I’m at the Sheraton in Addis Ababa, and the reason I’m here is to do some training with Haile Gebrselassie, one of the greatest distance runners ever. Haile is a double Olympic champion, four-time world champion and someone who has set 27 world records. I’ve been invited because back in 2009 I ran 43 marathons in 51 days. Since I have a free day before we are due to meet, I decide I should go for a run.
It’s something I have liked to do for a number of years, even before I ran my marathons, but now I’m a fan of the big outdoors. Out there lies a relationship with the earth that I think of as spiritual. I do think I discovered something, running marathons day after day. I found a Zen-like link between the human spirit and the ground that I liken to – maybe – the relationship that Native Americans had with the land they lived on. They gave birth on it, they hunted on it, they fought on it and they died on it. I feel I accidentally got in contact with that.
With that in mind, you won’t be too surprised that I have now got into barefoot running. After two million years of human development without shoes, and only about 10,000 years of putting them on, maybe they’re not that great for us? So that’s why I came to Ethiopia – to do a little bit of barefoot running with Haile, who used to run 10k barefoot to school and 10k back every day.
I walk out of the doors of my hotel and up to the exit gate and there I get my first comment: Do you not want shoes?, asks the security guard. I say proudly, but a little confused, No, thanks. I’m barefoot running. Isn’t this Ethiopia? Home of barefoot running? That phrase: I have to use it many times over the next 15 minutes as I try to run round the block. Small kids and tall blokes and humans of just about every size come up to me and say: “Would you not like some shoes?”
I turn right, run up to the top of the hill, and stand in front of a large hoarding of Haile Gebrselassie. A small kid – actually a teenager – walks up and 30 seconds later a guy who must have been late twenties. Both of them try to sell me shoes.
I realise that the whole city of Addis Ababa wants me to wear shoes. I’m pointing at the huge poster of Haile Gebrselassie on the hoarding and saying, look, he ran to school. And people are saying, yes, but you know, that was in the countryside. They obviously think I’m a nut. I thought everyone would be barefoot running, but this is a city of about three and a half million people, and they like to wear shoes, or at least sandals.
So, I run along the block, past a heavily guarded place that’s the prime minister’s residence, and then down the hill and then – brilliantly – I stub my toe on a raised paving slab. Which is a big joke. If you’re barefoot running, everyone thinks, oh, you’re going to stub your toe and I do. Right in front of an armed guard who’s saying, Would you not like to wear some shoes? I sort of laugh this off but actually, it is not a good stubbing of toe. I sort of half run and half hobble on. Then just walk calmly. (Usually the problem is stepping on things, and not glass, I should add. You can see glass, glass reflects but an acorn is the nightmare thing to step on. Acorns have no give and they are nasty little buggers.)
I go past a whole group of people sitting on a slight mound and they all say, Hey, where are your shoes? There’s even a pregnant woman with a baby on her back and she takes off one of her sandals to give to me. At this point I think OK, Addis Ababa is not the home of barefoot running, it’s a place where they think barefoot runners are crazy. So I go back to the hotel and put my foot in some ice and deal with just trying to get it into a runnable state for the morning.
The next day Haile and I meet at the hotel at dawn (a quarter past dawn, to be precise). Haile is about 1.65m tall (5ft 5in in old money) and is very lean and compact. He’s driving his own car and giving me a lift this morning. There’s no one with him – just him driving. He’s a confident man, as you may expect, but it is a very calm confidence. He just seems like your average guy popping by to give a friend a lift.
He gives me a running top for the Ethiopian team, which is way beyond my pay grade, but great to wear. He’d heard I’d hurt my foot so he also gives me a pair of orange running shoes. They really help with my foot, which is somewhat bound up with tape that I had to buy the night before from a pharmacy in Addis.
We head up Mount Entoto, going from 2,500m to 3,000m altitude, and there’s a big open sort of semi-forested area where a lot of runners train. Off we go, just jogging around. I’ve got the shoes on but I’m rather anxious because I think Haile is going to say – Now! Run like an idiot! I don’t think that he’s going to just train me to death, but the oxygen is very thin here. I’m such a non-Olympian, and he’s such an Olympian.
