It’s Thursday 23rd November and we’re motoring down the M6 towards Birmingham Airport. We’ve ticked off every UK based Great Run event in the 2017 series and are now heading towards our final adventure – the Great Ethiopian Run!
Birmingham airport had arranged for access to the first-class lounge along with parking. But due to another accident on the M6, we only got there in time to grab a cup of coffee before we had to board. First time for me flying on one of those A380 double decker airbuses. And after our rush the plane was over an hour late taking off!
But finally we were lifting off the ground and gliding smoothly into the air. Thursday night flowed into Friday morning and I celebrated my 60th birthday in the air, some 39,000 feet up between Berlin and Baghdad! Six hours and 9 minutes later we landed in Dubai, and after a mad dash across Dubai Airport to make our connecting flight we landed in Addis Ababa 3 hours and 45 minutes later.
Getting through the airport customs was an experience. Our visas were checked, double checked and checked again, then we had to go back to have them stamped. But what a reception when we got through with staff from the Hilton there to collect us greeting me with “We are expecting you Mr David and happy birthday.” How did they know it was my birthday?
Off we went to the hotel and walking into reception I was greeted by a nice young lady called Hibist, who led me in and to a table where a birthday cake and a glass of wine awaited me and the staff from the hotel singing their version of happy birthday. What a way to arrive in Ethiopia and the Hilton hotel, simply fantastic!
Arriving in our room I listened as Garry described our surroundings first then led me out onto the balcony to describe our view. Typical city he explained, high-rise blocks, offices he presumed one way, a large building being constructed opposite and many private dwellings - lots of were hut-like buildings with corrugated tin roofs.
News travels fast it seems. Venturing out for a wander around the hotel grounds then into reception to collect our running vests and numbers from the Great Ethiopian Run help desk, it seemed everyone knew who we were and that it was my birthday! So obviously the next destination was a trip to the bar for a celebratory pint or two!
Here we met up with an old mate of mine, Eric MacInnes and his two colleagues, Belgium Bruno and Luxemburg Fred… well that’s how they were introduced anyway. I knew Eric from when I ran the seven marathons and he came around the world with us as he was then working for ITV, and he put together a documentary about that adventure. Now a media consultant based in Dubai, quite by coincidence he was working in Ethiopia, so we couldn’t miss the chance to meet up and reminisce.
Knowing it was my birthday, Eric told me an interesting fact. It appears in Ethiopia I am only 53 and not 60! Due to the calendar they use, in Ethiopia it is only 2010, although they still trade in the wide world as 2017. I need to research this some more but it appears when I left the UK I aged a year but on arrival in Ethiopia I’m seven years younger!
We also met up with Jamie Jones who works for Simplyhealth, the title sponsors of the Great Run series back in the UK. He presented me with a couple of birthday cards too, which him and a colleague had had brailed for me, a very nice gesture.
Later in the afternoon we met up with Hilina and Abby who work as part of the PR team for the Great Ethiopian Run, to do an interview. They were very interested in talking about running the event from a blind person’s perspective and although their English wasn’t good and my Ethiopian was none existent we got there in the end. We were also becoming aware of how important this event is to the locals and how proud they are if they get the opportunity to take part.
What we also noticed whilst walking around and especially when going up stairs was how short of breath we got, being 8000 feet above sea level really did take its toll. Dealing with the altitude and heat could be a very interesting scenario on run morning!
We all met up later in the restaurant to shouts of Happy Birthday once again, with Garry confusing the staff by telling them I was 39 and a few years old (because back home I kept telling people I would be 39 years and 252 months!). So we all laughed when halfway through the meal the restaurant staff started singing Happy Birthday and came out with a chocolate sign that said ‘Happy Birthday Blind Dev, 39 today’
Now, if you’ve been keeping up with the blogs and know me, you’ll know what a massive Baggies fan I am. And you’ll know about the bet I had with the lads one Saturday afternoon back in October when we were in Glasgow for the Great Scottish Run. They said if Watford equalised with my beloved West Bromwich Albion I had to buy breakfast the next day. So of course with only 30 seconds to go, I agreed… Breakfast the next day was complimentary at the hotel we were in. So here I was, ready to pay for the first meal in the Hilton Ethiopia!
Only I was told it was all paid for already. By Chris Brunt, player for WBA, who I’d related the tale to the following week down at the training ground. He said he’d been on the bench that day but that he’d pick up our tab here at the Hilton. True to his word, with the help of my wife Deb and the Foundation, he’d sorted out the bill for us! With the biggest smile on my face, we headed into the bar for a couple of drinks, with Garry finally owning up to emailing the hotel over the last couple of weeks telling them all about my special birthday.
