Following the Track to the Park (allAfrica.com)

Among hundreds of Spanish citizens warming up for the trail race inside the dusty parks of Abijata-Shala, one of the threatened national parks of the country, Isabella, 41, seems very happy that this strange place is where she’d race in.

Her fellow citizens who took part in the first edition nine months ago had told her that this African trail is impressive. She, however, found out about something new villagers who woke up in the middle of the night were part of the crowd – it gave her a moment of surprise. Isabella’s understating of the people’s interest towards the sport was not the only reason for her to feel happy for the trip she had made to Ethiopia, but she also found that their discipline and the manner showed over the course of the race was deeply touching.

“I really love the people here. They are so innocent and smiley,” she said.

For many Ethiopians, trail running as a sport is a bit of a strange idea. The majority of citizens who adore their iconic stars of the racetrack barely know that those athletes exercise in hilly forests before they clinch world records on tracks. Almost all of these distinguished sport personalities known worldwide have a very difficult time training in the jungles, struggling to pick their feet up, but holding on to the steep hills in the many chilly dawns. From the legendary Haile Gebreselassie to the phenomenal sprinter Mohamed Aman, training in the jungles was a daily activity to build up muscles and endurance.

“Almost all of us experienced it well and it gave us the ability and strength we revealed at the Olympics and other sporting events,” Gebregziabher Gebremariam, one of the prominent long-distance runners of Ethiopia, said.

Gebregziabher, who understood that forests that have been used as training field for him and his fellow athletes were being destroyed everywhere, came up with a an idea (in partnership with a young man from Spain) that finally took shape as trail race. Kalab Getaneh, who used to live in Barcelona, had the idea of a trail race, which is amongst the favorite sports in Spain. He then met up with Gebregziabher on an occasion to raise the issue.

“It was his idea too. It happened to be a little bit of a surprise that we understood each other and we made it real in a very short time,” Kalab says.

As the second edition of Ethio-Trail took place last week at Abijata-Shalla National Park, located 200km southeast of Addis Ababa, the ultimate goal targeted by the two men appeared to be in plain view. The park that had long been preserved as a shelter of massive wildlife for years now adds running to its jungles. The two rift valley lakes also harbor a dozen endemic birds.

“We had examined other places but this park happened to be near the capital and a convenient place for the runners because it’s surrounded by several resort-hotels,” Kalab said.

After the challenges that occurred prior to the launch of the trail last year were overcome, it has now become a popular sport in the area. A thousand spectators watching and encouraging runners is something unexpected to happen for the organizers. Moreover, it is the first trail found to be successful in making villagers aware of the importance of their environment.

“I have learnt that the lake is a resource now. I can sell bottled water, soft drinks and napkins for the runners here,” Gemechu Mideksa, a villager, said.

More importantly, the trail caused a significant attention to the park from the government. Several senior government officials took part in the second edition of the trail race in order to get first-hand information on how serious an attention the park is in need of.

“I enjoy it. It’s very interesting and worthy for one’s health. Above all, I understood much emphasis is needed towards the conservation activities that should be made here,” Kebede Worku (MD), state minister of health said.

According to Ewnetu Blata, state minister of government communication affairs office, the government is aware of the dangers that could face parks and the rift valley lakes and is looking to establish an authority that would be directly involved in the matter. He said that having such activities that create awareness is instrumental in bringing about tangible change.

For the organizers, the commitment that is being witnessed from the government’s side is very encouraging about expanding the sport in other places, too. The sport is also gaining a promising popularity amongst local people. A number of Addis Ababa residents participated in the trail race to experience what some call “the best sport to do outside of Addis.” Tigist, a young woman, said that Addis Ababa is becoming a metropolis and that the lifestyle is becoming boring and sometimes dangerous for its people. So trail racing should be a trend for the indigenous people too.

According to the organizers, Ethio-Trail is expanding and paving a way for other platforms in which tourism and conservation activities can be applied.

“We did it three times now and plan to do it frequently,” Kalab says.

Having an original spot in Abijata-Shala Park and Wonchi Lake in east of Ambo, the trail race will be featured in Semien Mountain Parks in the near future. That will, indeed, make Ethiopia a perfect place for trail race in Africa.