What started out as an idea for cross country runner Ahmed Muhumed to return home for the summer, turned into a training opportunity of a lifetime for six other cross country athletes.
Muhumed, along with his teammates Silas Griffith, and Paul Stafford from Florida State University, were accompanied by Abdinasir Hussein from University of Oregon, Ahmed Ibrahim from Boise State University, Abdi Ahmed from Michigan State University and Gus Harquil from Seattle University all embarked on a seven week trip to Ethiopia this past summer to train for the upcoming cross country season.
They also returned with memories they’ll cherish forever.
Ahmed Muhumed (FSU), Gus Harquil (Seattle), Paul Stafford (FSU), Ahmed Ibrahim (BSU), Abdi Ahmed (MSU), Abdinasir Hussein (Oregon) and Silas Griffith (FSU)
When the opportunity to train with some of the most elite runners in the world in a country well-known for running presents itself, you take it.
After sitting out in 2020-21 due to injury, running in Ethiopia would be Griffith’s first time transitioning back to full training, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“Being born and raised in Ethiopia, I was entirely committed to running in my home country for the summer when the challenge arose. Training with six other NCAA Division I athletes from all over the country helped motivate me to fully invest in the experience,” Griffith recalled.
Returning to his native land after being away for 10 years and constantly being surrounded by family and familiar faces, Muhumed was reminded of the cost of commitment.
“I knew I had to make a decision,” Muhumed said. “I could either sacrifice my summer training or come back to fall ready to do something amazing for my team.”
The decision was easy. He chose the latter.
Stafford also learned a lot about dedication during his summer in Ethiopia.
“Whenever you’re struggling to get out the door, remember your why. To train for FSU. To train for our boys,” Stafford said.
After watching track performances from the past spring season, Stafford was left feeling inspired. When he was invited by Ahmed to train in Ethiopia for the summer, he said, “I wanted to experience the famous culture and take the summer to fully commit to my training.”
He set ambitious training goals for himself and worked hard to persevere.
Paul Stafford with Abdi Ahmed
The athletes never had a dull day. Their days revolved around running. Every day they woke up at 6:30 a.m., to train at 7 a.m.
The rest of their day would be spent recovering and exploring, since there wasn’t any Wi-Fi.
“We promised each other we would be more down to earth and communicate in the old-fashioned way,” Griffith said.
They played cards and spent days laughing with each other between training. They visited new places and enjoyed the beautiful views from 5000-5500 feet at elevation.
“There was never a day where time was not spent well,” Griffith said.
The runners learned very quickly that training in Ethiopia was extremely different from America. Training was very accessible with open valleys and various trails within four hundred meters of each other. Griffith recalls facing challenges immediately while enduring their first run in a city right outside the capital, Sululta.
“At a 7-9000 feet incline, we had to take a break after six to seven minutes of running due to the high altitude and hard course,” Griffith said.
A challenge to them was easy to natives there as they watched people of all age groups trucking up the hill without a sweat. As a Division I athlete, this humbled Griffith “to see others work just as hard as them with less tools to succeed.”
Although the conditions were very different from what the athletes are used to, Muhumed believes the main difference about training in Ethiopia had less to do with the hilly environment.
“It had more to do with the culture itself,” Muhumed said.
On the last long run the athletes conquered, over two hundred people came out at 7 a.m. to run with the group. Everybody was out there grinding together with runners ranging from little kids to world champions and Olympians.
Imagine being surrounded by two hundred people on a dirt mile track loop all supporting each other towards their goals.
“Us being there, I felt humbled,” Muhumed said. “I am good in the NCAA but look at this. You see groups of twenty guys doing crazy workouts and chasing dreams together. It inspires you to take all these opportunities and go after it.”
Muhumed continued to say, they train with more of a purpose in Ethiopia.
That purpose drives them to keep working until they accomplish their goals. He felt inspired by their desire to represent their country and not stop until they succeed.
“It is more of a lifestyle there,” Stafford added. “Why have they taken so many titles in East Africa? Why are they so good? The lifestyle.”
The investment in time and commitment to the process has helped many runners from that region of the world take more titles.
In the 2020 Olympics, Ethiopia earned four medals, all in distance running events. This included Letesenbet Gidey who won bronze and is now the world record holder in the women’s 10,000m event. Ketema Negasa, who broke the men’s 50k world record in May of 2021 at the Nedbank Runified race, has never been able to compete with the times to shine in Ethiopia.
His marathon time of 2:11:07 would rank him in the top 10 among Canadian runners but not even in the top 250 in Ethiopian history. Training at 2,500m above sea level in thin air has helped Ethiopian men hold six of the top fastest marathon times, ever.
They are better there on average because their bodies become stronger and more able to endure training. They have adapted training into their lifestyle.
The athletes recall the hunger for the sport being a lot different in Ethiopia.
It is harder to make it out and represent Ethiopia internationally, because there are so many elite athletes competing with each other.
On the last week of the trip, the runners got the opportunity to train with Berihu Aregawi, who just placed fourth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the 10,000 meters behind his teammate, Selemon Barega, who won gold.
“It was refreshing to train with elite runners that think and train a lot differently. It makes you rethink your goals and ambitions,” Griffith said.
Silas Griffith, Paul Stafford, Ahmed, Muhumed
When the group of athletes were not training, they immersed themselves in learning more about Ethiopian culture. Stafford enjoyed observing the nature of how people behave and how different societies function in different parts of the world. He found people were more down to earth and were more willing to have a conversation.
“Upon our landing we were welcomed by a sea of people there to greet us,” Griffith said about the group arriving in Jijiga. “There was music playing, drums beating, banners and necklaces made for us.”
The accommodation from the people there and the friendliness of the culture left the group with a new appreciation of compassion.
“My greatest takeaway from the trip was the simplicity of life and where happiness is drawn from,” Griffith said.
“Everyone was committed to a higher power and family and faith over anything else,” Muhumed said. “Everything else comes second.”
Stafford returned with a bracelet containing a flag for Somalia.
“When I look at it, I will remember the experience,” Stafford said. “All we went through together and a reason to keep pushing.”
Facing people of all different backgrounds was a culture shock for the athletes. However, they learned how to be independent in a new territory despite this shock. They faced language barriers and people of all different backgrounds. They set goals for themselves and still persevered, despite all the challenges they faced.
“Overall, it was the best decision I ever made bringing those guys with me. I am happy everyone is back with memories they will cherish for the rest of their life. I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Muhumed said.