The Great Ethiopian Run: 2023 review and trip report
An amazing run that’s also a giant street party. Plus: A very brief history of modern Ethiopia and Addis Ababa travel notes.
The Great Ethiopian Run held in Addis Ababa in November is the largest running event in Africa with around 45,000 participants. It’s also among the largest in the world. It’s a 10K, which — for those not so used to kilometers — translates to about 6.2 miles.
The event first took place in 2001. One of its founders, who still is very much involved, was Haile Gebrselassie, Ethiopia’s most famous long-distance runner — and a national hero in a country that has produced numerous world-class runners.
Ethiopia’s biggest street party
Consistent with its name, the Great Ethiopian Run is best thought of as a “run,” not a “race.” At least, for most people. Only the elite participants have bibs and timing chips. And that really doesn’t matter, since — at an altitude of around 7,700 feet — Addis is among the highest capital cities in the world. That makes it an unlikely venue for personal bests for recreational runners unaccustomed to exertion at high altitudes.
Most people traveling to Ethiopia to take part are going to be less concerned about their time and more interested in just being part of an extraordinary event. The organizers describe it as “Ethiopia’s biggest street party.” Many people run the distance, but others run-walk, walk, or even dance their way along the route. The emphasis is, above all, on inclusiveness and mass participation. And the atmosphere is festive and upbeat. For visitors, it is as much a unique travel experience as anything else, an opportunity to take to the streets with many thousands of local runners and walkers and make your way through Ethiopia’s capital at whatever pace you choose.
Registration and packet pick-up
The vast majority of participants are from Ethiopia. However, the event goes out of its way to encourage runners from other countries. In 2023, there were around 200 international participants. And the organizers made them very welcome with an optional program that, in addition to the entry fee, included three nights’ accommodation at the Hyatt Regency — a short walk from where the run starts and finishes — as well as a conditioning run in the forests above Addis the day before the race, an eve-of-event pasta party (of which more shortly), and some other extras.
Even if you don’t go with the full package, race entry for international participants — which costs about $95 on its own — includes an invitation to the pasta party. Given Ethiopia’s per capita GDP, I imagine local runners pay much less, with much of the race costs being underwritten by the sponsors.
The international program is coordinated by Richard Nerurkar — a British former Olympic runner — who was also one of the founders of the event and continues to be among its chief organizers. Details of the program may vary from year to year, so you should check the website for the latest.
I travelled to Ethiopia with my 20-year-old son. Unfortunately, logistics and other commitments meant we couldn’t arrive in Addis until the Saturday morning, 24 hours before the race start. So we couldn’t make the conditioning run that was already taking place when we landed. It worked out, but it was not ideal. My advice would be to get to Addis on the Friday — or, ideally, earlier — if you can. The more time you have to acclimatize to the altitude, the better. I was sorry to miss the conditioning run, not just because it would have helped gear up for the main event, but also because it’s an opportunity to interact with local runners who take you to the forests where they themselves train.
Packet pickup for international participants is at the Hyatt during the two days preceding the run. Even though there’s no bib or timing chip, the race packet is essential as it contains your shirt. And you’ll need the shirt, because — unlike with any other race I’ve taken part in — you have to wear it to access the start area and collect your medal at the end. The shirts run more or less to size, but maybe a bit on the small side. I’d ordered a medium when registering, which is my default. It fitted well enough, but I’d probably have gone with a large in hindsight.
The pasta party
There’s no expo along with the packet pickup. But, as mentioned, all international runners are invited to a pasta party at the Hyatt on the evening before the race. Be sure to bring the invite, which is included in the race packet, as you need to produce it to get past the doorkeeper. The party was a lot of fun, and you won’t want to miss it. There was music, dance performances, contests, and — not least — an appearance by Haile Gebrselassie himself. The buffet pasta spread was great, with a variety of dishes as well as salads and deserts. Beer on tap was also included.
