Running for your Life or Going the Extra Mile?

Tap tap tap … the sound of someone’s feet hitting the ground, running. A young girl, Marie, is cheered on by her schoolmates as well as by her young, enthusiastic teacher, Joe Connor. She is running around a dusty school ground and setting a ‘new world record’, which is enthusiastically announced by Joe who is providing an adrenaline-charged live commentary to the run, using a short stick as a pretend microphone.

Change of location.

Tap tap tap … the feet of runners hitting the ground at 5 a.m. at Meskel Square, Addis Ababa. On the vast fields at Jan Meda (‘the king’s field’), they’re running. They’re also running on Bole Road and on steep Menelik II Avenue, which leads down from the palace. And they are running up 3,200-meter Mount Entoto.

Two scenes with a very different background, leading to different outcomes, but with just one message.

The first scene is taken from a film, Killing Dogs, about Rwanda in 1994. It is based on real events, filmed on location with people who had been part of the terrible events that took place there. Marie, the runner, is a student of the École Technique Officielle in Kigali and doesn’t realize that she would soon be running for her life. The genocide starts just a few days after Marie’s ‘world record’, and Father Christopher, the school’s principal, tries to get Marie out of the killing zone. His car is stopped at a roadblock by one of his former students. While Marie hides under the car, his former student kills Father Christopher in cold blood. Marie starts running for her life, for days.

Fast-forward five years. Marie, who managed to escape the genocide that had taken the lives of some 800,000 Rwandans, walks into the church of an exclusive private school where Joe, who had also escaped the killings, directs a boys’ choir. The film finishes with a scene on the manicured lawns of the school with well-dressed hockey players running around, and Joe and Marie sitting under a beautiful tree. ‘When I was running for my life your voice commenting on my run around the schoolyard was in my head, all the time.’ Mary says. ‘Why did you leave us?’ After some hesitation, Joe answers, ‘I was afraid to die.’ Mary concludes, ‘We are fortunate, all this time that we have been given. We must use it well.’

The second story is about the heirs to a tradition that started when the barefoot Abebe Bikila won the marathon in 1960 Olympics in Rome. Since then, international distance running has been dominated by Ethiopia, a developing nation with almost no formal athletic training facilities. Haile Gebrselassie has been the face of Ethiopian running for over two decades, setting a total of twenty-seven world records. Now thirty-nine years old, Haile concentrates his efforts on mentoring the next generation of Ethiopian runners. The first Ethiopian woman to win an Olympic gold medal was Derartu Tulu, who took first place in 10,000 metres during the 1992 Olympics Games in Barcelona. Abebe and Haile consider themselves to be proof that poverty does not have to be a barrier to success and that running can make dreams come true. Haile turned one of his dreams into reality with his success as a runner. He grew up just outside Assela, a small community 54 km north of Bekoji and south of the capital. He built a bridge across a river that ran through his village and that had taken the lives of a father and a son trying to cross it in the rainy season. He also built several hotels around the country and is involved in a development called Yaya Village, a new high-altitude training facility outside of Addis Ababa. Joseph Kibur, another runner who is following his dreams, developed this facility originally. ‘When one of the athletes become successful, the whole family—and sometimes the whole neighbourhood—is lifted out of poverty’, says Joseph. Yaya Village (Yaya means ‘happiness’) opened in 2011 about 15 km outside of Addis Ababa. At an altitude of 2,500 metres it is surrounded by trails that provide an ideal environment for the coaching of young athletes by Olympic superstars such as Haile Gebrselassie and Gezahegn Abera. The village provides all the facilities elite athletes require and, in addition, offers comfortable conference rooms and restaurants for the less athletic visitors. The preparations for the 2016 Olympics are already in full swing at Yaya Village, and Joseph Kibur and his friends are hopeful that Ethiopia will again be victorious in Brazil.

The two stories taught me several lessons, not just about the different aspects of life and people in Africa, but mostly about my own life and my own priorities. When I checked the origin of the phrase ‘going the extra mile’ which is a well-(ab-)used phrase in business conversations, it turned out that it’s actually taken from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:41): ‘If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles’, i.e. the ‘extra mile’. We are, in the words of genocide survivor Marie, ‘fortunate with all this time we have been given. We must use it well’. The Ethiopian runners teach us how to use this time well with dedication, focus and hard work, and with a clear goal in our minds, so that we can make a difference not just to our own lives, but to those of our family, our neighbourhood and our whole country, even if the odds seem to be against us.

The exchange of knowledge and information across languages cannot be left to commercial interests alone. We are the ones to prove it. Language matters.

For the first time in my life I’ll be running a marathon, at the Dublin Marathon on 29 October. I know that my friends from Ethiopia will cross the finish line a good two hours before me, but hopefully I won’t just go, but run the last mile.

If you want to support my run for The Rosetta Foundation, please go to http://bit.ly/SWedeq.

Shooting Dogs (released in the USA as Beyond the Gates) is a 2005 film, directed by Michael Caton-Jones and is based on the experiences of BBC news producer David Belton.
Steve Winston (2012). ‘Ethiopia’s Distance Running Legacy. In Search of the Secret’. Selamta Magazine, Vol 29, No 3, July/August 2012, pp. 22-33. This was the primary source for the story about the Ethiopian Runners.
More information on Yaya Village Training Centre: www.yayavillage.com

Note: This blog will also be published in my blog for The Rosetta Foundation, October 2012

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2 Responses to “Running for your Life or Going the Extra Mile?”

  1. http://yahoo.com Says:

    I want to bookmark this post, “Running for your Life or Going the Extra Mile?
    Reinhardschaler’s Blog” on my personal site. Do you care if perhaps I actuallydo it? Many thanks ,Cruz

    • ReinhardSchaler Says:

      Sorry for taking a while to get back to you, Cruz. I am happy to see that you like the blog, and of course also happy for you to link to it from your personal site! Many thanks! Reinhard

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