[Editor’s Note: In January, iRunFar Managing Editor Meghan Hicks traveled to Bekoji, Ethiopia, a hub of Ethiopian elite running, to observe and participate in the Girls Gotta Run Foundation program there. Girls Gotta Run is a U.S. nonprofit that awards scholarships to girls and young women in Bekoji to give them elevated access to education, health care, organized run coaching, life-skills development, and more. In this article, Meghan documents the ground feel of the Bekoji 100 Mile Relay, a running relay put on by Girls Gotta Run while she was there. We also published a photo gallery and four short dispatches from on the ground in Bekoji. Please consider donating to iRunFar’s fundraising campaign for Girls Gotta Run. Thanks to Jaybird for sponsoring this project!]
The sun has just risen, bathing the 48 of us in light the color of a wheat field ready for harvest. The air is cold and dry here at 10,000 feet above sea level, so our warm, damp breaths condense into silvery clouds about our faces as we nervously laugh, take selfies, and jog in place. Our group is composed of 15 teenage girls hailing from the town of Bekoji which is located exactly 100 miles away and where many Ethiopian elite runners train, 27 adult visitors from several countries, and six organizers and coaches. Starting in moments, we’ll all take turns running five-kilometer road segments from here to Bekoji, thereby enacting the inaugural Bekoji 100 Mile Relay.
With little by way of ceremony or pomp–which is perfect because it slices right through our nerves–the relay begins. Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF) Executive Director Kayla Nolan, the relay’s organizer, simply starts running. She takes it out at a jog, as was planned ahead of time, and the rest of us fall into step around her for the relay’s first five kilometers.
The tarmac road upon which we run dissects the northern finger of Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park, home to baboons, warthogs, nyala, and dozens of other wildlife species. We round the corner on a lump of land which blocks the sun and brings us briefly back into a darker, colder pre-dawn. We are quiet, except for rubber soles whispering against the blacktop, breaths puffing in the high altitude’s thin air, and the occasional whoop or giggle or moment of conversation.
This is an audacious undertaking, running a 100-mile relay in a remote part of East Africa. That we even reached the starting line is a near miracle. Even if it seems like a dream, we’re doing this: we’re 48 people running this road together, filling an entire traffic lane, watching nyala sprint across the road, and ogling the giant Bale Mountains.
Soon we reach the end of the first five kilometers. From here out, we’ll run each segment as individuals or small groups, the rest of us leapfrogging in three busses to the handoff points. From sunrise to past sunset, we’ll cheer for each other, sing, dance, take two zillion more selfies, and, oh yeah, we’ll run. Together we will become a living, breathing example that a big goal is achieved one kilometer, one selfie, one person at a time.
At about 24 kilometers into the relay’s route, the road crests its high point in the Bale Mountains, at 11,700 feet above sea level. Those of us who are visiting from low altitude are lightheaded and woozy, while the Bekoji girls, who live at 9,000 feet, are almost unaffected. That said, this is the first time the girls have ventured and run this high–or this far from home, for that matter, this is a huge adventure for them. Meskarem, who is running now, just doubled over to vomit on the side of the road.
GGRF coach Fatia Abdi shrieks in Amharic and the bus screeches to a halt. She and a group of people sprint off the busses and to Meskarem’s side, offering her a sip of water and a couple supportive hands on her back. These mountains are today’s first tangible obstacle.
The GGRF girls are accustomed to obstacles, or at least that which Westerners would perceive as significant challenge: poverty; limited access to pretty much every basic resource such as clean water, clothing, and nutritious food; decreased access to education; it goes on. And in Ethiopia, women have historically been an oppressed gender, so their barriers are bigger.
Describes Kayla, who has been a part of the American nonprofit GGRF since 2011 and who lived in Ethiopia for four of these years to help develop its programs, “Girls face an enormous number of challenges in their personal and social lives, especially around adolescence, including early marriage, dropping out of school, domestic violence, social isolation, limited economic opportunity, and more.” To address this, GGRF provides three-year academic and athletic scholarships to girls starting around age 12 or 13, the average age of early marriage in Bekoji. The program’s goal is to supply girls with the tools they need to successfully navigate their volatile teenagerhood.
