Since Abebe Bikila’s heroic barefoot victory in the marathon at the Rome Olympics in 1960 – the first gold medal won by a sub-Saharan African – running has been part of the Ethiopian psyche and a huge source of national pride. In spite of this the Western world knows very little about the lives of those for whom ‘running is life.’ High performance sport is increasingly about measuring, calculating limits, and disenchantment. In Ethiopia, though, runners believe that mysterious, incalculable forces have a huge part to play in their success. It is a place where creativity and enjoyment are not incompatible with phenomenal performances.
Michael Crawley spent fifteen months in Ethiopia training alongside (and sometimes a fair way behind) runners at all levels of the sport, from night watchmen hoping to change their lives to world class marathon runners, in order to answer these questions. By immersing himself in the culture of Ethiopian running, learning Amharic and following in the footsteps of runners as they zig zag through the high-altitude forests of Addis Ababa, Bekoji and Gondar, Michael Crawley has written the beautiful Out of Thin Air taking you on a search for ‘special’ air, on midnight runs through the city, and into encounters with hyenas and witchcraft.
Why does it make sense to Ethiopian runners to get up at 3am to run up and down a hill? Who would choose to train on almost impossibly steep and rocky terrain, in hyena territory? And how come Ethiopian men hold six of the top ten fastest marathon times ever? Follow Michael on his journey into the forest as he attempts to keep up and get to the heart of their success.
Michael Crawley is a 2.20 marathon runner who has competed internationally for Scotland and Great Britain. He is Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at Durham University. Out of Thin Air is his first book and is available from 12th November from Bloomsbury Sport.