Addis Ababa is not a city that naturally lends itself to running. The potholes are deep. The traffic is hectic. Street corners are makeshift markets. And throughout the city, buildings, roadways and train lines spring up almost overnight, like mushrooms. Yet here I am, one of 40,000 people, my face painted with the colours of the Ethiopian flag, laughing and dancing and jogging through the streets as part of the biggest race in Africa.
There are few phrases treated with such scorn in the running world as “fun run”. They are for beginners and are not worth travelling halfway around the world for. But if one event can reclaim the phrase, it’s the Great Ethiopian Run. Founded byHaile Gebrselassie, the greatest distance runner of all time and a national hero, it’s a 10km race through the heart of this bustling, fascinating city.
What strikes you first when you arrive in Addis is the unique light: a sunset-warm glow softened by a dust filter – regardless of the actual time of day. Navigating the streets requires nerves of steel – there only seem to be two sets of working traffic lights in the whole place, and drivers view even these as purely decorative. High above it all is the growing city’s ever-present scaffolding. Built from the most fragile-looking bamboo, it makes that famous picture of workers picnicking on a girder atop 30 Rockefeller Center look like a health and safety ad.
While trying to acclimatise to Addis’s thin air – the city sits at 2,400m – I embark on a culinary tour. The founders of Addis Eats, Eliza Richman and Xavier Curtis, walk me round some of Addis’s best eateries – many of the city’s gems are dressed in plain clothes. Restaurants that you’d walk past without a second glance turn out to be the best local spots. The food-to-walking ratio is heavily tilted on the side of gluttony and I scoff delicious curries mopped up with injera, the staple flatbread of Ethiopia made from teff grain. Most restaurants serve only one kind of this, but on the tour I learn that there are several, of different colours, each with a distinctive taste.
Walking off the food, I visit Holy Trinity Cathedral. If the outside is impressive, the inside is extraordinary. It seems built to catch and store that golden light – the haze formed from sunbeams slanting through the stained glass looks almost solid. The soundtrack to the scene is Ethiopian Orthodox chants, from lungs that apparently require no pause for breath.
In the countryside surrounding the rapidly growing city there is stunning scenery, too. Up in the hills is Entoto, a serene, sacred spot with monasteries, churches and the palace of Emperor Menelik II, the 19th-century founder of Addis. The lush mountainside is covered with eucalyptus trees. These are a major source of firewood and the roads are dotted with women carrying burdens so implausibly enormous you fear they’ll be driven into the ground by the weight of their loads.
But when the roads are closed for the annual race, the whole city switches to carnival mode. First, there are mini races for children. Ethiopia is famous for its running legends – Abebe Bikila, Kenenisa Bekele and of course Gebrselassie himself – and some of these young athletes look like future stars, though for this race they need to have sharp elbows as well as fast feet. Small ones are knocked flying, but bounce up and carry on regardless. When someone false starts even race marshall Gebrselassie (who seems to be everywhere) can’t stop the stampede with his megaphone.
When it comes to the adult race, thousands in identical T-shirts wind their way through the city to the friendly but chaotic start. Gebrselassie’s there again, this time to officially start the race. The crowds strain and push and laugh in the faces of the police holding the line until a klaxon goes, and that’s it, they are off. Nothing can stop the tidal wave. Nothing, that is, until most of them seem to run out of steam about 200m later, and walk and laugh their way around the rest of the route.
The slow-moving carnival makes its gleeful way to the finish line at Jan Meda, a horse-racing track on the outskirts of the city. Sitting in that golden sunshine I get my breath back while sipping Ethiopian coffee – strong enough to power a rocket, never mind blast you round a 10km race. The caffeine kick is welcome, as now the entire city, whether they have run or not, is in party mode. The roadside bars are packed and there is good-natured banter between beer-drinkers and the tail end of the running field.
You don’t get a chip time, or a bag drop, or a text with your time on it. You don’t get a time at all, in fact. But while other mass races might give you solemnity and nerves, the Great Ethiopian Run is sheer, exuberant, ear-to-ear-grinning fun. I may finish in enough time for Haile to jog 10k, make some coffee and put his feet up, but it is true joy to follow in his footsteps and take part in undoubtedly the greatest fun run in the world.
How to do it
For details of the run visit ethiopianrun.org; the next race is on 22 November, register by 18 November. The trip was provided by the Great Run Company. Flights were provided by Ethiopian Airlines, which flies direct from Heathrow to Addis Ababa from £459 return. Addis Eats organises food tours round the city and its markets from $55pp (£35) (addiseats.com).