“GGRF also works with each girl’s mother,” says Kayla, “to help them gain access to the resources and skills that allow them to support themselves and their daughters in school and otherwise.” In Bekoji, GGRF supplies scholarships and support to 60 girls and their 60 mothers.
The point about GGRF’s run training must be emphasized. Bekoji is a running town. Not everyone runs, but hundreds do and pretty much everyone understands the sport’s national importance. Ethiopian Olympians galore have come from and trained in Bekoji. Think Kenenisa Bekele, Derartu Tulu, and Tirunesh Dibaba, okay? Running is a lifeblood of Bekoji, and a GGRF cornerstone.
“Running has become a space in Ethiopia where women have been able to express power through sport, to create their own educational and economic opportunities nationally,” emphasizes Kayla. “We work with the idea of using sports to renegotiate the norms of what it means to be an adolescent girl in Ethiopia.”
Back in the Bale Mountains, Meskarem stands up, wipes the back of her hand across her face, and begins jogging. Her first steps are tepid tests, and she’s bestridden by Fatia and a few other members of our team. Her strength and speed return and suddenly she’s rolling again, dropping all the others.
Our bus leaves her behind to drive the mile or so to the next changeover point so that runners aboard the bus can ready for the next leg. It’s not long before we see Meskarem’s sunshine-yellow shirt round the curve above us. Her stride is wide open and her arms swing like that of a sprinter’s, so hard that her head bobs back and forth. She’s easily running sub-5:00-mile pace–at 11,700 feet, don’t forget.
When she gets close, you can see the fire in her eyes, the power in her body, and the way the world makes space for her to move through it. She tags the hand of one of the runners for the next segment and folds over again, this time to simply catch her breath. When she rises up, we can see that there are no obstacles here.
Coach Fatia fast emerges as the mother hen of our massive group. As the idiom goes, mother hens can sometimes get a bad rap for being too outspoken, too caring, too protective. To be clear, Fatia is anything but. She’s the watchful eye that makes sure we put on our sunscreen and stay hydrated. She leads us in song and dance to pass the time. She monitors the girls to make sure they warm up enough to run hard. And she makes sure that none of us visitors inattentively step out in front of a passing truck at our often-chaotic relay changeover points. She is the glue holding this roving show together.
Listen as Fatia leads the girls in song and dance at a relay handoff point.
The history of Ethiopia as a patriarchal society–let’s not mince words, things are changing fast but men still have greater opportunity than women in almost every aspect of society–means that men and boys have more access to running in the country as well as in Bekoji. Until GGRF hired Fatia a couple years ago, only men were running coaches here.
She’s in her mid-20s now, and newly married about a year ago. She and her husband rent a couple of rooms in a compound near central Bekoji. Everyone, including Fatia, says that she almost made it with her running. In her late teens, she trained in Bekoji with the big guns, other young women and men who would go on to compete internationally and even in the Olympics. She says her best events were first 400 meters and, later, the half marathon. A major knee and quadriceps problem–and inadequate access to health care to treat and rehabilitate it–meant that she went from competing nationally to out of the sport in a short time.
Her years of regional- and national-level training and competing also meant that she possessed a wealth of understanding about running as well as what running can do for a person holistically. She was ideal to coach the GGRF program.
Fatia is fiery. Her presence fills a room–or a whole stadium–her strength oozing into every corner, rounding every bend in the track. As a coach, her standards are high; she asks for 100% commitment from each girl. For instance, she coaches for precise execution of each warm-up drill, asking one girl to lift her knees higher and another to strike the ground more gently. As the girls loop the track in stadium practices, she’ll yell corrections for a girl’s stride or pace, her voice and command spanning the infield with ease.
Fatia is as affectionate and caring as she is fierce. When one girl feels unwell and is on the verge of tears at the start of a speed workout, Fatia enshrouds her in a lasting hug, talking it out and giving her an hour’s recovery run instead. When another sits in the grass with homework as she waits for practice to start, Fatia leans in and lends a little assistance.
