The Land of Runners

    RN and Donkeys

    Photo courtesy of Mark Shearman

    Guest blogger, Richard Nerurkar, was a British international marathoner in the 1990s (PR of 2:08:36) before working as an event organizer in Ethiopia where he set up the Great Ethiopian Run. He now works and lives in Brighton, UK.

    If you’re a keen marathon runner and curious to experience first-hand the land of long-distance running, why not check out the opportunity to take part in a marathon where runners and running never goes by unnoticed. Not only will you get to meet one of the greatest runners of all time; you’ll also get to see why marathon running has come to mean so much to this great distance-running nation. In this instance, it is surely true that seeing is believing.

    The Haile Gebrselassie Marathon takes place in Hawassa, Ethiopia on Sunday October 20, 2013. For more details visit

    It’s a curious thing that while marathon running worldwide continues its upward curve at a mass-participation level, at the elite level viewed worldwide performances are steadily declining. The striking exception to this global trend is found in the two African countries which for the past thirty years have been the powerhouse of world distance running: Kenya and Ethiopia.

    Here are a few statistics to ponder:

    • In the past 45 years, British runners have recorded 37 marathon times of under 2 hours and 10 minutes, but only one of these (of 2:09:31 by Jon Brown in 2005 while he was still running for Britain) was achieved in the past 10 years. Over the same 45-year period US marathon runners have run 34 sub-2:10 times with 15 of these performances achieved in the past 10 years.
    • In 2012, 79 male runners worldwide ran under 2 hours and 8 minutes for the marathon, with 44 of these coming from Kenya and 28 from Ethiopia. In 2002 the total was just 15. On the women’s side, six female runners ran under 2 hours and 20 minutes (3 Kenyan and 3 Ethiopian) while only 2 achieved this result back in 2002 (Paula Radcliffe of Britain and Catherine Ndereba of Kenya).
    • In 2012, 23 male runners ran under 2 hours and 6 minutes (11 Kenyan and 12 Ethiopian) compared with just two back in 2002 (Khalid Khannouchi of USA and Paul Tergat of Kenya).

    Anyone who has spent time in Kenya or Ethiopia in the past ten years will tell you the reasons behind these statistics. Put simply, the running culture in both these countries is huge. During the time we lived in Ethiopia (2001-2010), I used to estimate that on any given morning in Addis Ababa the number of serious runners out training on the roads and forests surrounding the city was possibly as many as three thousand. And I mean serious runners, and that’s just in Addis Ababa – and this was some time ago!

    Running in Kenya and Ethiopia provides a way out of poverty; running is what children do to get to school and is a cheap sport; and both countries have great role models of athletes who having started out as schoolboy and schoolgirl runners have turned out to be Olympic champions. Perhaps the greatest role model of them all, Haile Gebrselassie, has often said that he drew inspiration from “the father” of Ethiopian running Abebe Bekila, Africa’s first Olympic gold medalist, who won consecutive Olympic marathon titles in 1960 and 1964. (Gebrselassie himself won two Olympic titles at 10,000m in 1996 and 2000 and set 27 world records at distances from 2000m to the marathon, but never succeeded in his dream of emulating Bekila with an Olympic marathon crown.) Now, with ever more marathon stars emerging from these two countries, the upward trend in performances by Ethiopian and Kenyan runners looks set to continue.

    Back in my own competitive running days, my running coach adopted the motto “if you can’t beat them, join them” and took me out to Kenya in December 1989 for my first taste of altitude training in warm African sunshine. Today, many more European and American runners are doing this and now able to stay at a range of hotels set up as training camps for western athletes. Warm sunshine, the beauty of the training environment, the fun of training in large groups, and the awareness of how hungry athletes are to succeed are an almost unavoidable part of this experience.

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