RUNNING FOR A CAUSE

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Richard Nerurkar (Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

Celebrated as one of the liveliest and most colourful races in the world, the Great Ethiopian Run International 10km has been a flagship event held every year since 2001. With 45,000 participants, the race has become the biggest road race in Africa, with tens of thousands of Ethiopians running, walking and dancing their way along the route, led by Ethiopia’s celebrated international runners.
At the heart of the inception of this race 21 years ago, the Great Ethiopian Run organizers aspired to spearhead a cause of promoting Ethiopia to the globe; as the country was well known for its athletics (running) prowess. Furthermore, there was a great desire to instill a healthy lifestyle channeled through racing events. Over the years, the race has served as a platform with a cause of giving back to society. The event has financially supported and promoted the work of different organizations working with vulnerable children, women and the elderly with every year, two to three charitable organizations benefiting from this campaign.
As this year’s race gets underway, Capital’s Metasebia Teshome reached out to one of the co-founders behind the Great Ethiopian Run; former British long distance runner, Richard Nerurka for insights on the race’s inception to evolution and hurdles overcome along the way. Excerpts;

Capital: Tell us how your journey started out with the Great Ethiopian run?
Richard Nerurkar: I started work on the Great Ethiopian run as soon as my family and I arrived in Ethiopia some 21 years ago. At the time, there had been a few conversations and meetings about staging the first race. I arrived 6 months before the first race, and within that half-year window the momentum picked up in terms of arrangements for the race which took place in November 20, 2001.
To make the first race a success of course required the concerted efforts of a lot of people behind the scenes. I would like to acknowledge two very important people in those early weeks; one of course is the British ambassador at the time, because he gave me an office and a telephone which is important, and Haile Gebrselassie who made it possible for me to engage with the sponsors.
Any event of this magnitude requires money, to which initially it was sourced from sponsors and later on we started collecting participant fees and so on. I would say the first three or four years were difficult while the last 10 years have been very uplifting and joyous.
Of course in the early years my goal was to establish the race as an annual race and not just as a one off race. And second to that were races across different parts of Ethiopia and thus there was a necessity of establishing an organization for the follow up on such races throughout the year. So that is how the women’s run and regional races grew to prominence.
The early years were honestly tough but with the help of Haile we overcame those problems.

Capital: What have been the main challenges that you’ve faced? How did you cope with them?
Richard Nerurkar: Well, I suppose in essence you have to remember I’m a foreigner and I was trying to do something with Ethiopians for the good of Ethiopia. That was my motivation from the start. However, I am still a foreigner and it was me who was driving the project forward and that’s why I said if I was just doing it on my own without Haile’s help it would not have panned out the way it did.
As of anything new, challenges from all angles can pop up, but luckily we had a solid partner in Haile and other core members and we managed to overcome those problems. Of course in those early years there were people working inside the Ethiopian Athletics Federation and other government offices that were supportive of what we were doing. But also there were people who really didn’t understand and were probably suspicious and probably more suspicious because I was a foreigner.

Capital: How would you define working in Ethiopia? What are your thoughts on working with Haile Gebrselassie besides knowing him as an athlete?
Richard Nerurkar: Working in Ethiopia in my line of work has been very rewarding. While I was a general manager, I was able to build a team and I enjoyed recruiting and training people as well as see them develop. Of course, the team that I built has gone on to do the same which is very rewarding to see something flourish. Of course any journey is not without its struggles, the teams also face significant challenges. Nonetheless, there is pride in seeing all that we have achieved throughout the years.
Working with Haile has been a blast. He is an inspirational person to work with. I mean, I’ve got respect for what he’s achieved both as an athlete and in business and I so much enjoy working with him.
We were both athletes. We both knew each other as athletes. We had a close understanding, and he highly understood what I was trying to do. I understood that I couldn’t do it without Haile. He was instrumental in giving me that confidence and reassurance in those difficulties periods which we made a way through.

Capital: Twenty one years is a long journey. Do you believe that you have achieved the goals that you set out?
Richard Nerurkar: Yes. I believe the goals set out have been achieved and have even been surpassed. Particularly the 10k and the women’s run are so special. I would not have imagined the magnitude of the two races when we were starting out versus how it is today. And I have to say that the reason that they’ve turned into these kinds of events is nothing to do with me. It’s partly to do with my colleagues who have turned them into much more than a running event. And it’s partly also to do with the participants.
Initially there were two goals. One was to stage a race reflective of the way Ethiopian athletes were registering results on the world stage whilst the second was to establish an organization that will work on the race to ensure continuity of work.
We are now organizing an international race that has a winning recognition around the world and we’ve been doing that for the last 20 years. And the organization has stood strong throughout the two decades which is something to applaud.

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Capital: Having prepared and participated in other global races how does this compare to the Great Ethiopian Run? What makes us unique?
Richard Nerurkar: I think the first thing I have to say is that I have been a participant in lots of races around the world mainly as an elite athlete because I competed at an international level in my 20s and 30s. But I have never participated in any of the races that we have organized in Ethiopia. So I’ve always been an organizer. I’ve always been very happy to be an organizer.
So I can’t make a like for like comparison. However, I know from what participants have told me that participating in our races is very different. I think it’s to do with the feeling that you get as a participant. The excitement and shared feeling that you get with other participants is unique and different in its own way.
Generally speaking if you’re a participant in a race outside Ethiopia, your reasons for participating are often personal goals. You have a time goal, or you have done the race before and you somehow want to do better than you did last year or something like that. I think the reasons for participating in our races for most people are quite different from that. It’s the fun of being together and just enjoyment and not wanting to miss out on that enjoyment.