She is also a coach of life. Fatia knows her run-training theory, and that’s important. But as a woman who has completed her education, made it through her own teenage years, and is working in a profession where men outnumber women, she knows what her charges face.
“It is important that I am female,” Fatia says. “[The girls and I] are free to discuss every issue together. I advise them about training, education, and life. When something bad happens in their life, like they are approached by a man [who wants] to be their boyfriend, I advise that this is not right…. I advise them to have confidence, to be free to be female, to believe that we can do everything, to change our lives.”
It is now the heat of the afternoon in the heart of the dry season. Heat waves shimmer above the road while the sun beats down from near our zenith, such that its light casts almost no shadows and the whole world looks like an overexposed photo. The land is gently rolling, and farmlands stretch as far as the eye can see. Wheat, teff, barley, and sorghum are among the grains grown here, and the now-dormant fields create a patchwork quilt of brown rectangles to the horizon.
Ethiopia is divided into ethnically derived regions which are then subdivided into zones. Much of the Bekoji 100 Mile Relay takes place in the Oromia Region’s Arsi Zone. The Arsi Oromo people live in Arsi Zone and a couple other surrounding zones.
‘Siiqqee’ (pronounced see-kay) means ‘stick’ in the local Oromo language, and it refers to both a physical stick that an Arsi Oromo mother gives to her daughter when she is married as well as an Arsi Oromo social construct. Siiqqee has long been a part of this culture, and both the literal tradition and the figurative social norms exist to help protect women and maintain women’s rights and well-being. Think of siiqqee as feminism, we are told.
The Siiqqee Women’s Development Association is an Ethiopian national charity which works to supply women with the resources and skills that allow them to empower themselves and control their livelihoods. “…We are going to become bigger. We were in the kitchen in the dark, and siiqqee brought us into the light….” This is a translated excerpt from a poem written and performed by a member of Bekoji’s Siiqqee Women’s Development Association group.
In Bekoji, the GGRF and Siiqqee Women’s Development Association partner to amplify each other’s efforts. Siiqqee, too, is a co-opted symbol of GGRF. “In Oromia, the siiqqee staff represents women’s safety and empowerment. It’s a way that women can protect themselves and gather their community. And now, the siiqqee staff has gone on to represent peace,” explains Kayla.
Five kilometers by five kilometers by five kilometers, we cross this African plain. Oxen, donkeys, circular buildings with thatched roofs, dogs, people, and more dot the landscape. The grain grown in this area of Ethiopia ends up in the mouths of millions countrywide, which has led many people to call this area Ethiopia’s breadbasket.
Twenty-four-year-old American Molly Seidel is running right now. The four-time NCAA Division I champion who turned pro in 2017 has a 15:33 road 5k PR, so she’s making her segment pass fast. The only way that most of us can keep up with her is to follow her in the bus, so from it we watch her serene demeanor and strong stride. Hammering at high altitude has never looked so easy, and the GGRF girls take notice. Their heads yawn back to watch her as we drive off to the next handoff point.
There, we pile off the busses and onto the side of the road. GGRF’s Desta is up next, so she gets to quick work with jogging and drills on the road’s shoulder. Each Ethiopian girl treats her 5k segment as a race, and we’ve seen most of them put down outings in the 16- to 18-minute range, save for a couple slower 5ks in the big hills and thin air of the Bale Mountains. Desta has been a GGRF scholar for several years and is quite talented. She’s as serious as it gets about her 5k.
About a third of a mile away, Molly crests a rise in the road and comes into view. She is a dark silhouette on a washed-out tarmac, her body’s form waving back and forth in the heat waves. Surely she can’t hear us yet, but we all scream with delight, our arms rising into the air. You know it when you see it: a woman doing what she was born to do.
Upon catching the same glimpse of Molly, Desta runs off for a last minute of jogging and a final stride. She returns to the handoff line and settles into the starter’s stance, her body still but her eyes darting and hands wringing. Suddenly, she shuts her eyes and lowers her head, and everything about her goes calm. It is only clear that she’s praying when she seals these seconds with a sign of the cross, taking her right hand to her forehead, sternum, two shoulders, and lips. She turns her head to await Molly’s final approach, the corners of her mouth lifting into a broad smile and her eyes settling on Molly with a new calmness.
