Running With Ethiopians – An Inspiring Experience

Alexandra von Moltke, a runner from India, shares her experience of her visit to Ethiopia and running with the local athletes in the village of Yaya.

How I landed up in Ethiopia?

An aunt of mine adopted an Ethiopian boy years ago who had now graduated from university in Tourism and Economy, and I went to meet him and joined the graduation party. In fact he is my point of contact there and in the future we are planning to set up running training holidays in Ethiopia. The concept being to take groups travelling from place to place looking at the incredible sights plus running in each and every place with the athletes. It will be very attractive & an interesting experience for the international running community.

The Ethiopian Adventure!

Yaya Village – A High Altitude Training Center in Sululta Ethiopia

We have made our way out of Addis Ababa. As we drive away from the city the last rays of sunlight touch the ridges of the surrounding mountains, revealing the ragged beauty and multicoloured textures of the land.

We have booked into a hotel near Yaya Village (, 13 km north of Addis, at an altitude of almost 3,000 meters, surrounded by trails weaving through deep-green eucalyptus forest and mountains. Yaya is a unique high-altitude training centre for young Ethiopian athletes. It was opened in November 2011 by Canada based runner Joseph Kibur along with his friends and fellow runners Haile Gebrselassi, Gezahegn Abera and Belay Welasha. The idea is to give young Ethiopian runners a chance to train in a professional environment and to discover the next running champions here. Most Ethiopian runners don’t have access to world-class training facilities and still dominate international distance running scene- dating back to 1960s Olympics in Munich when legendary Abebe Bilika, a shepherd’s son in bare feet, stunned the world by winning the marathon.

The village is not just for athletes; anyone can soon enjoy the facilities and the planned (not yet quite completed) gym, sauna, volleyball court, swimming pool, horse riding facilities and tennis courts.

My interest is to observe the athletes and learn about the secret of Ethiopian runner’s success. We arrange to meet early next morning with Mohamed Abdu, a 25-year old runner and one of Ethiopia’s hopeful running talents, a middle distance favourite.  He, like many other runners is from simple farming backgrounds in a remote area in the north. Running becomes a ticket to fulfilled dreams, a life out of rural Ethiopia, a whole community lifted out of poverty. Mohamed proudly shows me his visas for those countries he has run races in – India, Libya, Morocco and Turkey.

I meet with five runners the next morning. After the traditional greeting (shoulder to shoulder) we start waking up grassy hills. The rains have made the earth heavy, mist hangs between the trees and gives the landscape an eerie feel. We walk slowly and for what seems a very long time. Once we have reached the top of the hill the runners form a line and start trotting in zigzag through the dense forest. The ground is mossy and springy. I long to speed up and become impatient. I joke “hey I thought Ethiopian runners were fast…” they smile a knowing smile at me and I wonder if I will regret what I said…. After a seemingly endless warm-up jog the pace becomes faster and I feel the exhilaration of running in this stunning place, amongst world-class athletes in what has been my dream for a long time – running with Ethiopians! Soon I feel comparatively heavy when I watch their feet barely touching the ground, flying effortlessly and chatting away in Amharic, their native language. My breath is laboured after about half an hour, the high altitude is taking its toll. I rest and they kindly run large circle around me. I pick up the pace and try to fall into their long rhythmic running strides, by now the chitchat has stopped but their very relaxed faces show now sign of exertion.

The most successful Ethiopian runners come from high altitudes such as the Arsi region (in the Great Rift Valley). They have adapted to training with less oxygen and are therefore at an advantage in races at lower altitudes or sea level where most races are run. They run because they have always just done that, the main means of transport in this country being walking, as one of them tells me – as a child he had to walk two hours to school and back and very often run the distance to get home faster. So they have 10-15 or more years of aerobic endurance training under their belt than the average Western runner.

The accomplishments in running since 1960 is Ethiopia’s biggest pride. The nation’s heros are Haile Gebrselassie -with 27 world records in distance running- and Deratu Tulu who won 10,000m in 1992 Barcelona Olympics and is a role model for many female runners in Ethiopia. To follow their footsteps and escaping simple village life is the Ethiopians runners’ dream.

After the 21k run  we fall into a jog again. They tell me how honoured they feel to have been running with me. I feel humbled by their kindness and immensely proud to have been part of their training routine in the mountains  above Addis, without GPS, camelback and  energy gels. Just running. With Ethiopians.

Ethiopia is a must to visit for every passionate runner! It is a true inspiration not only in the running sense but to experience its kind, joyful and sincere people.

If you have any queries with regards to running, to running in Ethiopia, please contact Ali on

by Alexandra von Moltke (Ali), India

About Ali

Ali is German, 44,  a certified nutrition & fitness consultant and works in Goa and is -of course- a passionate runner. Her favorite distance is the half marathon. She has been living in India for past 4 years, and has been a runner for 3 years. She has a black belt in kickboxing and used to teach martial arts in London.

3 thoughts on “Running With Ethiopians – An Inspiring Experience

P. Venkatraman


It was indeed a pleasure to meet you at the Marathon Training Workshop at Panaji, Goa. I was hoping to interact more with you over lunch, but found that you had skipped it.

Hope to meet you again.



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