Ethiopian High Altitude Running Camp

One of my top things to do on my month long trip to Ethiopia was to go to the Elite High Altitude Training Camp, or simply Run Camp as I call it. This isn’t on most visitors agenda nor is it touristy but you know I love running so how could I pass up the opportunity to run with some of the best in the world.

I got the opportunity to go through a contact I made at my last job. My contact knew I was traveling the world and said to contact if ever in the running hot spots in Africa, so I did. I was put in contact with a coach and made my way to the training area just 1 hour outside Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia. I decided to spend 5 days at the camp. 

Now I say it isn’t touristy and it isn’t but athletes from all over the world come to train here. As soon as I arrived I felt the energy from the athletes I met in the few hours since I arrived. The diversity of cultures found here made me feel right at home, all runners and international. 

The hotel we stayed in was very nice with breakfast included and just 10$ …a real treat for this weary traveler! Not just the fact that the hotel was nice and a great price but that I was staying in one place for longer than a day or two.

Day 1:

We woke up around 7 am to start training by 8 am. Today was long run in the satelite grass field just a 10 minute walk from the hotel. I woke up early yet somehow missed the group and the start so I waited to be taken over. Finally with the field in sight I was amazed to see hundreds of runners off in the distance in various groups training. Some drive over, others walk but many more are bused over…there are so many athletes here (on the right day) it is crazy.. Since my group was already out running the assistance coach and an athlete who had a short easy run for the day joined me. I managed to do a 5k…progressively slower…especially after 2 miles ha ha…I just couldn’t breath at the pace for that long…ugg…oh well, day one! I know it really takes 1 month to adjust (and then about 3 more to really get improvement at altitude soo ). I copied the other athletes post training routine, they ate breakfast and took naps (about 1 hour, sometimes more). It felt nice to nap, it has been since Forever!

Don’t think day one ended in the am, no, no these are professionals I was training with and over the course of a few days the level and the profession would stand out. 

For the evening I was paired with a female Ethiopian runner representing Bahrain. I was excited to train with a female and do a double run day which I’ve not really ever done before…once a day is usually plenty for me especially if I’m focused on triathlon. 

I waited, ready, where I was told to be at 4:30 pm…and she found me! She was recovering from an ankle bugging her so actually wasn’t going to run but instead do static cycle and circuit training/stretching. I was taken by surprise and ok with it but also a bit relieved.  Little did I know I would finish at 7:30 pm ha ha. 

We didn’t go far since the hotel had a small gym there with 2 bikes. We did 1 hour on the bike, intervals (regular, stand up, and running technique) something I am familiar with but my bike had only one level to work with and I just followed her training plan. 

Next up was Circuit training, which were various exercises repeated 3 times with 3 exercises and 3 different circuits. We did so many abs, my first time in literally 7 months, I was sure I was going to feel it the next day (I was fine). For not having done any in a long time I was surprised how much I could still endure…planks, over and over 1 minute series…ouch…but I did everything she did…she was even impressed at amateur strength ha ha. All exercises were ones I should be doing anyway so happy athlete here.

End of day, eat and sleep.

*** I could have picked a better time to train with elites…like when I lived at altitude…we were at 2800m and it was no joke trying to run here…or when I had been training more; 6 months ago…because as I learned quickly that my usual pace even for an easy run barely made 2 km. Yes, I have constantly trained all year but over the last 3 months I have become less consistent because my foot has hurt, I went through a spell of getting sick, traveling in places where air was quite polluted (seasonal) and outside of running…swimming; the pool quality went down, un safe ocean currents became the thing and cycling; good options were just hard to find and expensive.

Day 2:

Out to train by 8 am, this time with the group. Fartlek day…a bit worrysome ha ha. I warmed up with them and by 1.5 miles I fell back…it was only the 20 minute warm up HA…thankful it was warmup ha but might as well have been the fartlek. I toed the line of the first of three 5km farleks they had planned. Off we went aaand 15 seconds in they were gone…turns out they go really Fast to faster…I managed a 5k alone and decided that was plenty. I was out of breath and even tired but happy with a 10 second improvement from the 5km on day 1, Woo hoo!. I watched them pump out the next two fartleks in 16 minutes…a few athletes also dropped out (after 2) also due to tiredness. I felt less bad lol.