The next morning we had a bit of a late start and made breakfast by the skin of our teeth, but the omelettes with chillies soon livened us up. Tony set off with some others to head into the mountains but as sight-seeing isn’t high on my agenda Garry stayed local. We took a walk close to the hotel, passed the presidential palace, Garry describing what seemed like watch towers with armed guards. We were then joined by a young local lad, who insisted on showing us the best view of the mountains from the city.
Walking back, Garry told me Meskel Square, where the race would start in the morning, was only now a stone’s throw away. He also described that outside this amazing hotel complex there seemed to be so many people, women and children sleeping rough, so sad to hear.
Back at the hotel we had lunch round the pool with Eric, Belgium Bruno and Jamie, which seemed very strange as I had just been talking with Deb back home about how it was freezing over there.
Later we got ready to attend the official event Pasta Party in the Hilton where there was quite a gathering of overseas runners. Also in attendance was the legendary Ethiopian runner, Haile Gebrselassie. Eric and Garry took me over to him and we had the opportunity of a chat and a photo. Other influential athletes were present and it was nice to hear their stories.
On the way out we bumped into an old acquaintance, Matthew Turnbull, an initial contact at Great Run. He told us he would be re-joining them for certain events and it was really nice to catch up. But we couldn’t chat for long, like all good runners if was off to bed for an early night so we were ready for the early start the next morning.
Sunday 26th November we were up at 6am and downstairs to meet the others for breakfast at 6.30am. By 7am we were making way towards Meskel Square and the start. Strangely enough it was a bit chilly first thing so our running jackets were on.
Heading towards Meskel Square the lads began giving me a description of the surroundings, with what and who was about. After crossing a main road it was then a downhill walk towards the start line with the crowds already gathering. It seemed like many locals without Great Ethiopian Run tops were out training, there were people doing push ups on the side of the road, people training up the hill, in fact it seemed like there were simply bodies everywhere!
Getting closer to Meskel Square we were confronted by two lines of police, some armed and some holding riot batons. Heading deeper into Meskel Square, more and more red shirts started to appear. We decided to stop for some pictures in our normal running tops, the sight of which created a huge queue of people wanting their picture taken with a man in a premier league shirt!
By 7.30am we had arrived at our starting pen and it was already filling up. The noise from excited runners was ramping up and at one point I got quite disorientated. The noise was coming from every angle, to hear the lads was impossible, I could hardly hear myself think. Like at all other runs a toilet is essential but more so when you’re also slightly suffering from Ethiopian tummy! Not seeing a loo about suddenly became a serious issue, with salvation being granted in the form of a broken toilet in a local Chinese restaurant!
We got back to our start area to find the red shirts had literally multiplied by thousands. Garry once again described the scene around us. At the front of our wave there was a line of police with armed police visible in the windows of surrounding buildings. Between us and the amazing sight of another wave of red shirted runners behind us, was another line of police.
The PA system was certainly alive with two presenters blasting out music, strange technical noises, a string of words in Ethiopian rang out and the only words I could understand was the repeated Addis Ababa, Addis Ababa. The crowds were going wild, whistling, chanting, all kinds of fantastic noises. People were dancing, shouting, their arms raised, knees kicked up. The scene must have been spectacular, something I’ve never experienced at any run in the UK. The Ethiopians certainly knew how to party and enjoy themselves and you couldn’t help but get carried away with them. It was unbelievable!
The PA system still rang out, occasionally a few English words came over the airwaves, but the excited presenters knew just how to get the crowd going. From the descriptions I was getting I truly believe the lads heads were spinning and eyes out on stalks. Runners were dressed in all sorts, some wearing running kit, many in jeans, denim shorts or skirts. People ready to run in football boots, pumps, trainers, shoes, sandals, it seemed if you had the opportunity of a red running top you ran in whatever regardless! There was all shapes and sizes, young and old, even very young kids taking part, anyone and anything goes it appears.
I caught the word elite mentioned, so presume the elite men and women were set off, then I’m told the wheelchair competitors started and by 9am we were ready to go. Garry explained just before we set off the sight now behind us, forty thousand plus runners all decked out in red shirts, a police cordon separating us. The shouts, whistles, chants, hollering, singing, every conceivable noise going could, under normal circumstances, be very intimidating but at this moment in time it seemed like everyone taking part came together as one, it was simply magical. Then we started to run. Or should I say the carnival had begun!
