New opportunities from covid-19

From Dagmawit Amare (ETH)


In my sixteen years working for Great Ethiopian Run I have spent many long hours mobilizing participants to take part in our races. At times this can feel like hard work but overall I have to say that I love doing this because of the results we achieve and ultimately what it means for the participants themselves. The last edition of the Great Ethiopian Run International 10km saw 45,000 runners register to take part; and this race still stands as the biggest ever race in Africa.


I started working for Great Ethiopian Run in 2004. In that year we organized a women’s-only race called Women First. We wanted to celebrate the achievements of women in Ethiopia, seen most clearly on the international level by our female athletes but also recognizing the huge contribution made by women more generally in Ethiopia’s economy and development. In the first year of the race we had 4000 participants. This year, just one day before Ethiopia announced its first case of COVID-19, we staged the 17th edition with 15,000 registered participants. Just thinking about this now makes me happy.


As an event organiser I have gained a lot of experience about staging big races. I have never been a runner myself. What motivates me in my work is seeing others run and finding enjoyment in our races.


But this was to change during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several years ago I was invited to a race in Norway called Knarvikmila with whom we were partnering to raise funds for our charity campaign. I went there as a guest but the organisers there encouraged me to take part in their 5km race and I felt obliged to run. It was not easy! But at least I did not have to contend with the altitude – we were running at sea-level – and I kept telling myself that this was easier than if I were ever to do a race in Ethiopia. By the fourth kilometre my lower legs started to go numb as though all the blood in my body had sunk to my feet. But I still finished the race, towards the back of the field, and feeling a bit awkward as I imagined that few of the spectators were expecting to see an Ethiopian finish at the back of the race.


As the pandemic took hold in Ethiopia, we had to cancel some of our annual races. Very soon, as we started to work from home, we talked about how we could keep our participants engaged in running and exercise and this led to arranging weekly exercise classes online with an instructor for our followers. From this we came up with an idea of staging a virtual run, the first ever to be staged in Ethiopia.


The run took place in the first week in June. I was excited about the race. This time I could be both an organiser and a participant. Many of my friends were taking part, as they often do, and I took the chance to run too. Just over 100 of more than 500 participants were female.


For the run I could choose my own running route over 5km. Perhaps not surprisingly I chose the route of the Women First 5km which I know intimately as a race organiser even though I have never yet taken part in the race. This district of Addis Ababa known as ‘Atlas’ is also where I was raised as a child.


In the days before the race I made sure I did some training. I didn’t want to have a repeat of my Norwegian experience! I was determined to finish in under 45 minutes.


We had asked all the participants to design their own race number, and I set about making my own. I wanted to run in memory of my sister. Making my number and thinking about my run with my sister in mind gave me extra motivation.


On the day of my run I headed out early with two friends to the start venue. As it happened, there were others out running on the same route which gave us encouragement. Music always plays a big part in my life, so we set off listening to the special mix of tunes prepared by our DJ for this race. I was full of energy.


Having not done much of a warm-up the first 2km felt a bit of a struggle, but as we turned back onto Bole Road by the airport roundabout I could sense that my body was more relaxed and I was starting to enjoy it. I reached 4km in just 33 minutes and for a moment thought I could dip under 40 for the 5km. But then came the hill up to the finish. I pushed as hard as I could, thinking back over all those sixteen years when I had watched others do the same. As the finish came into sight, I went past an elderly man who was also out jogging. Then he came back past me! “Come on Dagmawit!” I shouted to myself inside my head – and somehow I managed to pass him again.


I finished my 5km run in 41 minutes and 40 seconds. A personal best and the first ever 5km run I had completed in my own country. (And the altitude showing on my watch here was 2,348m!)


A few days later I was honoured to receive my medal from the Emperor of Long Distance Running Haile Gebrselassie. As I’ve been working with Haile for many years he is both a colleague and close friend. But as this was my first race having Haile to present my medal still felt extra special.


So the pandemic has given me chance to be involved in staging a new race for Ethiopia. And it’s given me that equally wonderful feeling of having finished a race myself.

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