I stood as still as possible as a narrow paintbrush ran across my face, from the middle of my cheek up to the corner of my eye. Soon, my cheek was covered in red, green and yellow stripes and I closed my eyes as the young artist sprinkled gold glitter on top of it all. I handed over 50 birr and went on my way, leaving the young man to decorate the face of another one of the 40,000 runners making their way toward Meskal Square for the start of the Great Ethiopian Run.
It was 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning in November. I had landed in Addis Ababa only seven hours earlier and crashed into bed at my hotel just six hours earlier. But as I stood among the growing crowd, my adrenaline overcame any jet lag or exhaustion. The 10 kilometer “race” wouldn’t start for another hour, but thousands were already lined up for the start at Meskal Square, listening to an English-speaking emcee and dancing to rap tunes that blared from the loudspeakers.
As I stood among them in my black yoga pants and yellow and green cotton race t-shirt, I marveled at two men on stilts towering above the rest of us. I smiled at groups of friends gathering for selfies and laughed as cheers rang out every time Addis Ababa’s brand new light rail train sped by on the tracks above us. I marveled at women wearing jean shorts and dangly earrings and men decked out in face masks of Haile Gebrselassie, an Ethiopian running legend and the founder of the race who was running for the last time. It was clear that this would not be like any other 10K (or any other race) I had ever run.
When the starting gun rang out, all 40,000 runners surged for the start line simultaneously. It was so crowded, running wasn’t even really an option – jogging was about all that was possible. My legs burned almost immediately, likely the result of only running twice since the New York City Marathon three weeks earlier. I started the stopwatch on my iPhone, more out of curiosity than really caring what my time was like. I would try to describe the route, but I really have no idea where I was running. I just let the wave of singing, chanting runners pull me along.
As conspicuous as I felt as one of the very few foreigners running through the streets (in 2014, there were an estimated 600 foreigners out of 40,000 runners!), no one really seemed to pay much attention to me. Two or three times someone ran up alongside me and asked how I was or how the run was going, but otherwise, it was like I wasn’t even there. While I thought I would stand out as I stopped on a median to take pictures of the massive crowd behind me, I was far from the only one doing so! It seemed like everyone ran most of the way with a phone in their hand, snapping pictures and taking video throughout!
The longer the race went on, the more I didn’t want it to end. I had long given up on the idea of actually running much of it; indeed, as soon as we hit the first uphill, the entire crowd seemed to slow to a crawl. Just past the halfway point, hordes of people completely stopped at “water stations” that were nothing more than a few men on trucks tossing bottles of water into the crowd. Even though it was likely in the 70s and quite sunny, I was feeling okay and didn’t feel the need to hang around to try to catch one.
Soon, the dance party was in full swing as music blared and groups of runners stopped to dance in circles. A band played on the side of the road and I joined several orange-clad Dutch runners for a few minutes to join in the dance party as well. How could I not?
Finally, after an hour and 24 minutes, I rounded the corner to the finish line – again, completely different from anything I have experienced before. I wasn’t even completely sure when I crossed it – there was no final mat to cross and no clock tracking my time overhead. Once I was done, I joined the hundreds right before me to file into narrow, fenced-in lines to receive our finisher medals. According to the race materials, the first 14,000 would get medals with green ribbons (and the next few thousand, yellow and then the next, red). To my surprise, I snagged a green medal – a great souvenir from an unforgettable first few hours in Ethiopia!