At 4000 metres above sea level, footsteps come too slowly and breaths come too quickly. Appetites disappear and every effort is exaggerated. Life at this elevation is pure hard work.
When I hiked across the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, climbing to the country’s highest point at 4550 metres, I was always surprised to look up and see village kids sprinting across the fields – usually barefoot – to greet me. They’d arrive beside me smiling, barely puffing, even as I sucked for air so hard I was in danger of accidentally inhaling one of them. And I was just walking. Around me there were sick and immobile hikers strapped to the backs of mules, and others so defeated by the pains of altitude that they’d opted out of the summit climb. And then off the kids would trot again, bounding like springboks.
So it came as no surprise to me this week to read Nick Ashdown’s fantastic article in The Atlantic, Little Town of Champions, about the Ethiopian town of Bekoji. Perched around 3000 metres above sea level, Bekoji has apparently produced more Olympic gold medals than India and Indonesia – in raw numbers, a town of 17,000 people has won more medals than two countries with combined populations of around 1.5 billion. Runners from Bekoji have won 16 Olympic medals, including 10 gold.
Theories still abound about the reasons for Ethiopia’s success at long-distance events, from the people’s slender calves and ankles, to their diets, to the fact of living at just the right altitude… said to be around 1800 metres to 3000 metres. Whatever the reason, I simply hope to have a portion of the energy, balance and breath of those Ethiopian children when I’m next hiking at 4000 metres.