Breakfast, nap (20 minutes only for me), chill and then evening session with the same female athlete who ended up being my week long training partner! 🙂 

This time we headed to the forest for an 8 km easy run. No clue how I made it through the whole thing but I think the secret was she looped back for me several times! Lol 

Here the forest has no real set trail but the athletes know the routes so you have to follow them or you’re lost. I thought this to be a challenge but easy run right. Well it started easy and quickly turned into a progressive run (a bit faster as time went on) which is fine but then we went down hill (I mean barely sloping hill) and up it and there I got slow, even the tiny slope in the altitude was tough. I did finish the 8km but about 400m behind and because I fell behind she looped back several times so I wouldn’t get lost…ha ha much appreciated!

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It was great to accomplish this run, my farthest in a month. As you may know though…that The day didn’t end there, we headed to the gym after…more circuit training after a 15 min cycling session. The exercises were different this time…I did fine until the last one where I added a bit of my own exercises to not burnout.

I ate dinner, relaxed in the reception a bit to use the wifi there then headed to bed, exhausted.

Day 3:

Today was hill repeats (200m hill), which I doubted I’d last long but I wanted to see where and how fast they really do them! 

I woke up to meet at 7:30 but no one was around. My training partner had left early because I said I’d go with the group to do hills and the group went earlier. I missed it because I forgot to tell the coaches and they thought I’d be with my training partner on the grass field on a long run. Oops

In the end I found three other athletes I’d met from the hotel on their way to the track and joined them…I wanted to see the track anyway. Turns out you must pay, to use it and there are 2 tracks, one tartan and the other dirt…we went to the tartan track. Cost 100 birr (3$) for locals and 300 birr for foreigners…I went as observer/coach/cheer squad so I didn’t pay.

Seeing the 6 lane track at first was very impressive…again this place was filled with groups of athletes. They went hard and it was very impressive to watch. Both men and women rounding the track. Most doing intervals of 200m or so or a 400m marked with cones where they went exceptionally hard. My friends pointed out the world champions I needed to know…400m champ, 5000m champ and so on…plenty of top 3 in the world athletes (various distances) also zoomed by just like day 1 (just wickedly faster). Wish I actually recognized them but each time I saw them it was literally 2 seconds but I was happy knowing they were here too!

I warmed up with “my athletes” and cooled down with them going around the track on the dirt paths and then decided to do a victory lap actually on the track afterwards…ha ha Yeah that victory lap was sooo hard…I made it 200m fast (whatever that means ha) then had to jog 100m and then finally I attempted a final 100m sprint…omg I almost died in 400m. They took photos and one let me try his new pink vapor fly shoes for the lap…cushy but I was nowhere near fast enough to feel their power…

After training we headed back for breakfast and then I had a massage. After all the circuit training I couldn’t lift my arms lol and well I needed to work out plenty of old problems…The massage really worked out the kinks with my tight hips, my injured calf muscle from like 7 months ago and helped my aching foot. It took around 2 hours in the end and I was actually sore for days…Even though the massage was painful at times it was welcomed because I had not had a proper sports massage in months…I was trying to keep up on them while traveling but they weren’t always easy to find, the last one I had was in Benin, 2 months prior, but pretty regular.

Having the massage ended my day…since once done you need to relax, so I washed my much needed clothes by hand again since laundry service feels expensive and isn’t always easy to find in Ethiopia…dry cleaner pricing…which sucks! Lol if I were to tell you the price per article though you would laugh…mere cents…yet I felt it was expensive…omg

Day 4:

This day was long run for nearly every athlete in town…they were busing out at 5 am to get to a forested area at lower elevation to run 25km or 40km (for marathoners). I didn’t go, I was still recovering from massage and I wouldn’t be ready for that distance, even at lower altitude…ha nor the speed.

