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One of the best things I ever did for my running was to visit Ethiopia. My first trip to Sululta, a rural town 10 kilometers outside Addis Ababa, was in 2012, midway during my year-long trip around the world. For two months, I fell hard for the rugged landscape, intense sunshine, flavorful food, and most of all, running culture and community. It took a while for me to loosen my grip on the approach I’d always known, deeply ingrained as it was. But once I learned to follow the lead of the locals and embrace the way they trained, rested, and generally approached running, my perspective started to shift. That leg of my trip flew by faster than I’d have liked, and the day I left, I was already dreaming about my return.
Four years later, I found myself on a 36-hour journey back to East Africa, eager to reclaim the spirit and attitude that had won me over on my first visit. Despite my time away, it didn’t take long to slip back into a nice rhythm in the Sululta eucalyptus groves and on the meandering paths of Mount Entoto. I also had an easier time identifying what about the Ethiopian running tradition — and especially the mindsets that make it unique — had attracted me in the first place.
Here are three of the mental shifts that rubbed off on me in Ethiopia, and left a lasting impression on my relationship with running:
1) Effort Over Optics
We U.S. runners love our metrics. Whether it’s miles, pace, splits, heart rate, or vertical gain — if we can measure it, we often do. I consider myself pretty minimal in the data department, opting for a simple Timex over a GPS watch for most runs. But then again, I’ve been keeping detailed training logs for nearly 16 years — so numbers and minutia clearly carry weight.
I found things to be different in Ethiopia. Many runners didn’t wear watches, and the ones who did weren’t glued to theirs like I tend to be during hard efforts. I don’t remember any conversations about mileage or minutes; given the terrain they run on and serpentine paths they forge, it would have been hard to put a number on distance or elevation anyways.
Running with faster, but less metric-driven athletes, convinced me once and for all that effort matters more than optics. I haven’t since given up tracking weekly volume or worrying about splits in workouts, but I do try to let my body and effort levels take the reins more often.
This mentally extends to the renowned African easy days. It’s tempting to run quick whenever possible: easy runs, warmups, between-interval jogs, and more. It’s efficient and it feels like we’re making gains every day. But running borderline hard every day is not only unsustainable, it compromises how hard the truly hard days can be.
The seriousness with which my Ethiopian training partners took their recovery was impressive. For starters, most runners took one day a week completely off, a practice that’s not common among U.S. pros. On top of that, they take easy runs to another level. We’d often start out with a short walk and slowly work our way up to a jog. Sometimes we’d end at a decent clip, but just as often, we’d cover ground as leisurely as possible while still technically running. My patience was definitely tested at first, but once I bought in, my legs started bouncing back quicker than before. My fitness, as I’d feared, didn’t suffer a bit.
I learned by doing that occasional super slow running does not make super slow runners. When sprinkled throughout an intense training program, true easy days go far. Now, I rarely wear a watch on my recovery days, and I’ll often run with a friend or two who I trust to hold me back.
2) “Why Not Me?”
Between social media, websites like LetsRun, and the running rumor mill, it doesn’t take much work to size up a field beforehand, determine roughly where you stack up, and show up to race with a pretty good guess about how it’ll shake out. I’m definitely guilty, and it’s not a very fun or effective way to race.
The races I saw in Ethiopia didn’t unfold so expectedly. Whether it was the national cross-country championship or the Great Ethiopian Run 10K road race, I was always startled by how many competitors started out like bats out of hell, mixing it up with international stars and paying no mind to the fact that they had nowhere near the credentials or experience. The slightest chance that that day might be their day was reason enough to chance it.
The fact that most of those bold runners didn’t last up front isn’t the point. The “why not me” mentality is one that I admire and am still working on. Taking risks doesn’t always pay off, but by leaving all possible outcomes on the table, the odds of a golden performance shoot up.
3) Low Maintenance/No Excuses
In college, I was particular about many aspects of my running because I could be. I ate the same lunch before every afternoon workout (a bagel with peanut butter, a banana, and honey), had an endless supply of fresh shoes and breathable clothes, and got to decide where, when, and how fast to run my non-workout runs.
My time in Sululta, and the people I ran with, made me rethink how much all of that matters. A close friend there didn’t own a sports bra until I gave her one of mine. A runner I met on Mount Entoto trained in shoes so tattered the uppers were hanging on by threads, constantly letting rocks in. I don’t recall any locals showing up for a workout with a gel packet or sports drink. And on any given day, we ran wherever and for as long as the person leading the run wanted to. This is not to say that such things wouldn’t have been welcomed or beneficial — only that they didn’t interfere with good, consistent training, or provide fodder for excuses.
It’s easy to think that everything has to be just so in order for us to be at our best. As I saw over and over in Ethiopia, that’s simply not true. There will always be an excuse if we’re looking for one, but when we’re prepared to give our all no matter the situation, excuses have no place.