Molly passes the proverbial baton to Desta–actually, we’re using a GPS watch to record the whole day and so it’s our baton–and she fires off with her braids flying, knees driving high so that her femurs rise to parallel with the ground, arms swinging fluidly, and eyes laser focused.
We all cheer again. We hug Molly and each other. We share high fives and water bottles and shit-eating grins. It is something of a siiqqee that we see in Molly and Desta’s handoff, that our team carries today, that is alighted inside each of us.
When we finally spin out of our emotional orbit and back onto planet earth, we can hardly see Desta. She’s traveled, what, a mile already? We shield our eyes to the sun and see that the GGRF mission is accomplished in Desta. This young woman–who turned 17 today–has all the tools she needs to go into the critical moments of life like she was simply born to do them.
Thirteen-and-a-half hours after we started, the inaugural Bekoji 100 Mile Relay finds its finish line in downtown Bekoji. It is dark and mid-evening, and we shout, dance, and sing to celebrate our finish. This party goes on for just a few minutes, but we’re loud enough for long enough that we attract a small crowd that joins in on our celebration.
Shortly, we make our way to one of the couple hotels in Bekoji, Hotel Wabe, and fill its restaurant to capacity. They are ready for 48 ravenous runners, and plentiful food comes rapidly. We devour each family-style plate as quickly as the kitchen produces them. We are wild and giddy as we retell today’s stories.
As our bellies fill, fatigue finally creeps in and the room quiets. Soon some of us are elbows on tables and heads in hands, the weight of our skulls too much to hold on our shoulders anymore. We trickle out of the room, visitors to hotel rooms and girls back to their homes. The relay is officially over.
The Arsi-Bale Hotel is the other of Bekoji’s two main hotels, where half of us visitors sleep, up the street a bit. Just as we put heads to pillows, a group of people begins to sing in one of the compounds behind the hotel. This is the second night we’ve heard them.
Listen to this group of people sing behind Bekoji’s Arsi-Bale Hotel.
A couple of us emerge from our rooms. We stand with our bare feet on cold concrete, listening through the walls and the space and the language barrier which separate us. It’s impossible to know the words they sing but it’s simple to feel their uplifted energy. They remind us: endings are beginnings. One moment, one event, one person births another. Though the first-ever Bekoji 100 Mile Relay has come to its close, we all carry today within us. It is fun to wonder, what will the relay give rise to in the GGRF girls, us visitors, and the circles of influence around each of us? What future fires are already lit?
After morning practice, but before her daily chores and afternoon school, we meet 16-year-old Bashadu for ‘shay,’ tea in Amharic. The shay is black tea which we are told is spiced with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and ginger. Four of us lean in tight around a tiny round table–Bashadu, Sukare Nure who is the Bekoji GGRF program coordinator and who will translate, another journalist, and I. Our conversation is quiet, intimate, and made almost at a whisper.
Bashadu was hand selected for the GGRF program about 3.5 years ago because she came from a low-income home. She went through the three-year academic and athletic scholarship program, and is an alumni this year. In the alumni program, girls continue practicing with the team and receiving mentorship, and they also serve as a mentor to the program’s younger girls.
Bashadu says that she lives with her mother and four younger siblings, three sisters and a brother ranging in age from four to 14. Her parents divorced, her father remarried, and he lives elsewhere in Bekoji with his second family. Her mom now supports her five children solo by making and selling ‘injera,’ Ethiopia’s staple bread made from teff and sometimes other grains mixed in. She occasionally takes other work in day labor at construction sites to make ends meet. Bashadu’s GGRF scholarship made a big impact on her family.
“I love to run and I love to make my school work…. I have dreams to become a big runner and to go to college to become a doctor for women,” she says when we ask her what she thinks might be in her future.
At the moment, and it seems she’s probably aware of this, her future could go in a number of directions. She’s objectively one of the fastest GGRF team members, and she’s at the precise age where she could try out or be picked for Bekoji’s Ethiopia Athletics Federation team or another team in a different region of the country. Three GGRF girls have previously been chosen for this next level of training.