Instead I waited until it warmed up a bit and headed to Yaya Village to swim laps. I left before 11 am. The pool was clean, so exciting after all my African pool experiences…usually you pay to use it (also they have a nice gym there) but they thought I was a guest so I went with it. I believe the cost is about 150 birr (4.5$).

I got in and did what would be 700m. The pool was very cold…high altitude and not heated…it felt like an ice bath just warmer only because you were moving! Sooo glad I went later! I swam 4 laps and stopped then repeated until my 100m style counting of 1400m. Unfortunately I knew the pool was less, my hundred meters was really 50m I believe, hence why I think I did 700m. Again breathing was hard that’s why I stopped every 4 laps, that and eventually kids jumped in (no clue how they could just stay in without moving so much..brr). The distance seemed fine because I was cold. I got out and showered, happy to encounter hot water, and then sunbathed until I was dry enough…still shivering from time to time…ha ha sun is warm but it wasn’t warm enough.

Finally when I got hungry I walked back to my hotel…maybe 3km…enjoying a nearly empty road that is usually very crowded with trucks, buses, cars, minibuses, tuktuks and other machines that is no fun to walk next to but today was clear because it was the start of a 3 day holiday that sees many people taking over the road to celebrate the Ethiopian Epiphany (baptism of Jesus)!

My partner had gone home to Addis the night before and was now back so of course we ran in the evening. I actually wanted to run so I was happy to have my partner back for that motivation! We ran in the forest again, now my favorite place to run here. She had done a long run in the am like everyone else so she now had an easy run…ha ha or really a progressive run…She was going for 6 km so I followed…still slowing on the tiny inclines barely hanging on by 5km…ha ha ha

This was of course followed by 15 minutes of static cycling and circuit training. I only made it 2 circuits and was combining some of my own exercises in the end…I left when the second round was done because I was really tired and worn out…plus i already did some abs and exercises when I was at the pool. It was 7 when I left (we ran at 5:10 pm) and I saw her finish around 8 pm! Damn! 

Day over!

Day 5: 

My last day training with everyone.

I joined my partner for an 8 am 15k on the grass field…I obviously did the warm up lap only! It was a full loop of the field, which was nice to do…4 miles in total. I made it 2 miles following her then I was on my own…I really had to push myself to even finish the whole loop distance. I stretched and waited in the car for her to finish her sets. We got the typical sugar cane blocks they sell at the satellite field and headed back to rest.

This double a day training was getting to me…tiring me…tomorrow I was sure to be toast Lol! Also it would be rest day, no exercise…yeah…body really was asking for that! (Did I give it that? Probably not…)

In the afternoon everything was festive with the Epiphany celebrations in the street so some athletes and I joined and followed the procession on the street…even here in this tiny town there were soo many people. This was the second celebration I’d seen in Ethiopia and I liked this one by far! So fun to see the dancing, chanting, the umbrellas, the people, the colors and the joy on the streets!  

At some point this day more athletes I’d not met showed up at the hotel. Some American marathoners who I got to meet and spend time with. It was nice to be personal with them, be treated as one of them, hear their stories and know their big goals for Trials in a month or so…nothing of that fan attack stuff just genuine and honest athlete to athlete life. Most athletes I met here were of Somali, Djibouti or Ethiopian origins but living and representing many different countries around the globe. There were those from their original countries too, don’t get me wrong, this is just who I happened to meet.

The day was definately festive but that didn’t stop anyone from training…so yes, one last forest run with my partner before my week-ish run camp ended. I wasn’t too excited to join this time as I was spent, so I waited until the last minute, she had changed and was nearly ready when she saw me sitting at the table and asked “are you coming?” To which I replied “do you need me?” And she said, “ yes, of course!”…so That was enough motivation…I changed and we were off. She went for 8km and I decided I would just do 5km this time so I followed until then and had her drop me in the middle where it would be easier to find me.