The race day experience
The Great Ethiopian Run starts and finishes in Meskel Square, a large space in the city center, and it follows a loop course. It begins at 8:30 AM. With the sheer mass of people converging, runners are advised to start getting into position between 7:30 and 8 AM. And it’s worth doing so as the pre-race energy is part of the experience. In fact, I have never seen race participants warm up with so much vigor and enthusiasm.
As the start drew near, various dignitaries appeared on a platform, including Ethiopia’s President and the city’s Mayor. And the massive crowd sang what I believe was Ethiopia’s national anthem.
The race started on time. In fact, every aspect of the event seemed efficient and well-managed.
When registering, participants were asked to predict whether their time would be less or more than 60 minutes. If under, you got an all-green shirt giving access to the start area that went out first. Otherwise, your shirt was green with yellow on the sleeves, which put you in the second wave. There were just those two waves. There was no further breaking down of runners into corrals.
When I registered, I put down my time as below an hour, as that’s what I’d normally expect in a 10K. But I wasn’t thinking about the altitude. With about 25 percent less oxygen than at sea level, running in Addis is hard.
The body can adjust given time. And some serious runners make a point of training at high altitudes in order to strengthen their abilities under normal conditions. But showing up in Addis 24 hours before a 10K — and after traveling from the other side of the world — means you’re not going to perform anywhere close to your best. You need to take care, lest you you don’t respect the altitude and stress your body. I’d promised my wife before leaving not to suffer a serious health event.
So while our all-green shirts meant my son and I were funneled into the first wave, I knew by then that neither us were going to finish in under an hour. And we positioned ourselves toward the back accordingly. Behind us, we saw the yellow-sleeved runners separated by a line of soldiers holding them back.
As it turned out, the two waves converged pretty quickly once the run started and it was fairly clear that my son and I were far from the only all-green participants whose time would be over an hour. In fact, in the first half mile or so, the crowded field would have made it difficult to maintain a sub-hour pace without a lot of weaving.
There were various spots along the course with bands and dancers. I made a point of not wearing headphones, so as to engage with the atmosphere of the course as much as possible.
There was a hydration station about half way with water in sealed plastic bags. And there was also a support station where they were giving out a local malt energy drink, although I didn’t stop to taste it. Street vendors sold bottled water at various points along the course. I didn’t have any cash with me — and I was carrying my own water anyway — but it’s probably a good idea to have a few dollars in local currency with you in case you want to buy some.
It’s not only the altitude that makes this a challenging event. The loop course is also quite hilly, especially in the second half. And I found myself walking some of the hills, something I would normally try not to do. So my time ended up being about one hour and 15 minutes, or roughly a 12 minute-per-mile pace — about two and a half minutes per mile slower than I’d normally expect at sea level these days. But at this altitude, I gave myself a break and convinced myself I’d adequately earned the medal.
The first 10,000 finishers got a medal with a green ribbon. I got one of those. The next 20,000 got a yellow one. And everyone else received a red one.
A very brief history of modern Ethiopia
If visiting Addis Ababa — or any capital city, for that matter — it’s good to know something about the country’s recent history. So here is a very brief — and necessarily over-simplified — summary before I wrap up with some travel notes.
Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never colonized by European powers. A reason, perhaps, is that unlike other African regions that remained tribal or split into small kingdoms, Ethiopia formed its current borders in the late 19th century with centralized rule. Although Italy occupied parts of the country in the 1930s, it never succeeded in making it a colony and Italian forces were driven out by the British during World War Two.
Ethiopia’s ruler for over 40 years starting in 1930 was — including a period of exile during the Italian occupation — Emperor Haile Selassie, who was credited with modernizing the country. Haile Selassie adopted a generally pro-Western stance during the Cold War. But he was deposed in a military coup in 1974 by a pro-Soviet junta called the Derg. A year later, he died under house arrest. The Derg reported he had died of natural causes, but his death has since been widely reported to have been by strangulation.
Under the Derg, there was widespread political suppression and mass killings. The Derg collapsed in the early 1990s, following the fall of its Soviet sponsor. The country was then ruled for many years by the anti-Derg Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), whose use of the term “Democratic” was somewhat questionable. The EPRDF evolved into a new party — the Prosperity Party — in 2019. An ensuing election in 2021 was criticized by the United States — among others — as not having been free and fair to all Ethiopians.
