44,000 runners at the Great Ethiopian Run

Great Ethiopian Run: Emma's story

​For the very first time, Orbis UK sent a team of runners out from the UK to take part in the Great Ethiopian Run. Here, runner Emma tells us all about the experience.

After arriving early in Ethiopia after a 7.5 hour overnight flight from London, the team was greeted with a traditional coffee ceremony. We were mesmerised by the beans being first dry roasted, and then boiled with water to flavour the coffee. The lady took her time roasting the beans to perfection; she could see us all salivating over the aroma of freshly roasted coffee. It was what we all needed after a long flight and a busy day ahead!

The next day, after a quick rest in the hotel, we were all keen to get out and about in Addis and explore more of this fast-paced capital. We visited Menelik Hospital in Addis Ababa, where Dr Alemayehu, Country Director for Ethiopia, and Dawit Seyum, Programme Director in Ethiopia, gave a presentation on eye health and the work Orbis is doing.

It was alarming to hear the scale of the problem in Ethiopia – 1.6 million people are blind with an additional 3.8 million visually impaired. Most of these people suffer from avoidable or treatable blindness with the most common causes of blindness being cataract, trachoma and refractive error.

Dr Alemayehu said that 87% of those in the population who are considered blind, and 91% of those with low vision, suffer from preventable or treatable conditions. Globally, this figure is 75%, which highlighted just how big the size and scale of the problem in Ethiopia is, and why Orbis is so desperately relied upon.

After the speech, Dr Alemayehu invited us on a tour of the complex, which included visiting the construction area for the new ophthalmology department and the Eye Bank of Ethiopia. Orbis was instrumental in setting this up and it’s one of two eye banks in Africa – the second being South Africa. It is the only eye bank to not import its corneas!

Orbis runners from across the globe at the Great Ethiopian Run

Orbis runners from across the globe gather for the Great Ethiopian Run

It was a busy start to the trip but made us all even more determined to complete the looming 10km race and to ensure that all our fundraising and hard work in training wasn’t in vain. To make sure that we were fully race ready, we joined all the other international runners for a ‘Pasta Party’ the night before with Haile Gebrselassie (two-time Olympic gold medallist, four-time World Champion and holder of 27 world records) as the guest of honour.

We all forgot that we were about to run a 10km and instead, started carb-loading like we were about to run a double marathon!

8am. D-day. The day we had been training for had arrived. Of course, we all had to roll out of bed, still full from all our pasta and with slightly sore heads from staying up late to watch Ireland beat the Kiwis, eager to head to the start line. The excitement was palpable. We were about to line up against 44,000 Ethiopian runners at Africa’s largest road race, and we were all hopelessly unprepared for what we were about to face.

Orbis runners from across the world warming up with Aoife

Aoife warms up all of the Orbis runners before the race

After a quick warm-up from Orbis Ireland’s runner Aoife, we headed downtown, into the throngs of other runners all deliriously excited for what was about to ensue. There were no waves, or phased starts, just the removal of a line of army soldiers, who had been linking arms across the road to mark the start point.

I glanced down at my phone to check my start time, more out of interest then strategy, as there is no starting clock or tracked timing here. Instead, 44,000 of us started shuffling our way across the start line, each covered in face paints, glitter, Ethiopian-coloured arm bands and sweat bands. Here I was, racing against a nation of distance runners over 10km, at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet.

Great Ethiopian Run runners celebrate after finishing

Orbis UK's team (Emma is second left) at the Great Ethiopian Run

I had been warned before the race by an Ethiopian colleague who had studied the race map I proudly shared in the office that “the first 5.5km, allllllllll downhill. After that…” At this point, he looked at me with sheepish, pitiful eyes. I’ve trained, I thought. How hard could it be, I thought.

The first few km were a mixture of a shuffle and a dance. With so many people it was hard to get into a rhythm. I dodged most of the stilt walkers, roadside dance parties and children running in and out of the crowds and was able to break free into a steady jog about 3km in. Not too bad so far. Quite enjoyable actually. I ran alongside other runners who had personalised their running vests and some whom were running in jeans or without shoes.

Then, 5.5km hit. We swung right on the course and started heading uphill. And climbing. And climbing. It just kept continuing. The water tanks parked at 7km and 8km showered us with water to cool us down in the quickly rising African sunshine but it was only a short reprieve. My body started to question what it should do with continuous uphill climbs and so little oxygen in each breath.

But the atmosphere was incredible. And this was a power I had underestimated. Ethiopian runners patted us on the back and shouted words of encouragement. Local café owners offered us glasses of cold beer from their cafes on the side of the racing road. DJ booths at almost every km offered a pause to stop, dance, sing and then jog on. It was a melting point of celebration, fitness and utter elation.

Emma with Orbis UK runner Dhiren from Santander

The final push felt long. That stretch from 9km until the end just seemed to go on forever. It wasn’t until after the race that I heard that because the course was adjusted at the last minute to accommodate the African Union meeting being held in Addis Ababa this year, the GER was not actually 10km, but 10.6km. That 0.6km extra felt like a marathon in itself.

Crossing the finish line, I was almost disappointed it was all over. The race was the most fun I have had exercising. Ever. It was tough, there’s no doubt about it, but it wasn’t competitive, and it wasn’t lonely, like pounding the pavements of London can be on a wet, cold November night.

No. This was special. This was a party. Walking back from the finish line to the rendezvous point I took my time – chatting with locals, having another dance, handshakes and photos galore. The sea of smiling faces, all smiling back, painted with bright, brilliant colours of the Ethiopian flag, many with additional glitter.

If you want a fast time, or a flat course, or even one with smooth roads, this is not the race for you. But if you want a memory, an insight into one of the most beautiful cultures, with some of the happiest runners in the world, I cannot recommend the Great Ethiopian Run enough.

Interested in signing up for next year? Contact Emma, our Corporate Partnership Manager, on the below...

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