words & photos: julien gilleron / transversale20
originally published in: trail endurance mag #140

Going back to the roots: it was written. Running the earth from one land to the next, my travels would eventually lead me there. Where? Better yet; it was dreamt, it was foreseen. My strides had explored a myriad of running spaces by adventures through running cultures, or intuitions evolving into running trips. From the Andes to Asia, I had the opportunity to reflect while running – an imperial privilege. I have seen and witnessed the mythic Incan trails, to the most inhospitable deserts, passing by the Atlas of the Origins, or the Chilean Tierra del Fuego – a lyrical End of the World. From the Hoggar to the altiplano, I have paid my respects to the sport. But there was more to accomplish, including a return to the roots. It was a foregone conclusion; Ethiopia.

It had been a childhood dream, set aside for over 30 years. It was, in effect, an experience in superlatives, where spatial emptiness duels its diversity; from the Danakil Depression (125m below sea level) to the Ras Dashen (4550m), from the people of the Omo river to the Abyssinians, from the volcanic desert to the Simien mountain range, from the Queen of Sheba to the last of the Negus. It is the birthplace of the hominids, a trove of legends that proclaims the paramount vanity; its ownership of the Ark of the Covenant. No one really warned me; Monument Valley and Auvergne seemed to find their logical continuation, or actual origins, here.

And then, one day history was made. Ethiopia is running. From the 3000m to cross-country and the marathon, Ethiopia became home to champions of numerous distinctions. Demigods to both skeptical westerners as much as to admiring locals, their names are Gebreselassie (holder of 20 world records), Bekele, Dibaba, Defar, Tulu… In the beginning, there was the bare footed Abebe Bikila, with his two Olympic records in 1960 and 1964, the first Black and African gold medalist. The fascinating myths of Ethiopian running have made the discipline. My excitement grew in consideration of the days ahead when the frenzied Addis appears through the window of the plane.

But Ethiopia also shines from its enigmas and dilemmas. That which separates road and trail running. The simplicity of travelling by foot, and the fashionable phenomena of running. The sensible interplay between the kind of running entirely devoid of purpose and running sessions for employees in a company. Will I be able to grasp the original DNA of striding, here? Will I be able to understand more, to connect properly to understand? And what if the joke was even more ubiquitous? As ubiquitous as the neon colors of my trail attire.

On an early afternoon, I jog up to the outskirts of Addis. Surrounded by a hectic maelstrom of Ladas, my ability to speak became limited to cursing. 3h of trotting, with splits between traffic and “Hellos”. The Entoto Mountains are far, but I constantly ask myself that one same ridiculous question; how are the trails here? Terrain, inclination, soft or hard ground, density of the canopy… interrogations leading me to senseless vertigo. Those concepts assault me while I flirt with this homeland of running. In nature or not, trail or city, Ethiopia does not seem to care. The only truth; every meter ran is met with a new running partner whose only wish is to follow me. It definitely is time to get to the core of this trip. Next stop, Debark, where a champion awaits me. But that, I do not know yet. First, Lalibela to acclimatize, before heading to the Simien National Park.

One is to be dazed, even obsessed by such a natural gem, by the resplendent beauty of the Simien, a mysterious, windy name. A UNESCO World Heritage site covering roughly 70x30km, the site would have the capacity to convince the proudest person to flee his most cherished Massif Central du Monde, or his rolling Corbières du Continent. For only a quick glance would enthrall one to a languishing desire. For this, I would ask the forgiveness of geographers, of those who truly know, of the poets of the thalweg, the troubadours of glacis, of the topographers and geologists. Excuses to Tesson-Bouvier, because the Simien is truly an Ethiopian Causse. A cratered ridgeline, undulating on an East-West line, flanked by a 300m drop all along its inclined crest. Navacelles can relax, the Simien has been rolling out its 65km in my deepest dreams.

First dry as tinder fungus, then bathed in greenery, its single-track trails profile themselves on a map, nurturing my reveries. The entrance to the park is in Debark, a necessary checkpoint; 4×4, guardian angels, guide and cook, proverbial gods of the camp. And the armed ranger, whose protection is as jovial as it is symbolic. Law obliges.