For the first kilometre we were in the shade of the overhead monorail. With the noise of the crowds coming from the left, right and overhead it also felt like the noise was vibrating beneath my feet giving me the sense that I was running in a large tube. Bodies engulfing me from every direction we ran, jogged, walked, were pushed left, then right. In fact where the masses went, you went!
There were so many runners the pushing and shoving simply couldn’t be avoided. And with the runners and crowds both chanting, at times I couldn’t hear Garry at all so he pulled me in tight and told me to hold on.
Out of the shadow of the monorail and blimey the heat hit you! At times we had to walk, at times we were simply stopped in our tracks. Groups of runners just kept stopping to dance to the music at the side of the road, causing wonderful chaos! This race was not the one for a personal best, it turned out to be a run you entered, started, hopefully finished but just took part and enjoyed.
As the kilometres passed by, we seemed to get more and more in tune with the other runners. I joined in the chanting, giving our English Oggy Oggy Oggy a go and although no one understood, they just joined in. The Ethiopian chant from runners seemed to be a whoo, whoo, whoo sound, so every now and then I would bellow out at the sixth or seventh chant ‘who are you!’ It had the desired effect and everyone around us joined in, Garry said there were big wide smiles, they were loving the camaraderie.
It took me a couple of kilometres to work out why a lot of runners kept tapping my right shoulder, then it dawned on me, I had forgotten in all the excitement that I had little Shelly, our mascot, pinned on my right shoulder, she had certainly created a lot of interest.
With all the attempted singing and chanting I was doing, when we hit some of the inclines and the fact we were some 8000 feet up I noticed how I was short of breath, surprising how the altitude did affect you. At around 5k we passed the only official water station, otherwise it was being sold along the course.
We passed goats, sheep and chickens, this race had everything! We were also told at the pre event meeting to take care and look out for drains. They would have new covers on them for the race, but it was said that they would go missing very quickly, so sand bags would be placed around them but never the less watch out as it was quite a drop if you went down one. Some of the drains we passed must have had the covers pinched many years ago, the smell that came from them was certainly not to be desired!
It was around the 5k point, just after passing the goats, we lost Tony and the other lads. Not surprising as Garry said all you could see in front of us was a red blur. At this point the run became quite undulating! I love that word undulating, there were certainly a good couple of inclines, going on for a couple of kilometres, pulling on the lungs. Many people were walking at this point but we pressed on. Boy did it tell on the breathing, at times you were certainly gasping.
Over a flyover, heading towards Meskel Square and the finish, then the showers were upon us! Well a bloke with a hose pipe, the water on the floor enough for me. Before we knew it, Garry told me the finish line was in sight, so a hundred yards or so we pulled over and waited for Tony and the lads to catch up.
Garry told me he could see down to the finish, left and right and there was no Tony to be seen so we must have passed him somewhere. Then Dave arrived so we guessed Tony couldn’t be far away but we must have waited about 10 minutes. Garry rang him but got no response, then we received a text from him. He was already back in the hotel waiting!
Police were patrolling the finish area and Garry told me, even with thousands of runners passing, they were pulling out many runners wearing counterfeit shirts. It seems there’s no messing about - not the right shirt, no medal!
We crossed the finish line in 1 hour 10 minutes according to Garry’s watch. We followed the crowds to four big lorries that housed the medals and water and that was that! All done.
To sum up the race from start to finish was just amazing, a truly fantastic experience! I hope the words I have written from my own experience give you some idea of how the event was, but in all fairness words can’t capture the moment, you really must be a part of it to truly understand the magic of the Great Ethiopian Run.
With medals proudly hanging around our necks, we made our way back to the hotel, finding Tony, Jamie and Eric on the pool terrace, beers already ordered and the celebrations began. There were lots of other runners in the hotel, with many stories and experiences to share.
Sitting listening to all the stories of the day, then sharing the stories from all the runs this year it seemed fantastic that from the initial Great Edinburgh Winter Run in January, we had completed all 25 Great Runs, covering a total of 234.2 miles of running, travelling just short of 20,000 miles in 4 countries and reaching the ripe old age of 60!
But more importantly Team Blind Dave had reached its goal, supporting the Albion Foundation and I have to say I am very proud of and would like to say a huge thanks to two great mates, Garry Wells and Tony Ellis who enabled me to be a part of such a great experience.
Thank you lads for everything.