But we’re just jogging around and I feel pretty good. I’m training with an Olympian, someone who won the 10,000m gold, twice, and he’s not pushing me too far. Everything’s perfect. Toe – not too bad. The most scary part of my training is talking about hyenas. Haile says that hyenas live here. And he says they hunt in packs.
Do they hunt like cigarettes, I ask? In packs of 20? But I only ask this in my head. Then he says that two runners were killed up here by hyenas, at different times. If hyenas get together in big enough groups, they will come for you, if you look like you’re alone. It’s just like gang stuff in a city. They live up in caves, he says, we don’t come up here when it’s dark. He’s kind of calm about it, but it freaks me out in a casual, sun-is-shining-and-the-monsters-are-asleep type way.
We finish our first session, still alive, and later that afternoon we meet up so we can train in the gym Haile owns downtown. Haile and one of his trainers put me through my paces. We work out on the treadmill and on the mat and on the machines. It is good and expert, but I miss the big outdoors.
I spend a lot of the evening trying to get my foot better by much dunking in the ice, because we have another dawn appointment for training. This time we’re running in Meskel Square, the old communist rallying place. There are rows and rows of stone benches – but very long rows – for citizens to watch the troops march by. Now the seats are kind of knackered, but the rows are still there. People run up and down them, training there in the morning. And with the sun coming up, I run up and down with Haile again, still with my shoes on. But it is still 2,500m up and I am running out of puff. I am running along with Haile and trying to look confident, but again I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I am becoming puffless.
Then Haile says: “Oh, you have to acclimatise for a week before you can actually get used to this altitude training.” Now I know. Two days was never really going to be enough for training at altitude.
In his car, driving to his house, I ask one of the key things that I had been trying to ask from the very beginning – Haile, what do you think about barefoot running? I know I’ve just bonked my toe, but you ran 10k to school and ran 10k back, every day, barefoot – I’m trying to run barefoot, what do you think? And he says: “Oh, just put some shoes on.” Not the answer I am looking for.
But, then again, I think, he was not barefoot running as a kid because he thought this would be a healthy thing for human beings to do. He just ran barefoot because he had no shoes. So, I will just have to carry on experimenting.
We go back and have lunch at Haile’s place and I meet his wife Alem, and four kids – Eden, the oldest, who’s 14, Melat, Batiy and Natty, who’s six. He lives in a wonderful house, he has many businesses, such as the Hyundai concession for Ethiopia, and it’s great to see the way people react to him. Everywhere Haile goes, people greet him, wave at him and he has to sign autographs and pose for photographs. He is a hero in Ethiopia and a big success – 27 world records is really off the scale.
During the trip, he mentions the fact that I was a comedian coming over to run with him and I think he thinks that maybe I am bonkers and am just going to write a funny article on running. I try to tell him that in fact I have run a whole bunch of marathons, but each time I tell him, he doesn’t react, so I’m unsure how to proceed.
Anyway, after a lovely meal of Ethiopian cuisine he says, Would you like to see my awards? He then shows me two or three vast cabinets, crammed floor to ceiling with cups and medals and all sorts of golden prizes that he has won. It is quite breathtaking and at this point, I do manage to ask one intelligent question, which is – Do you think your kids are going to be intimidated by you, trying to live up to you? To which he says: “That’s a good question, difficult one to answer.”
But then Haile decides to come back to the hotel with me for a final cup of tea and while we’re sitting around the table, I think I will have one final go at explaining that I am not just a comedy guy, I have run a bit. So I mention to him again about those 43 marathons, and finally he says: “What do you mean? What? Like one after the other?”
So there it is, Haile the Ethiopian success story, son of a farmer, ran to school, world-famous runner, developing lots of businesses, encouraging people to invest in Ethiopia. Good luck to him, doing a fantastic job and even though I do not learn a lot about barefoot running – it is an honour to be around him.
I say: “Yes, but remember, these are very slow marathons, at half or a third your speed.”
So now he does understand and he no longer thinks I am bonkers. Now he thinks I’m crazy – but I’m kind of happy.
Haile Gebrselassie is a mentor to the G4S 4teen programme, which is helping 14 young athletes achieve their ambition of competing at London 2012. For more information, visit www.g4ssport.com