Still, nobody had yet tried crossing the park… running. Far from an urge for achievement, however, my feet had come here to indulge in their regular usage; to be once more the simplest, and most efficient means of transportation to meet and connect with the world. But local curiosity definitely traveled faster than formalities, with news of my project reaching locales 10 days ahead of me. With every village comes an incredible enthusiasm for the tattooed white guy in a running singlet. The old and the young, vagrants and local stars, we have to trot-talk together. How can this fairground clown create such fervour? Let’s run. Together. Every morning, a new 15k friend on my doorstep. All of them entirely devoid of any hidden agenda. Which all creates this sensation that I was nearing this “local” and purified perception of running. But that evening, there was a runner, a real one, in front of me.

He was staring at me from behind his Fanta bottle, eyeing me down for 15 minutes. Smiles and silences shaped by an economy of words that augmented the ambient instincts. We were ogling each other, he was impressive. What about me? I doubt it. For now, protocol is all that stands; when a gringo visits the land of the Queen of Sheba, he is graced with the utmost etiquette. And then, he let out the question; “what’s your half time?” Embarrassed by my sub-par performances, a minute in thought worked as a screen to hide behind for a quick moment. A time dating 15 years back comes to mind “1:24, something like that, I don’t really remember”. Reaction; an indifferent sigh. “Ok, for me, it’s a bit under 1:03”. Things become quite clear. No false modesty, no gimmick, “Congrats, great race”. To each their time, and that’s it. Gebrie is 29 years old. 52kg. Shoe size, 38. Gebrie, he is actually Gebrie Erkihum Jenberie, fourth in the 2019 Madrid half – 1:02’47. It took me a minute to realize, breaking news. The guide told me the night before; “for security purposes, but also because this is the first attempt at crossing, a local runner will join you. To each their rhythm, really. He really wants to join you. Actually, he never ran that much.” And M. G.E.J., himself, just smiled, peacefully.

“Are you happy?” were the only three words my companion would ask, for 12h. English became more rare as movements and breathing would express more. Happy, yes, realizing that my dream was in fact reality. Fleeting, however, as I would leave a few hours later, completely exhausted, but chemically altered, forever. By the grace of the Simien: Sankaber, Geech, Imet Gogo, Chennek, Chiro Leba. With 70 Gelada baboons for pacers, with their blued chests for singlets and their benevolent gaze. Hours were counted, half after half with the continued serial strength of a common stride. Glances at each other, no lingering during the snack breaks. Gebrie was lightness in person, I was more of a happy lumbering kind, but surely no boredom was evidenced between the two of us. With one evident difficulty; getting used to the ambient cinemascope. Every kilometer was rolling out its scenic ridge line in 16/9. Up and down, happy trails. A slight decline in cadence, and an apprehension on endurance; which is, in the end, the utmost beautiful normality of such a trek. But little did I expect of the subversive yet strong power of silence. And the discovery was total, in both spaces and connections. Towards the twilight of the Bwahit, towards this campfire that will have burned for some time at the Sankaber camp. A persistent image; the foot of my companion, delicately, on an improbable slate, lands… over and over.

“What’s your half time?”. The question still inhabits me, as does his smile. UTWT, ITRA or whatever gambol, there is no day without it. Fully devoid of any idea of performance, of course. It was rather a revelation of a great gap, surely, but also of an Ethiopian culture that asks nothing more than to connect. What was our run together worth? Why does this return flight never end? Why Ethiopia? Why does the Simien, a relay of dreams and adventure, remain entirely unknown in our files on running back home? What kind of magic had me waiting 30 years to get here? So few answers. But, literally, a trail, an intuition; travels that are “felt”, literal rites of passage, do that. A return to the roots of the self, and even though the tropes are well known, the Moral of morals remains; do it, go back. And take advantage of not asking questions. Just follow the trail that is there, waiting for you.