Much of Ethiopia’s modern history has been overshadowed by war, strife, and famine. In 1977, Somalia invaded Ethiopia capturing part of the Ogaden region, before it was recaptured after bloody conflict. But the longest war was the one involving Eritrea.
Eritrea — once a province of Ethiopia, and the only part actually colonized by the Italians — was the subject of a 30-year-old secession war that ended in 1991 when it became an independent nation. In my early twenties, a friend and I engaged in a rather foolish attempt to cross the border from Sudan to enter Eritrea near to the Sudanese town of Kassala. Our efforts were — fortunately, I suspect — thwarted.
Ethiopia’s most recent armed strife — and by no means its only — involved a breakaway movement in the northern province of Tigray. This ended with a generally pro-Addis settlement in 2022.
Ethiopia is also well known, unfortunately, for its famines. The famine between 1983 and 1985 — during the years of the Derg — resulted in a death toll of over 1.2 million, mostly affecting the north of the country, including Tigray, but also causing immense suffering beyond that. And there have been hunger problems since. The famine in the 1980s led to the worldwide Band Aid movement started, in part, by the singer Bob Geldof resulting in charity singles such as “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “We Are The World.”
At the time my son and I took part in the Great Ethiopian Run in November 2023, the country was in a state of relative calm. I was struck by the overall chill and seemingly happy vibe we encountered, notwithstanding all the country has been through. Whether the peaceful state sticks remains to be seen.
The loss of Eritrea resulted in Ethiopia becoming a landlocked country. It is actually the largest landlocked nation in the world by population. It has access to the Red Sea via a recently upgraded rail link from Addis to Djibouti, once a French colony and now an independent and heavily militarized nation (including the only U.S. military base in Africa). But that comes at a hefty economic price. And the Ethiopian government has been grumbling lately about its lack of direct access to ports. Some observers forecast a military move by Ethiopia to try to capture the Eritrean port of Assab (also known as Aseb), to the far south of that country.
Lastly, some tips, recommendations, and vignettes about traveling to take part in this event:
Addis Ababa Hyatt Regency review: The Hyatt Regency is the place to stay if you take part in the Great Ethiopian Run. As noted earlier, it is right next to where the run starts and finishes. It is also where packet pick-up and the pre-race pasta party take place. And it is a nice hotel, reasonably priced. The rooms are fine but nothing special and maybe slightly showing their age (but not to an extent that concerned me). What I really liked about the hard product were the public spaces, including outdoor areas to eat, drink, or just hang out. The service was excellent — professional, but somehow authentic. I would not even think of staying anywhere else if visiting Addis to take part in the run.
But one annoyance: They do charge a half-day rate for early check-in, which is going to impact a lot of visitors, since most flights from Europe and the U.S.A. arrive early in the morning. I find that annoying when rooms are anyway available. But I don’t place the blame on this property in particular. It is something that has spread through the hotel industry in recent years, albeit sporadically. The staff in Addis are just following corporate orders.
Exploring Addis and places nearby: Some people traveling to Ethiopia for the run will want to make it part of a longer trip. But even if you are making it a short one, like I did, you should still try to spend a day or two exploring.
There are many places in the world where I prefer to explore on my own without a guide. And to do so on foot as much as possible, or failing that by public transport.
But Addis isn’t a place where I recommend that approach. Public transport is very basic. And even if you were up for the adventure, it would be very hard to master the options. You can’t count on finding taxis easily and, even if you do, you’d be prey for drivers hoping for heavily inflated fares. (We paid a taxi $20 ride from the airport to the Hyatt after negotiating it down from around $30, but I suspect it was still overpriced. There aren’t meters, at last none that work.) Plus, you can’t count on people speaking English.
And then there is the issue of crime. I don’t think there is a high risk of serious violent crime in Addis. But there is a real risk of pickpocketing, snatching, and street scams. In fact, my son had his iPhone stolen from his pocket during the run while pausing at a music performance. He noticed it within seconds, but it was impossible to determine who had taken it. It could have been a bystander, not a participant in the run.
