50 Thoughts # 7: Can I repay the gift the Ethiopians gave me?

I am running the Boston Marathon, a week after I turn 50. I don’t need gifts, cards or anything like that. Rather, I’m asking friends, family and those who like this blog to consider throwing a few bucks towards the Girls Gotta Run Foundation, which you can do by visiting my FirstGiving page: http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/margaretwebb/bostonmarathon2012

I learned about the organization when I travelled to Ethiopia last summer, on a mission to find out why Ethiopian women are emerging as the world’s best marathoners.

In the capital of Addis Ababa, teenage girls dreaming of professional running careers train in Meskel Square, an outdoor amphitheatre in the city centre. One morning when I ran to the square, six teenaged girls were training together, repeating one-kilometre laps — up 50 uneven dirt steps, across the back row past homeless people sleeping in cardboard boxes, down the other side, along the front row of seating through thick clouds of exhaust pouring up from the city’s main intersection, all keeping in perfect rhythm with each other.

When they stopped for a break, and I asked for a picture, they giggled with excitement, thinking I was a Canadian race promoter, here to help them. “Only a writer,” I said, holding up my notebook. They ran ran off to do more laps.

Washington Post correspondent Emily Wax first wrote about these girl running gangs in 2005. As the running infrastructure in Ethiopia is centralized in Addis, many girls run away from their families in the countryside to train in the square, hoping to get noticed by a coach or running team. Often, they’re fleeing horrific situations — desperately poor parents may marry daughters off as young as age 12. According to UNICEF, Ethiopian women and girls are more likely to die in childbirth than reach grade six. The country also has one of Africa’s highest caseloads of AIDS, and girls are expected to quit school to care for sick family members.

The girls throw themselves into training, believing that becoming a professional runner will allow them to escape early marriage, stay in school and control their own fate. But their dreams don’t always work out — many end up living on the streets and working in dodgy nightclubs or get pushed into the sex trade.

When retired university women’s studies professor Pat Ortman read the article, she started the nonprofit Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF), a United States-based charity that raises funds for coaching, shoes, racing expenses and food to help the girls train. The goal is not necessarily to produce professional runners but to use the discipline of training to help girls stay in school and pursue careers to become economically self sufficient. “These girls are demonstrating courage and gumption and determination,” Ortman told me. “These are leaders in the making. If we support these girls, they’ll make a living and support so many more people than young girls having babies. They will drag the rest of the country into the future.”

Girls Gotta Run now sponsors girls at four different training camps and have forged a partnership with a fifth, Ethiopia’s first private athletic facility, the new $80 million birr Yaya Village built by businessman Joseph Kibur, who was born in Ethiopia but grew up in Canada, where he became both a successful cross country runner and high-tech entrepreneur. Yaya has a four-star hotel for running tourists, which will help offset training costs and accommodation for Ethiopian athletes. Legendary Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie, an enthusiastic supporter of girls’ running programs, is a partner in the venture. The two plan to provide one-year scholarships of full board and training to GGRF athletes. “This hopefully will act as a stepping stone to them becoming independent and escape poverty,” Kibur told me.

After visiting the square, I met up with Mersha Asarat, who coaches GGRF athletes as well as male runners sponsored by Running Across Borders (RAB), a similar US-based charity. Asarat and I took four city buses (15-seat vans into which about 20 of us squeezed) to get to a bare-bones RAB house on the outskirts of Addis. Eleven athletes lived there, including Dinkinesh Mekash. Like many of the Ethiopian greats, she grew up in Arsi and became strong doing farm work and running several kilometres to school. When a man tried to abduct her at a local market, she was able to use the professional opportunities opening for women runners and her talent to convince her parents to let her move to Addis to train. Now, she divided her days between training and studying. She won the first marathon she entered and lowered her time by some 12 minutes in her second marathon in Rome. She told me that running was about achieving respect first, then earning money to send back to her family who have invested in her and repaying GGRF by helping other athletes. “People don’t view men and women at the same level here,” she said. “Women have to show their strength and make an effort to become equal, to rise up. When I train, I change not only my body but my mind. What I have learned from running is to work hard, be patient and responsible.”

Other stories Ortman’s proud of — two young runners rescued from homelessness graduated from the GGRF program and started a foundation to help others like themselves; another recently entered an engineering program in university. The only thing GGRF asks of its runners is that, one day, they “pay forward” the help they received to help other girls in their country. “We hoped for good things,” said Ortman, “and we got wonderful things.”

While in Addis, I also had a chance to meet and train with some of the country’s top female marathoners, coached by Haji Adilo.

I wore my running gear to Adilo’s training sessions, hoping to sneak in a run with the world’s star runners, Dire Tune who won the 2008 Boston Marathon, and Mare Dibaba, who finished second in the 2010 Toronto Waterfront Marathon. The women set off to do four loops of a five kilometre course, starting at a 4:23 per kilometre pace and getting progressively faster. I got caught up in a conversation with Adilo. As the women approached for their third loop, I figured it was now or never to realize my dream of running with the Ethiopian stars. I leapt onto the road in pursuit.

I figured if I went full out, maybe I could keep up for a kilometre. But after chasing their heels for 200 metres, the pace and altitude (Addis is the world’s third highest capital) had me doubled over, sucking wind and laughing hysterically at my feeble attempt. As I watched the knot of runners disappear over a knoll, I wondered if running on the same road counted as running with the Ethiopians?

I decided that it did and continued on.

The dirt road looped through farm fields that were being converted into housing though, like everything here, slowly and haphazardly. Half-built houses loomed against the sky with not a worker in sight. Goats and chickens wandered onto the road and farmers driving donkey carts clattered past. Even stranger, farm children walking to school waved at me ecstatically. On the back stretch, three kids, about 25 metres off the road, squatted in the long grass, performing their morning ablutions. As I passed, they waved even as they squatted, and screamed, “running, running, running!”

Taking in my white skin and the red Canadian flag emblazoned on my running shirt, they probably thought I was a Canadian elite runner here to train with their running heroes. For the sake of Canada, I desperately tried to pick up the pace.

Then, with about 300 metres to go in the 5k loop, a woman who had broken away from the group to do speed work, pulled alongside me. Her running clothes were badly worn, and she was so far down Adilo’s depth chart that when I looked for her later, I couldn’t find her name. I picked up the pace, trying to match strides with her. When I faltered, she pointed to the ground beside her. “C’mon, c’mon,” she said smiling, insisting that I run with her!

I dug deeper, way deeper, and she checked her pace ever so slightly, though not so much to be condescending I like to think, and we ran into the finish together, arms and legs thrusting through the thin cool air, joy dripping from every pore of my body, for it is like she had just plucked a beautiful fruit from a tree and given it to me as a gift.


Me and Mare Dibaba (who finished 2nd in the 2010 Toronto Waterfront Marathon) and Dire Tune, winner of the 2008 Boston Marathon).



4 Responses to 50 Thoughts # 7: Can I repay the gift the Ethiopians gave me?

  1. Pat March 19, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

    Thank you, Margaret! We will publicize this. P.

    • margaret@margaretwebb.com March 19, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

      Fantastic! Have $250 raised in 7 hours….

  2. margaret@margaretwebb.com April 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Professional Writers Association of Canada


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