So there I was, power walking up and down my Delhi driveway (we are locked down, and not allowed out to exercise), listening to one of my favourite podcasts: Marathon Training Academy. It was a recent episode in which they were chatting with a British anthropologist who just happens to be a top-class runner, about his book chronicling his experience of training with some of Ethiopians top runners.
Absolutely fascinating interview and so I promptly did that lockdown-bookshops-closed-thing and logged onto Amazon to see if I could buy the book. At the moment, because of lockdown, very few recent, imported books are available other than in Kindle format, but wonder of wonders, “Out of Thin Air” was.
Less than a week later, and I’ve reluctantly just finished what is a truly super read.
Mr. Crawley went to Ethiopia to study the phenomenon that is Ethiopian running, and decided that the only way to do this effectively was to train alongside the athletes and try and live their lives as much as possible. He learns Amharic, to be able to talk freely with his running mates, who are delightfully engaging young men, focused, earnest and kind to a fault.
“At the beginning of 15 months in Ethiopia it occurs to me that running and anthropology both allow you to do a similar thing: to live a whole other life. As an anthropologist I immerse myself deeply into the rhythms of complications of life in Addis Ababa, and as a runner, because every run contains its own range of emotions, and because serious distance-running training has its own unique challenges, each approach to a race is akin to a journey or an adventure.”
It certainly helped that Mr. Crawley is a top Scottish runner and so able to train at such a high, demanding level, but even he had some adaptation to do, faced with a different running style and a radically mental approach to the sport.
Take the Ethiopian running concept of ‘condition”, for example, a concept that anchors so much of their training:
“Places are often imbued with importance because of the people who train or once trained there. Entoto, for instance, is associated with Haile Gebrselassie, who I am told by numerous people used to run there every morning at 5:30 am… The word ‘condition’ in English is used both to describe a physical and mental state of preparedness and the ‘air conditions’ of particular places, indicating the strength of the perceived link between the two things.“
“When runners ask “Condition yet all?” (“Where is condition?”) they are referring at once to the mysterious and fickle nature of “condition” as a physical property and to its environment location, or rather the combination of environments that will lead to them making the improvements they need to make.”
Mr. Crawley is clearly very fond of and impressed by his Ethiopian friends and I especially liked the section where he discusses western attitudes to east African runners.
“Runners from Ethiopia and Kenya are seen as ‘naturally gifted’, and this extends to the way in which people talk about poverty. The implication is that growing up in rural poverty necessitate a more ‘natural’ way of life. This is characterised in media portrayals as working on the land as a child and running long distances to and from school barefoot, with these activities seen as naturally producing champion runners. We come to believe that running for Africans is something they take too easily, without thought or consideration. I am an anthropologist, not a scientist, and I do not seek to point out the effects that talking about long distance running in this way has. The tendency to describe African runners as ‘effortless’ or as ‘born to run’ masks the years of preparation and sacrifice that have gone into creating this illusion. It fails to recognise the running expertise that is specifically Ethiopian, or Kenyan or Ugandan. And it fails to acknowledge the institutional support, in fact far superior to that of the UK, offered to Ethiopian runners. I was convinced that there was a more nuanced set of cultural influences of Ethiopian running success at play and it was these factors I wanted to explore more during my time in Addis.
To refer to ‘East African’ distance running is to conflate runners from quite different cultures, many of whom are from different ethnic groups, who speak a variety of languages and whose religious beliefs shape their running in particular ways.”
The section of the book describing the attempt to break the sub-2 hour marathon is in part a bit cringe-worthy, replete with TV anchors uttering standard Western clichés about “East Africa”, and it is also quite funny (one of the runners has been sharing his GPS watch with fellow runners, so his pre-race stats are astounding, to say the least).
An engaging book like this, about Africa (where I have lived), about running (which I love) was bound to interest me hugely. “Out of Thin Air” did not disappoint, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Recommended, especially for runners and everyone interested in training and motivation.