For all of those reasons, I recommend getting a guide. It doesn’t guarantee you peace and security, but it reduces the risks and makes seeing the city and environs far more manageable. For tours within the city, your guide may also double up as your driver.
I used TripAdvisor to pick a guide. That can, of course, be hit or miss. But I could not have been more happy with the person we chose. His name was Yigzaw Mitiku, but he goes by “Mickey” for his international guests. And his business is Danakil Depression Tours and Travel. The Danakil Depression is a region in the north east of the country. Mickey — who speaks excellent English — is from there originally, and specializes in tours to that region. But he also does tours elsewhere in Ethiopia, including in Addis itself. Although he has guides working for him — in the capital and elsewhere — we were lucky to have Mickey himself. The best way to reach out to him is via WhatsApp: +251946460146. Or you can do so via email or messaging through the website here.
A few hours after the run on the Sunday, Mickey picked us up at the Hyatt in his car for a tour of Addis itself. I wouldn’t say Addis is a beautiful city — at least not at a street view level, as opposed to admired from the surrounding hills — but it is certainly an interesting one. The highlights of the afternoon included the National Museum, where — among other things — we saw “Lucy,” the partial skeletal remains of a young woman dating back 3.2 million years, whose discovery in 1974 led to a rethinking of the origins of the human species.
We also went up to the Entoto hills overlooking the city, where there’s an old church and a park. And then to another park in the city center. Parks, like shopping malls, are among my favorite places to watch local life when visiting distant cities, especially at weekends. There are various other niche museums in the city — including one near the Hyatt about the horrors of the Derg — but we were more interested in seeing Addis as it is today.
The following day, Mickey picked us up for a trip outside the city. This time, he was accompanied by a driver and we were in a Land Cruiser. Driving in Ethiopia is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure whether it is even possible to rent a vehicle to drive yourself but, trust me, you wouldn’t want to do that. (And I speak as someone who — many years ago, and no doubt a braver person than I am now — self-drove across Haiti.)
However, I had high confidence in our driver who deftly maneuvered through Addis’ chaotic traffic and the constant near-misses on roads outside the city. I would be terrified if I encountered driving conditions like that at home, but felt curiously calm as we made our way through the Ethiopian countryside. (Although we did pass one accident involving an overturned truck, almost certainly fatal by the look of it.)
The trip took us to Debra Libanos, about 75 miles to the north. There is a famous monastery there, as well as a spectacular canyon with a tributary of the Blue Nile.
Back in Addis, Mickey took us to Sholla Market — one of the city’s main market areas — and then remained with us into the evening, including taking us to a folk music performance, until it was time to drop us off at the airport at around 9 PM for our flight out of the country. Mickey really did go the extra mile, literally and metaphorically, over those two days. Highly recommended.
Money: You should bring cash with you when you visit Ethiopia. Don’t count on always being able to pay by credit card. And although a working supply of local currency can be handy, many transactions for tourists are priced in dollars.
Time and dates: I still don’t quite understand Ethiopian time and the country’s calendar. So I won’t try to explain it properly. Suffice it to say that the country operates with two calendars and time systems. One is the international one, which is what you’ll encounter with, say, Ethiopian Airlines, the Hyatt’s view of check-in times, and, indeed, the start time provided to international visitors for the Great Ethiopian Run.
The other is a local system, where the clock for each day starts at around dawn rather than midnight, which sort of makes sense when you think about it — I’m not sure whose idea it was to start clocks for a new day at “midnight” when most people are fast asleep. And the Ethiopian years and months are all linked to an Orthodox Christian calendar (the new year occurring in September, as I recall, and there being 13 months). None of this need bother visitors too much. But it’s good to know the other system is out there, as you could become somewhat confused if you weren’t aware. While I visited Ethiopia in my “2023,” I believe it was their “2016.”
