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Imagine, Ethiopia

Arba Minch - Sunrise 01

Sunrise on “Bridge to Heaven”, the mountaineous sliver connecting Rift Valley, Lakes Chamo &  Abaya

“As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.”                       Rainer Maria Rilke

The road to Ethiopia began on a treadmill at the YMCA exactly five years ago.  I had made a commitment to organize a fundraising gala for People to People Aid Organization. With a venue booked at the ROM I realized that I had better start envisioning how that event would look. So in the free-flowing creative state that can be invoked on an easy run, I began to write the event blurb, “Imagine spring with cherry trees in bloom, and an evening party in the elegant and sophisticated lounge setting of C5 at the ROM.”

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Hike to Asheton Maryam Monastery at 9800 feet. (Photo, John Chou)

My husband and I went on to 5 years of organizing and chairing the People4Kids Gala to raise funds for children orphaned by AIDS in Ethiopia – three years at the ROM and two years at the LUMA in the TIFF Bell Lightbox. From day one we began to meet many members of Toronto’s Ethiopian community who appreciated our efforts to help out. One constant message was to keep in mind that Ethiopia is a beautiful, vibrant country. It felt inevitable that we would one day visit – it was just a matter of “when”. Five galas later with much money raised, and close to full-retirement for us both, we finally made it to see both the country and the organization whose work the gala had supported.

Here are Five Things that Struck me about Ethiopia

  1. Ethiopia IS a beautiful country with vistas both stark and lush.
  2. Ethiopians are special people with a unique and remarkable history.
  3. Ethiopia is a one of the poorest countries in the world.
  4. Ethiopia is not an easy country to run in.
  5. Ethiopia is a very safe country.

BEAUTY

We travelled to 8 different cities and towns flying first to Arba Minch in the south and then the classic Northern tour of Bahir Dar, Lalibela, Axum and Gondar all by air. We returned to the south with a road trip to Hawassa and Lake Langano. Our two trips to the south included stopovers in Ziway, Chencha, Dorze village, Butijara and a quick visit to a coffee collective in Aleto Wondo. Did you know that 90% of Africa’s mountains are in Ethiopia? The Rift valley with its lakes with mountain surrounds, the rugged mountains of Lalibela reaching 10,000 meters and peeks from afar, of the Simien and Bale mountains, amply illustrate this fact.

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Rock hewn churches of Lalibela, Unesco World Heritage Site (Photo, John Chou)

HISTORY

Ethiopia has nine UNESCO world heritage sites, which along with Morocco is the most of any country in Africa. Nine of those ten sites are cultural sites. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that has never been colonized. For a short period it was occupied by the Italians but it is point of pride that it has never been a colony. It is for this reason that the African Union Headquarters is in Addis Ababa.

POVERTY & HEALTHCARE

It is one thing to know intellectually that Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world – 11th from the bottom in per capita GDP. Actually seeing how people living on $2 USD a day live is like the difference between looking at a picture of food and tasting it. Currently there is a severe drought in the Tigray and Afar regions which some say is worse than the drought of 1984 which killed more than 1 million Ethiopians.

On the positive side, life expectancy has risen from 52 to 62 over the past 10 years. Although with so little resources for medical care, a child in Ethiopia with cancer of any kind has little chance of survival.

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A little wind sprint, North of Gondor, Simien Mountains in sight (Photo, John Chou)

RUNNING 

While one of Ethiopia’s greatest exports is world-class distance runners including Haile Gebrsellasie, the greatest distance runner ever, it is not that easy for a visitor to run in Addis Ababa. Driving style, pollution and poor road/sidewalk infrastructure make running in Addis a huge challenge. Running in some of the smaller towns or cities can be a bit easier. The advantage of training at altitude, Addis is about 2600 meters, helps to produce world-class distance runners but for the everday athlete adaptation to altitude can be quite variable. Fortunately, for all my fears due to a bad experience in Sante Fe a few years back, I had no adverse effects but I was severely limited in my runs by the other constraints.

SAFETY

Not being a particularly adventurous sort, the fact that Ethiopia is one of the safest countries in Africa to travel was an attraction. While it may be a very poor country, there does not seem to be a culture of criminality alongside this. We always felt very safe. Far safer than we did in our visit last spring to Chicago. People were kind and helpful and you got the feeling that if you did run into trouble on the street, the locals would help you.

THE FUTURE

Sister Tibebe

We met the amazing Sister Tibebe of Hiwot Integrated Development Association (HIDA) a few years ago when she spoke in Toronto as a guest of CUSO. We were pleased to meet again in Ethiopia at a party for the children of the various programs run by HIDA.

So this trip was the culmination of an important part of our lives for the past five years. Most of the ferengi (foreigners) we met while there, were those involved in aid work. In fact, we bumped into friends from 22 years back with whom we lost touch with and discovered that they have lived in Addis for 18 years and very much a part of the community of NGO’s in Ethiopia. We met a Dutch man working with religious leaders in small communities so they can help influence their communities to abandon the widespread practice of female genital mutilation, a Japanese man involved with helping strengthen coffee cooperatives and a young economist with the World Food Programme who had decided that he had written enough papers on international development and it was time to some experience on the ground.

And most importantly there are the Ethiopians, the returning diaspora and the extensive world-wide diaspora working towards change in multi-faceted ways. Notably Haile Gebrsellasie, who I had the great honour to meet. He showed us around his Addis office and introduced us to the staff of the Great Ethiopian Run, Africa’s largest running race. But this I think is a topic for a separate blog post.

Haile Gebrsellasie-01

I greatly admire the committment to change all these individuals represent. While Ethiopia is a wonderful place to visit, for those used to the comforts of developed nations, living there for longer periods of time would be a challenge for most of us.

