness of the refreshing mountain night giving way to the pleasant warming rays of the equatorial sunrise. Children wander to school from distant farmsteads, cattle are herded to the grassy plains from their overnight enclosures and the assorted community go about their business of the day, all casting long morning shadows across the open fields.
With every new day, Ethiopia offers inspiration in a variety of ways. I welcome my share with open arms as I embark on another day of training, one of 50 I’ll be spending here at over 2,700m altitude in preparation for the year ahead.
This summer, with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the European Championships in Zurich, my focus is clear: running faster than ever before has to be the main aim. Having raced 25 laps of the Olympic Stadium in 2012 to become the third-fastest British woman over 10,000m, deep down I know for certain that more is possible, and Rio 2016 remains a constant draw.
Looking back at the women’s 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon at London 2012, all were won by outstanding Ethiopian athletes. Living and breathing here, it is clear why. For much of the year the climate in Addis Ababa is ideal, with daytime and nightly temperatures cycling between 10 and 25C, a constant of 12 hours of daylight, mainly sunshine, and many weeks without rain during the dry season. The high altitude is felt with every running, or walking, step. The oxygen-deprived environment stimulates an increase in the production of red blood cells, all-important for the transport of fuel to our muscles, and thus very relevant to endurance running capacity.
Ethiopia’s greatest runners also attribute their success to food. The national dish, injera, is a yeast-risen flatbread made from iron-rich teff flour. Raw meat is frequently eaten – when lunching with Haile Gebrselassie, he proclaimed: “Eat this and you will be a champion,” while slicing off another chunk of raw beef. Although my Ethiopian diet consists of these dishes only on very special occasions, my nutrient intake increases significantly when training at altitude with meat, fish and eggs supplemented with fresh fruit, vegetables and grains to fuel my many miles.
Now to the all-important training. “Keeping it simple” is what works best. There are literally thousands of athletes in and around Addis Ababa, running in big groups, often training twice a day, covering mile upon mile to see if they have what it takes to become the country’s next star.
My time in Ethiopia is spent building a strong base, with more than 100 miles every week. “Easy” days consist of 11 miles in the morning and five in the evening, with stretching and exercises in the gym. Workout days may consist of a tempo run, track session or hill repetitions, again with gym work and an evening run to flush the soreness out of the legs. Sunday runs are my favourite: 18 miles traversing far into the Ethiopian landscape, without a shortcut, fuel or water en route. Some may think me crazy – and I would not entirely recommend it to many others.
But the purity of the running experience here in Ethiopia provides necessary detachment from the complexities of regular daily life and allows time to understand my sporting self. Thoughts become aligned with every morning run completed and another training box ticked. This simplicity in training means I feel refreshed for the next workout and excited about the many challenges that lie ahead.
I always remember that I am a temporary visitor in a living and vibrant landscape; a landscape that offers both guest and host alike the necessary support as we measure our progress towards a planned, but ultimately unknown, destiny.
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