Getting to and from Ethiopia: My journey to Ethiopia began on the Thursday before the Sunday race when I started out from Sacramento. I was in the California capital for the swearing in that morning of my daughter as a member of the California Bar. My wife flew in there, too.
After a celebratory lunch at the sort of restaurant where lobbyists entertain politicians, I flew from Sacramento to Atlanta on Southwest, via Las Vegas. And met up there with my son, who had come in from Miami. As usual, all of our flights on this trip were standby using interline staff travel benefits courtesy of my wife’s work.
Arriving in Atlanta around midnight and wanting to be at check-in at 6:30 AM for our onward flight, it wasn’t worth getting a hotel, so we found a moderately comfortable place to sleep in the Atlanta airport. Sleeping in airports is worthy of a post of its own, but I regard it as an aviation geek’s version of camping. I also used my Priority Pass membership to get a free hour toward the end of the night in the Minute Suites in the international terminal. Minute Suites is a place where you can rent small rooms with a bed by the hour in various U.S. airports past security. Unlike lounges, which in the U.S. are never open throughout the night, Minute Suites are available 24/7.
“Minute” is one of those words with different meanings, each with its own pronunciation. I think “Minute” in this instance is meant to be pronounced like the unit of time, as opposed to the adjective denoting “tiny in size” (i.e., “minn-it,” not “my-newt”). But both terms would be apt, as the spaces, as well as being rented out for short periods, are much smaller than a hotel room (they are definitely not “suites,” in any normal sense of that word).
The Minute Suites concept is good — especially at the locations that have showers (this one didn’t) — but I generally find the pricing a bit high to make it worth actually paying for. That said, I rarely miss a chance to extract value from Priority Pass. My son disagreed, and slumbered on his bench while I attempted to luxuriate for my free hour.
Then, on the Friday morning, we hopped on the nonstop Atlanta-Addis flight on Ethiopian Airlines, one of the more unlikely routes out of that airport. A flight of just over 14 hours. No U.S. airline flies to Ethiopia (and I don’t think ever has, even in the heady days of the Pan Am global footprint). Nor at present does any European one. If, for some reason, you want an alternative to Ethiopian, the obvious alternatives would be Emirates, Turkish, or Qatar. But I thought Ethiopian was fine on both the outbound and return segments and I would fly them again. I plan a separate post with more thoughts about the airline and Addis Ababa airport.
Returning, we flew on Ethiopian Airlines to Frankfurt and then on Lufthansa across the Atlantic. Why not direct back to the USA? That was because we were headed to California for Thanksgiving and, since the pandemic, Ethiopian has not flown to the west coast. Not wanting to get caught up in Thanksgiving-week domestic air travel, it made sense to fly from Addis to a destination in Europe and then, from there, to swoop into Los Angeles internationally. The alternative would have meant landing to the east in the U.S.A. and then being standby headed west in the busiest domestic travel week of the year.
Besides, going through Frankfurt added to the variety of the trip. Although my credentials for getting into the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge at Frankfurt have historically yielded mixed results, I succeeded on this occasion. And I was grateful for the shower and other respite. I was then fortunate to snag the last Business Class seat on Lufthansa’s venerable B747 plying the route to Los Angeles. I was ready for lie-flat at that point and slept for a good portion of the flight. My son got Premium Economy. (Kudos to the friendly Lufthansa gate agents who encouraged us to board only at the very last moment in case a second Business Class seat materialized with a no-show.) Check out my post some months ago with musings about Lufthansa.
With the time differences, I was able to leave California on Thursday afternoon, depart from Addis just after midnight in the early hours of the following Tuesday, and be home in Santa Barbara, California, that same afternoon. As an aficionado of short, efficient, packed trips, this one — a long weekend in Africa — was epic.
The Great Ethiopian Run is an amazing event. And it is efficiently organized with a program that goes out of its way to welcome international runners of all capabilities. If you enjoy combining travel with running, it should be high on your bucket list. But respect the altitude. It’s not easy to run 6.2 miles at almost 8,000 feet if you aren’t used to it. And check out the latest official travel advisories, as this can be a volatile part of the world. ✈️ 🏃
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