As the impact of this trip takes hold, I find myself thinking it is only a matter of time before our relationship with Ethiopia will be reimagined, knowing that imagination cannot contain the fullness of what the next five years might hold.

Arba Minch -02 John

Dining room at the Paradise Lodge, Arba Minch, Ethiopia

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Year of Training Differently

On January 2nd of this year I flew to Boston with my husband for the American Economic Association conference. It was my 7th time in Boston and the very first time I’ve been there with no marathon to run. Thus began my year of training differently.

I’ve run the Boston Marathon in 1998, 2000, 2007, 2008, 2013 & 2014  but after four years of declining performance, I’m moving on.

Boston Marathon 2007

Boston Marathon 2007

I started my fifth decade with a 3:10:09 run in Detroit, an Ontario 50-54 age-group best which held for 6 years. Then a Canadian 30K record at the Around the Bay Road Races. My run at Boston in 2007 at the age of 51 was a peak experience as a competitive masters runner. From the threat of the first-time cancellation of the Boston Marathon, due to a very nasty nor’easter, I placed 3rd in the 50-59 age-category. But from there the decline in my marathon performance has been dramatic. With my 6th decade on the horizon and a marathon time almost 1 hour slower (as shown on the table below) than 10 years prior, it was time to take stock.

There is more to the decline than relative performance loss due to age. In 2014, I ranked 193rd in my age-group and since 2007 the age-group has been split, 50-54, 55-59. I did take three years off from serious training, but I think there is more to this decline than time off or the aging process. I give credence to one theory that a runner has only so many marathons in their legs. Why that could be, I’m not sure but I’ve been doing some research and there are theories that resonate – including changes at the cellular level in high-mileage runners. From my mid-fifties my body no longer responded positively to long-distance training stress. This article on the aging athletes and “The Law of Aggregate Miles”  may be close to the mark.

The silver lining is that in Toronto we have an excellent masters track club, the UTTC Masters Track Club whose coaches Paul Osland and Mike Sherar are turning marathon runners into track runners. I’ve been a member for a few years but have been see-sawing between track and marathon training. Going forward, I’m committed to a focus on track training.

While training for marathons I was aware that aerobic conditioning slows the aging process somewhat while more intense training, over threshold is said to delay the aging process twice as much as aerobic training. So, a focus on intensity and the better conditioning value of faster running is not unwelcome and makes a lot of sense for the masters athlete.

My track-only campaign got off to a rocky start last fall with an ankle sprain from which the by-product was plantar faciitis. This was my first injury since 1987. The plantar faciitis lingered through the fall, winter and spring. But, I was able to run some decent track times on 12-15 miles a week. This was a huge surprise to a one-time 80-100 mile a week marathon runner. But mixed into those 12-15 miles were mini-speed workouts with a 10 minute warm-up and cool-down on the bike.

Ontario Masters Championships, Brampton 2015

Developing that track kick at 1500 meters. Photos courtesy Doug Smith

Finally, I feel on solid ground and have been able to build my mileage to 33 miles with the beginnings of an increased volume of quality running. One reason why I ran so many miles as a marathon runner was I felt that I had more speed than endurance. Others I’m sure, were able to run faster marathons with less mileage. Now, that I’ve set aside leg deadening mileage, I’m hoping for some good results on the track.

I give myself a mental boost by harkening back to my adolescent years where I was once entered in a track meet as a high jumper and jumped close to a national level performance with no coaching and the antiquated scissor kick. Yes, I do have some fast twitch fibers.

While athletic opportunities for women of my age-cohort were limited through our formative and university years, I cannot complain about the opportunities for me as a Masters athlete. UTTC Masters forms the biggest group within the Canadian team now competing at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Lyon, France. Twenty-five of our team members are taking part, including our world-class coaches and world-class masters trackster, Annie Bunting. Annie has won her age-group at the Fifth Avenue Mile. The club gets to work out on the amazing new University of Toronto, Varsity Track snd has twice-weekly times reserved for us on the indoor track at the Athletic Centre as well.

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Annie Bunting wins her age-group with her trademark balletic form.

The vision for the Masters Track team came from Carl Georgevski, Head Coach of the U of T Varsity Team who says, “Starting the Masters group has been one of the best desisions I have made. I simply love this group of highly motivated and passionate indiduals around me and my team.” The original U of T Masters was coached by former elite steeplechaser Zeba Crook, now professor at Carleton University.

But first stop on the track training agenda is some strength training, AKA cross-country season. The Ontario Masters Track and Field Association has a great series which begins on September 27th with the Taylor Creek Park 5K. And speaking of that, if you have ever thought about joining a team, X-C season is the most fun time to join. Whatever your abilities or experience, you will love being a part of this hard-core running experience. Ultimately, camraderie is the biggest part of being on the UTTC cross-country team. Perhaps you too might want to train a bit differently this fall and will join me on the track or trails very soon!

Learn more about UTTC Masters. 

YEAR MARATHON TIME AGE AGE GRADED SCORE EQUIVALENT OPEN TIME
2005 Detroit 3:10:09 50 84.58% 2:40:06
2006 Mississauga 3:12:53 50 84.22% 2:40:48
2006 Chicago 3:13:53 51 84.04% 2:41:08
2007 Boston 3:17:54 51 82.96% 2:43:13
2008 Boston 3:22:14 52 82.27% 2:44:36
2010 Sacramento (CIM) 3:42:27 55 77.49% 2:54:45
2011 New York 3:50:21 56 75.70% 2:58:53
2012 Toronto 3:55:41 56 76.67% 2:56:38
2013 Boston 3:58:38 57 74.73% 3:01:13
2014 Boston 4:05:40 58 73.65% 3:03:53

My all-time PB of 3:07:02 was run at age 47 at the Ottawa Marathon