How Ethiopia’s Run Africa is pioneering high-altitude athletics training

News - 19.01.2018 - Posted by

Long-distance running is currently enjoying a ‘second wave’ of global popularity. Following an initial surge in the mid-1970s and 1980s, especially in the USA, the sport is again attracting rapidly increasing numbers of new followers from a greater diversity of countries. Many are drawn to the simplicity, flexibility and independence of the sport as well as its conduciveness to ever more mobile and individualist lifestyles. Accompanying the rise in distance running is the rise in athletics tourism. Poised to be at the crest of this wave, Ethiopia is increasingly recognised as a champion country in which to discover special approaches to distance running culture. Founded by Addis Ababa native Rekik Bekele, Run Africa trains runners and walkers of all levels in fitness at altitude. Here Rekik gives some background and thoughts on Ethiopian running and what’s coming up for the company.

In 1960, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila won the men’s marathon in Rome, becoming the first East African to win an Olympic medal. His achievement gave Ethiopia a considerable amount of attention as a home of talented distance runners. To this day running enthusiasts flow into the country to experience high altitude training and the running lifestyle.

Run Africa is unique in offering customised altitude training in preparation for a specific race, event or training block while also sampling sessions with a competitive local athletics club.

A training session

Run Africa is the logical provider of this service, as the only Ethiopian specialist fitness operator to also manage a registered competitive running club (Run Africa Athletics Club), through which they train local athletes for various races both locally and internationally. Their running clients, meanwhile, are trained by their athlete trainers, who hold appropriate and professional skills and experience suited to the local context.

Rekik Bekele is herself a keen fun runner as well as a qualified electrical engineer. Investing personal savings to finance the business initially, she admits that this isn’t sustainable for permanent employees; athlete trainers are therefore paid on a per-client training session basis. Volunteers and interns also help with social media, marketing and webpage work. Run Africa is currently building a term of employees comprising of a Social Media Strategist, a Sales and Marketing Expert and a Club Manager. Run Africa also exploits print media in the form of leaflets, posters and roll banners distributed to specific client groups including hotels, embassies and schools. One example of a close partnership is that with Radisson Blu Addis Ababa, who feature Run Africa on their website. Hotels are convenient for marketing due to the direct exposure to overseas visiting clients, who can contact Run Africa from their hotel to receive training from Run Africa.

“Run Africa is unique in offering customised altitude training in preparation for a specific race, event or training block while also sampling sessions with a competitive local athletics club. Early on we placed focus on overseas visitors, but the GrowthAfrica Acceleration Programme that we took in 2016 also highlighted the huge potential of the local market, especially expatriates living and working in Addis Ababa and clients of hotels,” Rekik stated.

Run Africa Athletics Club comprises of 55 members. Our experienced head coach was the Ethiopian national team trainer in 2001-2008. He guides the club through the hills, drills and variety of training intensities, terrains and gradients required to help them perform at their best. Run Africa Athletics Club is partly supported by Partnership for Change, a Norwegian charity organisation. Looking forward, however, with both the expansion and the growing popularity of the venture, Run Africa will need additional funding to hire more professional coaches and to expand their assets and infrastructure to a self-sustaining economy of scale.

The Run Africa Athlete Club members

In business, challenges always arise, of course. The biggest challenge for Run Africa was a bureaucratic one, that is, acquisition of an Ethiopian business license for an athletics training company targeting overseas visitors. The process took nearly twelve months. It was challenging to convince the authorities that Run Africa is not a conventional tourism company. At the same time, athletics has not traditionally been considered a business opportunity in terms of tourism: it could only be registered either an association or a club.“Our biggest current challenge is addressing the high demand for our services with a limited staff. In 2018 we hope to add three more full-time staff, as mentioned above.” Rekik mentioned

Having said this, Run Africa can boast of impressive achievements and stories of impact. One of them is Menen, a Run Africa athlete trainer who admits that this opportunity enables her to earn a steady income as well as network with other female athletes who inspire her to be the best. They also trained two young short-distance runners from Washington State, USA, who went on to win the competition that they were training for.

In the next three years Rekik is working towards ensuring that Run Africa acquires its own facility fitted with a running track and accommodation for their clients as they train. In order to achieve this the company is currently compiling and distributing partnership and funding proposals in search of investment.

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