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UK Athletics

UK trio’s Ethiopia experience

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Mary Wilkinson
Mary Wilkinson

UK endurance runners Mary Wilkinson (Skipton and District AC), Susie Bush (Aldershot, Farnham and District AC) and Victoria Wilkinson (Bingley Harriers) are having a great time in Ethiopia as they prepare to race against tough international competition in the Confident First Women’s 5km in Addis Ababa on Sunday 1 April.


Mary Wilkinson relished the experience so much 12 months ago that she went on to run personal bests for 10km and 3km last summer – and she did not hesitate to return as soon as she heard the other two had jumped at invitations from UK Athletics to spend just over a fortnight acclimatising in athletics-mad Addis before taking in Sunday’s race.


Mary, who believes Ethiopia is the top venue for altitude training, said today: “We are all having a fantastic time out here. The weather has been variable but has done nothing to dampen our spirits and certainly not the enthusiasm of the locals".


“I came out last year for the Women's race and I enjoyed the whole trip so much that I was desperate to come again. When I found out that UKA were sending a couple more girls this year I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to come back. I have been using the trip to a) build my preparation for some good road performances when I return because I know how well I ran when I came back last year and b) to try and help the other girls settle in quickly, which I hope I have achieved.


“We have all been training really well and hard, making the most of being on a training camp away from the stress of work etc. and have all adapted to the altitude very well.


“What I like most about Addis and Ethiopia generally is the people and the training environment. There is nothing more inspiring than being in beautiful places surrounded by the most welcoming, encouraging people you can imagine. The sight of smiley children pretending to form a finishing tape is enough to push you to a faster time in every rep!


“Running is a way of life here and getting up to travel many miles to a training group is common. We have taken to this very well, rising early to join groups of literally hundreds of athletes doing hill sessions at 6am and there is always encouragement with athletes trying to help you push that little bit harder.


“It is not only the 'general' runners (if you can call sub-30min 10km runners general!) who are accepting and encouraging. Last week we were training with Meseret Defar, the world 5000m record holder, virtually every day. We don't choose easy training partners! And she was fantastic, picking us up each day and running with us and advising us ... totally amazing. I kept thinking I was dreaming as I was running along looking at her heels.


“It is common to meet the Ethiopian stars and they really are so friendly and interested in what we are doing. People generally just want to make you feel accepted and are so happy that you like their country and you have chosen to come here.”


Mary has also been able to prepare Susie and Vic for what to expect on Sunday. She added: “The women's race is an amazing experience, an atmosphere that is very difficult to describe: 8,000 women all gathered to party and celebrate all that is good about the women.


“At the front end of the race the competition is furious and the start manic as everyone thinks they have a chance of winning. So as soon as the elite athletes even look like they are going to be let into the front to start, the masses surge forward and the race is off ... usually even before the gun has gone.


“As a result the start is very fast. Unfortunately the top runners don't slow from this sprint start until they cross the finishing line and last year there were about 15 women running under 16 minutes – pretty impressive at this altitude. Last year I was pleased with my performance but just as much enjoyed being part of the event and can't wait for it this year. Being the first white face to finish generated as big a cheer as the overall winner, I think – truly spine-tingling!”


Victoria Wilkinson was helped to feel at home by the fact that the race is organised by another Bingley Harrier, Richard Nerurkar, the former Olympian who us now based in Addis and organising Great Runs throughout the country.


She said: “Richard has been great, really helpful and accommodating. Training is coming together now. It took me about a week to get used to the altitude, but it’s OK now. It’s weird having to adjust to running pretty slowly even though you’re putting in loads of effort and not getting anywhere!


“The people are amazing. The runners so friendly and helpful. The speed they run at is just awesome. I’m looking forward to racing in an 8,000 strong field on Sunday, though I know it will be very tough.


“It will be great to see so many women out there running and enjoying it. The Great Run is opening doors for these women, giving them opportunities.


“It’s an amazing experience to be out here, not just seeing Ethiopian athletes but the people in general. It would do every westerner good to come out here and see how little these people have, but how much they take advantage of what they have got. For instance, the children are always smiling even if all they have to play with is a ball of dirt.”


Susie Bush is equally delighted she earned her UKA invite to what she describes as “the experience of a lifetime.”


She said: “Each day we have been running at altitude twice a day (sometimes 10,000 feet up). We have been surrounded by other runners on almost every run. The Ethiopian runners are so inspiring, it is incredible to watch them training. Sometimes they run up alongside us, offering encouragement and when I glance down I realize they have no shoes on! Yet they have such determination ... it is amazing.


“On our first run here, on top of Antoto (the highest point), we bumped into Kenenisa Bekele and his brother training, and then a few days later we pulled up next to Meseret Defar stretching before her run. She then invited us to train with her, and since then we have completed four runs with her – at least started out with her – which has been incredible. The pace starts off very steady, slower than I would usually run, and then gradually her pacemaker gets faster and faster as he weaves in and out of the trees and we follow in single file.


“I have learnt so much being here, and have been so inspired, to be able to train twice a day at altitude and be among the best runners in the world has been a dream come true. I only hope I can run some really fast times when I get home!”


The domestic challenge on Sunday will be led by last year’s winner Rehima Kedir and 2006 Nazreth World Cup 10km champion Azalech Masresha. Three Kenyans, Pauline Mutwa, Evelyn Chelagat and Rose Jepkemboi, and Kenyan-born Hellen Musyoka are also in the field, as is Australia’s Victoria Mitchell, who finished 37th at the World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa last weekend.


The women’s run, one of Africa’s biggest women’s-only races, will be flagged off by two of Ethiopia’s great female champions Gete Wami and Berhane Adere, who are both in training for next month’s Flora London Marathon.