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Only amateurs here? A day in Ethiopia’s exercise hub

Dec 2nd, 2017 by

I came to Adis Abbaba to run on the terraces of this crescent-shaped ‘square’. But, in the shadow of Haile Gebrselassie, I couldn’t see the locals for dust

The first thing I do on arriving in Addis Ababa is throw up. Right there on the airport asphalt, a grotesque, liquescent version of the papal terra firma kiss. A kind lady passes me some water. I accept it gratefully, and then return it involuntarily via the window of my taxi from the airport. At the hotel, there is no record of my booking, but I look so sickly that the receptionist quickly passes me a room key. She wants me gone before I scare her guests, I suspect. A fitful, feverish night lies ahead as my lunchtime salad completes its dirty work.

Not the best preparation for my introduction to Ethiopian running, for sure. Woken by my alarm at dawn, I don’t even contemplate reaching for my trainers. Head fuzzy, throat parched, it is as much as I can do to crawl out of bed and dress myself. I would not be beaten, however. With 36 hours in the Ethiopian capital, I had booked myself into a hotel close to Meskel Square, the downtown gathering point for the city’s joggers. I steel myself for the walk.

When I arrive, still pale and shaky, I’m struck that Meskel Square is not really a square at all. More of a crescent, really. Narrow, with the gentlest of curves, Addis Ababa’s best-known spot for running comprises a series of banked terraces, each measuring about one metre in width and about 600m in length. There are 40 or so in total, a low stone kerb demarcating one from the other. Picture a row of swimming pool lanes affixed to a sloping Nascar track, and you’ll be close to the mark.

The sun has only been up for about 20 minutes, but the “square” is already busy. I wander along one of the lanes, my dragged feet kicking up dust from the earthen track. Advertising hoardings scream down from above the uppermost terrace. Most are for banks and beverage firms, but one is publicising the upcoming 21km Great Ethiopian Run. The event has the support of Haile Gebrselassie, the country’s marathon ace turned affluent businessman. His moustachioed face smiles out from another hoarding across the way, a can of Total engine oil grasped proudly in his hands.

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