Capital: Why did you choose Ethiopia?
Richard Nerurkar: As an athlete I spent a lot of time training in Kenya in the 1990s. Initially, I had an option between Kenya and Ethiopia, but I decided on the former because at the time westerners liked going to Kenya because of ease in language, as there was no language barrier. Similarly, Kenya had well been known for over 50 years for its touristic attractions which lured visitors from across the globe.
When I finished my career as an athlete, my wife who is a doctor by training with interests in global health and tropical medicine was very keen to come and work in Africa. Although we had been in Kenya and other countries in the past, we decided to come to Ethiopia. My wife also had a job offering from the black lion medical school, where she went on to work and she was also a teacher at the Department of Community Health.
But of course even when we came here I knew athletes like Haile, Assefa, Million and many others that I competed with in the past. And there is always a special feeling in this country that makes you feel at home and desire to stay and we have been here since.

Capital: What makes this year’s race special? How are the preparations coming along?
Richard Nerurkar: The number of participants this year is projected to be 40,000, which is massive, in comparison to previous years.
Dating back to a decade, the numbers were going up year on year. Three years ago we had the highest recorded turn-out of 45,000. We projected to hit 50k due to the upward trend the following year, but the pandemic derailed us.
Nonetheless, the support of the Ministry of Tourism has been remarkable and consistent, to which we are grateful. Our initial plan was to promote Ethiopia on the international stage. In the early days, we attracted 25- 45toursits and seven years back that number was as high as 600. Of course the pandemic has lowered this number significantly and this year we expect about 100. We are bouncing back stronger as the years from the pandemic progress.

Capital: “RUNNING FOR A CAUSE” has been part and parcel of the race. What are this year’s plans on that front?
Richard Nerurkar: The great run has gone on to be more than just a race. It has since 2005 been used as a platform for fundraising and giving back to society to those in need. We have had support from UNICEF, and now we are closely working with government in terms of nominating our beneficiaries.
This year we have a digital platform which will enable people to donate online from around the world. And some of the people who are giving sponsorship pledges are Ethiopians who are not living in Ethiopia, who will now render their support virtually. This then widens the opportunity to support the noble Cause.

Capital: Apart from the 10k race, there are mini races that the Great Run is organizing. How are they faring on?
Richard Nerurkar: From a race organizer standpoint, the COVID-19 pandemic was very hard in terms of organizing such events and we were only able to organize virtual runs. We were fortunate in the two years to have had the 10k and women’s race that kept us going.
Coming out from the post pandemic era, in the last 12 months, we have built up again a series of races that we do throughout the year. We have done this in Hawassa and Bekoji for example. We also have the children’s races, and the relay that we do, and these races are very important because our mission is to make running a lifestyle for everyone.
We also have monthly races in Entoto Park in order to draw more people into running. It is often hard organizing events in Addis but it is even harder organizing outside the capital say in Bekoji and Hawassa because you have to go several weeks ahead to a new place, that is new to you as an organizer, and try to generate interest amongst the community and then make all the operational arrangements for the race. Fortunately, last year we had great experiences in those places. And so we’re looking forward to next year and we’ll be organizing the races there again.

Capital: What are your views on Ethiopia’s athletics and the Great Ethiopian Run’s overall impact?
Richard Nerurkar: Great Ethiopian run as an organization would not be successful without the success of champion athletes. It’s as simple as that. If you go to Sierra Leone, or Colombia or Thailand there are no international elite athletes and it would be nearly impossible to even set up a race organizing company and try to be successful there.
So, I said this 21 years ago when we started and the same is true today. The success of our work is closely connected with the ongoing success of Ethiopia’s great athletes.
Ethiopia is known for its athletic sports excellence and it is great to see the country producing world champions as it did this year in Oregon. Not only does Ethiopia produce winners of big city races, but it also stages international races that we ought to be proud of. I’m very proud of the great Ethiopian run as an event organizing company. I think that the races are very well organized. Participants every time also applaud the event and say something very positive about Ethiopia in the same way that when an Ethiopian athlete goes and competes in London or New York.

Capital: Is there’s anything you want to add?
Richard Nerurkar: I would like to express my gratitude for the support we have received from people, organizations and government over the 20 plus years. I am also thankful for the support given to us when we organize the races outside the capital.
I think there is still a misunderstanding or a gap in understanding about what we are trying to do and my hope is that in the years to come, that some of the big organizations in Ethiopia and the big government institutions will get behind the Great Ethiopian run as a company and recognize what we are doing.
We have enjoyed unwavering support from the Ministry of Tourism because they strongly recognize that the event brings in sports tourism. Similarly, we have had great support from Ethiopian airlines.
The Great run, as an organizing company is not just a corporate entity and the race is not just a running event. It is much bigger than that. We make international investments in media; we bring in Olympic champions, international sports photographers and journalists because we’re really trying to do something for the country. As I said, I think there are some people who understand that and get behind us and then there are other people who really seem to struggle and of course in other parts of the world, if you go to London or Birmingham or Oregon, where the World Championships are, you see that the local organizations are delighted that the world is coming to their community. This is because through the event their community gets really good publicity, to which we want to continually achieve that also in our races.