This day ended the best because it was festive…I joined some athletes, including star American marathoner Abdi, to play my first game of Luda (an app that was popular among them), where we drank some camels milk (my first time ever…it has a smoky flavor…because to disinfect they burn a fire while milking the camels…interesting!), chatted and just relaxed together. I got lucky and won the game…and the money down on it lol 40 birr (1.50$usd). After the game I left the hotel reception where we were playing and realized that there was a lot going on at the hotel’s restaurant…there was a party ha ha in a place where normally all week it’s quiet and with a few tables taken, now, it was nearly full and people were dancing; celebrating the Epiphany (Timkat)! As I looked in some athletes saw me and waved me down to join them. I got a local beer (Ethiopia has great beer btw) to celebrate my week of training…oh and some Injera (local food)…and dancing too! 😛 

At 10:30 pm I left because I was tired, thinking I was going to bed but other athletes invited me to their room…We chatted a bit until 11 pm which was just too late for everyone ha ha. (It was the latest I stayed up all week! Ha) We said our goodbyes just in case I missed them in the morning and this concluded my Run Camp experience! 

Conclusions:

I really enjoyed my time at run camp and I think it did help even if I struggled but it also left me sad to know where they train. The area used to be all forest but land was given to the most famous athletes to develop a training area for future athletes, which was great but that brought outside development….the original forest we ran in had all been cut down to build houses and was now regrowing from old stumps…the grass field was shared with cattle which left holes from their hoof and can be dangerous especially at those speeds…the track was nice but not maintained (very typical in Africa) and after so many athletes and strides, well it already had very rough patches…and for me the worst was that trash is left everywhere..So sad to see an area for the most important sport of the country left like this (between athletes and the community, trash is just left there…world problems in education :(…) but this is still Africa so unfortunately it is actually kind of expected…

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Do you see the path…i mean not all was like this but still can you imagine it being part of your daily run route :/

Who knows what the future will bring there, it is nice being close to Addis, athletes go on free days to see family/friends or just a change of scenery, but I hope things change for the better and that development doesn’t take more of the runners space like some think because athletes do enjoy coming here and do see improvement after training up here.

For me it was surprising how much stronger I felt after even just a week training with them. Too bad I don’t have any races planned until October (or actually this is a good thing)but still…I got to get back into routine as I am ending my world tour trip soon and well obviously I need some time to prepare after pretty much a long off season…ha ha. It was also crazy how difficult it was training at this elevation and no it wasn’t just me, the elite also struggle…Great news was that athletes never looked down on you for it but instead were so encouraging to push through the stage that all have to go through at altitude. 

It was interesting to see that everyone from 400m to marathon was here training hard and even some of those working in the hotels seemed to train tooo. The only real people asking distance and times were the people working and training but really the elite athletes didn’t…they were just focused on training. Together seemed to be most important and to train well, rest, eat and repeat. 

I really took notice of the concept or job as Professional Athlete. It really showed it’s face by day 2 when we were doing 3 workouts a day…typical for many…double run days plus daily stretching and simple gym exercises (once per week a proper gym workout with weights)… Sure makes you feel weak when us amatures do maybe 2 gym days a week and some stretches…these guys work their bodies and muscles to their maximum daily and must strengthen and stretch them well after each workout to avoid injuries…something we, or at least I, should be much better at (taking time to stretch and do strengthening exercises). Imagine and we always run on asphalt…here it was trails mostly except for marathoners who need asphalt training ever so often too. 

Another thing was the speed which everything was done by elites…speedy running…speedy sets of abs, etc, etc…everything was about turnover…cadence…and by day 2 I saw and physically felt it even hardly keeping up with these professional runners, they definitely do their jobs well!

*Would I do it again? Totally! but a bit more trained up for the task.

**Would I recommend joining an elite group for the experience?…If you really like running, yes, because you must enjoy getting your ass kicked a few hours a day with them almost easily going through their normal daily routines!

***from averaging 7 mile weeks to a 35 mile week…oh Run Camp! 🏅

****a few weeks after my stay Mo Farah visited…would have been cool!

*****and The American I met made the Olympic at US Marathon Trials…Abdi Abdirahman!!

More about Ethiopia, The Most Unique & Challenging Country To Date
Hiking Simien Mountains (3 day), Ethiopia

5 thoughts on “Ethiopian High Altitude Running Camp

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