Haile Gebrselassie has a problem.
You wouldn’t know it from a quick glance at his famous face, which is fixed with the beguiling smile that has accompanied him on a career that has touched heights that no other athlete has managed.
This is a man who broke 23 separate world records, collected two Olympic gold medals and earned four world titles.
He bestrode the track and the streets of famous marathons in Berlin, New York and Chicago and has now carried that success into the world of business, where he is one of the chief drivers of a resurgent Ethiopian economy that is creating millionaires faster than any other country in Africa.
But as he explains over delicious, jet-black coffee strong enough to wipe out the hazy affects of altitude, he can’t answer his phone right now. To prove the point, when his iPhone trills, he takes a quick look and sets it back down on the table in the small office that overlooks one of the busiest roads in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling, frenetic and endearingly chaotic capital city.
“If I don’t know the number, I won’t answer. You know why?” he asks. “Because government ministers will ring me up and say ‘Haile – I need a ticket for the big run on Sunday!’”
Hearing this story is the perfect introduction to the Great Ethiopia Run – the colourful, barmy and brilliant little brother of our own beloved Great North Run.
Last Sunday I was invited to Ethiopia to take part in this 10k event, and line up alongside the 37,000 other hopefuls desperate to make it to the Jan Meda sports ground in downtown Addis.
Why? Well, the Great Ethiopia Run goes way back with the North East. The first kernel of an idea came when local girl Abi Masefield, a gym friend of the great Gebrselassie, mentioned the possibility about creating an African equivalent of our own famous half-marathon from Newcastle to South Shields.
Abi’s mum Andrea Wonfor was friends with Brendan Foster, and when she mentioned it, the wheels were set in motion. Twelve months on, and with help from the good people at Nova International, the first event was held and won, fittingly enough, by Gebrselassie.
Fourteen years on, it has grown to something bigger than a running event. Seen by those in the country as key to exploding the old myths of Ethiopia as a famine-ridden basket case, it has become a joyous celebration of everything that is great about a country that surprised me greatly during four incredible days.
It may be lagging some way behind the Great North Run and its million finishers, but that is not for want of trying. Two days before the run you can’t find a race t-shirt anywhere – even if you’re in the seat of government.
“If we were allowed to sell 200,000 tickets, they would sell out within a few days,” Gebrselassie explains.
“I’m being serious! On Wednesday I had to buy three t-shirts from somebody on the street and he looked at me and said ‘Why do you need to buy them?’
“Well, we have many events in the run up to the event and I told one of the speakers that I would get him a t-shirt. I didn’t have any! So I needed to buy one.
“It sounds as if it is stressful, but I’m so happy about it. Do you think it is just a 10k? No, it’s not a 10k race. They dance, they jog, they walk. They get a medal at the end and they hang it on the wall. It is a joyful occasion.”
Three days later, lining up at the start of the race the familiar burble of apprehension that every runner recognises is present in the pit of my stomach.
It is not because of the local cuisine: the flat-bread called injera that is served with the lip-smacking stews and spicy concoctions that make Ethiopian food such a winning surprise. Rather it is because as I looked over the thousands of runners clad in the standard-issue red and green t-shirts, jostling for position, dancing in groups and making more noise than St James’ Park on a Saturday, I wondered how exactly I was going to make it to the start without losing a shoe.
I’d already seen a man propose to his girlfriend two metres before the start of the race, but that was nothing compared to the joyous riot of colour and entertainment that awaited.
And when the buzzer goes, the anxiety melts away. At 3,000 feet above sea level, you have to abandon all hope of a personal best. There is no chip timing system anyway, which probably explains why a large portion of the runners chose to amble, walk and gawp there way through 10 of the most memorable kilometres I will ever experience.
I try running for the first couple of miles, but altitude makes it feel like you’re running with a piano on your chest. My excuse for slowing to a near standstill is the break-dancers that line the route just after 3km.
A few minutes ahead, a DJ spins Ethiopian pop and a group of beautifully-attired women stop to dance. A little bit further on, the patrons of a local bar give good-natured advice to runners, telling them they’re wasting their time on that exercise lark. The runners’ response is to high five or make a grab for the beers that they’re clutching.
The kilometres melt away far too quickly. I want to string it out, and the steep hill at mile five gives me the chance. A water pipe has been popped open to give runners a chance to soak themselves – a brief respite from the scorching 27 degree sun. It’s not actually been that hot for most of my trip, but on this day it is boiling, making dipping under the 50- minute mark next to impossible.
All-too-soon I’m at the end with the rest of the party from Nova International sipping tea.
Dave Newton, the managing director, had said that they want to help market this run to the North East and beyond – to turn it into a destination run – and it should be an easy sell. It really is the most memorable, incredible experience that any runner could hope for.
A few hours after the end of the race – won by Wude Ayalew in a half-hour time that is testament to the course’s difficulty – Gebrselassie holds a house party for various dignitaries at his smart mansion.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but he is a walking contradiction of that point. Everywhere he has been over the weekend – and he has been at the British ambassador’s house, at a packed pre-race press conference and leading the traditional Ethiopian dancing at a local restaurant with trademark effervescence – he has signed autographs, posed for pictures and preached about the coming greatness of his brilliant country.
Pouring out measures of Johnnie Walker whiskey large enough to sink a navy fleet, he encourages us to join in the traditional dancing. A few hours later we’re taking a look around a trophy room that takes up all of his first floor.
Most of all, he wants us to spread the message: “When I ran all around the world I remember thinking to myself ‘I wish we had a race like this in Ethiopia’. I always wished that – but especially I wished we had our own version of the Great North Run, it’s so colourful, friendly and nice,” he says.
“Well the dream came true after many years. We are not as successful as the Great North Run and I can say that when I started, I did not expect all of this to happen. Now though, anyone you ask who has experienced it will tell you about the Great Ethiopia Run.”
They will tell you about Ethiopia, too, which is a wonderful and fantastic destination.
Addis will not win many beauty prizes – conforming to the chaotic template of most developing countries. But it is rich in soul, spirit and life and there is a vibrancy about the city which contributes to the spirit-soaring feeling that carries you through the 10k run.
The day before the event we headed to the top of Entoto mountain to look down on the city below and it took my breath away. Just like the run, four days wasn’t enough.