She may also be aware that she sits at an inflection point for girls. She’s in grade eight, so secondary school is her next step. In Bekoji, only 30% of girls make it to secondary school and just 3% go to university. When she enters secondary school, she’ll become an educational minority among her age-group peers. But she has camaraderie as her good friend and fellow GGRF scholar Desta is also in the eighth grade and wants to continue school to become a nurse who works in women’s health. We joke that the pair can work together in the future, too.
“Desta is like my sister… and coach Fatia like a mother,” says Bashadu. “Fatia is very gentle. I love [to hear] her voice at practice. It is motivation for us.”
Financial support for her and her family when they needed it, a community of friends that she loves like a family, developing significant talent in a sport she enjoys, leadership from a tough but gentle coach, and the space to dream big: this is the GGRF program in action in Bashadu.
Bekoji’s before-sunrise sky is pale pink, like flamingo feathers or the smooth interior of a conch shell. Cooking fires make smoke that hangs low and thick, such that when a runner passes by quickly, he parts it around him. The night’s chill remains, and almost everyone shelters themselves in extra layers, chins and shoulders tucked into blankets and scarves. Between the cold and the smoke, the air feels rough and raspy on the inhale.
Many people make their way everywhere, some leading heavily laden, stone-faced donkeys on the rocky, dusty side streets while others walk in singles, pairs, or quadruples down the tarmac road. Though life is already well on its way for another day, town remains quiet. The three-wheeled mini-taxis called ‘bajajs’ are yet to begin their all-day-long beeping, kids heading to school aren’t yet awake enough to tease each other, and greetings among friends are silent exchanges of eye contact rather than exuberant hellos.
For the couple hundred runners who live and train in Bekoji, it is time to practice. Today, GGRF practice takes place in the grassy fields on the west side of town. Every morning, these fields and several more locations around the city–the eucalyptus forests, the stadium, a couple steep hills, and the roads–are filled with runners training. Some are on the couple organized teams that train here, while many run independently or in small groups.
Today’s GGRF workout resembles what a Westerner would call a fartlek. The girls jog easy for about 20 minutes to warm up. Drills follow, in a routine they know by heart and carry out while lined up in two long rows. After that, the girls split into three groups, one bearing the team’s youngest members, and, then, two more based on speed. The intervals begin and they are started and stopped by coach Fatia’s calls across the fields. The girls jog easily in between the efforts. Their intervals get progressively faster and shorter until the last one looks something like a 100-meter dash. All told, the intervals last for about 30 minutes. A cool-down ensues with a little jogging, a few drills, and about 15 minutes of dedicated stretching.
Each GGRF practice is sealed with a song. Sometimes this is rambunctious and animated, other times it’s more perfunctory. No matter the mood, there are smiles, clapping, and dancing. How does every girl carry a beautiful tune and how does the group have such synchronized rhythm?
Listen to the GGRF girls sing at the conclusion of a practice.
History shows us that progress is not typically made in leaps and bounds, that there’s no miracle cure or magic potion. These girls sing and dance every day, which means they’ve had hundreds of opportunities to carry the right note and let the song carry them.
Practice makes perfect is the Girls Gotta Run Foundation way. Consistent running makes fast young women. Consistent study results in a completed education. Consistent collective efforts become an enduring community. Consistent practice of life skills yields young women who have the tools they need to control their own lives.
This is also a human truth. We all need time to grow from a tiny seed into a harvest-ready plant. And sometimes, some of us must claw, gnaw, and carve out a place in a field where nothing has ever taken root. It is through this consistent persistence that each Girls Gotta Run Foundation girl becomes a capable, confident woman.
Watch “Elevate,” Chapter 6 in Jaybird’s Run Wild series, about the girls of Girls Gotta Run:
- Multiple interviews with Kayla Nolan, December 2018 and January 2019
- Multiple interviews with Fatia Abdi, January 2019
- Multiple interviews with Sukare Nure, January 2019
- Interview with Desta, January 2019
- Interview with Bashadu, January 2019
- Siiqqee Women’s Development Association presentation in Bekoji, January 2019