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Michael Crawley is an anthropologist, author, and competitive runner who holds a 2:20 marathon personal best.

Crawley published the book Out of Thin Air: Running wisdom and magic from above the clouds in Ethiopia in 2020, after spending 15 months embedded in the elite, but rustic Ethiopian running culture. The book is an eye-opener in terms of how differently Ethiopians view training. In many ways, the relationship between running and the environment is juxtaposed opposite of how most of the rest of the world views the activity we define as sport, recreation, and or a healthful pursuit — many can learn from the sometimes pagan-like approach.

Crawley is currently working on his second book. He is a new father who is potentially sleep-deprived and shortly before the interview had just moved homes. He did manage to take the time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about the Ethiopian approach to running.

His bio at Durham University tells us that Crawley is a social anthropologist specialising in the study of sport, development, and self-tracking. 

His doctoral thesis is the first-ever ethnographic account of the emic regimes of subjectification adopted by Ethiopian runners. Its overall argument is that an awareness of the energetic quality of human existence can give rise to distinct ways of relating to oneself and others. 

Out of Thin Air was longlisted for the Ondaatje Prize. 

The interview

Christopher Kelsall: Considering the scientific relationship that the west has with running, were you surprised by the deep spiritual connection that Ethiopians have with running?

Michael Crawley: Yes, I hadn’t realised the extent to which the runners’ religious beliefs would influence their training and worldview. Having said that, I did try to approach the research without making too many assumptions about what would be important to people — I wanted to ensure that I wrote a book that foregrounded the things that were most important to the runners.

I hadn’t realised that the notion of energy that Ethiopian runners have would be quite so different from the ‘scientific’ understanding and I hope to have explained the notion of shared energy and an almost spiritual connection with the environment in the book. But I think we also have a particular idea of what a ‘scientific’ approach might look like — data-driven, relying on information about VO2 max and lactic thresholds and things like that that are determined in a lab. Actually, the way Ethiopian athletes approach is very scientific in many ways — they are testing hypotheses through different ways of training, building on the things that work and rejecting the things that don’t. And they’re running a lot faster than most of the people who submit themselves to regular lab testing. 

CK: In regards to the mysterious “change” that you often referred to. In clocking a slight personal best in the marathon, do you feel you tapped out your talent level? Any desire to put the same effort in but with a more western and scientific approach?

MC: I think I was probably capable of running a couple of minutes inside 2:20 at one point — we moved house three weeks before I ran my PB in Frankfurt which didn’t help, and then I was in better shape the following April but got tonsillitis just before London marathon. If I was to have another proper crack at the marathon I would approach the training in a very similar way to before though — I don’t see a great deal of evidence that a more ‘scientific’ approach would help, either from observing the way the best Ethiopian athletes in the world train or from talking to runners in the North East about the heyday of British distance running in the ‘70s and ‘80s. 

CK: In terms of sales, how has Out of Thin Air fared in Ethiopia?

MC: We’re still working on getting an Amharic translation out there at the moment, but I’m hopeful that people will be interested in reading it once we do. 

CK: A couple of times you write about a dramatic change in an athlete in a short period of time, but you never suggest performance-enhancing drugs. Was this to avoid defamation or did you just not witness or suspect anything related to PEDs at all?

MC: That’s a good question. I certainly heard the odd rumour about doping whilst I was in Addis, but what I found more interesting was that doping was spoken of in a very similar way to metat, a form of witchcraft through which an athlete could ‘steal’ some of another runner’s energy. Actually, both metat and doping were seen as deeply anti-social practices that were at odds with the ethos of working together and trying to improve within the group environment. Most runners held extremely strong religious beliefs and saw doping as a ‘shortcut’ that may lead to short-term financial gain but which was likely to lead to some form of punishment later in life in the form of bad luck and ill-health etc. My sense is that doping probably does occur but that it would only be the wealthier athletes who would be able to afford to do this / get access to performance-enhancing drugs. Of the runners, I got to know well I would be extremely surprised to learn that any of them had doped. 

CK: Sometimes it seems as though many Kenyans compete out of sheer necessity — to cash in where the money is. There does not appear to be as deep a connection to running outside of that. Would you suggest that Ethiopians would compete at the same level that they do now if much less money was on the table?

MC: I think fewer athletes would compete but those that did would be running at a very high level. It wasn’t until relatively recently that the Federation in Ethiopia allowed athletes to compete abroad for money apart from in a limited way following a world championship, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we saw runners on the world stage who weren’t also part of the military in Ethiopia. The policy was changed in order to give athletes an opportunity to ‘change their lives’ as they put it. So, I don’t think many people would train as hard as they do if there wasn’t the opportunity to improve the lives of themselves and their families but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t still a ‘deep connection’ to running that goes far beyond money, both in Ethiopia and Kenya. 

CK: Within the group that you trained with were there any discussions about some athletes moving to the Netherlands and throughout Europe, Sifan Hassan, for example? Was there a supportive perspective?

I didn’t talk to people specifically about Sifan Hassan, but people definitely talked about athletes who used running as a way to get out of Ethiopia. Sifan is actually quite unusual in being an extremely good athlete who has gone abroad — often it’s something people decide to do if their running isn’t going very well and they feel like they can make a better life for themselves somewhere else. This happens a lot — I know Ethiopian and Eritrean runners in Scotland, Sweden, Australia, and a lot of other countries. The athletes who I knew who did do this never told me (or their manager, or sub-agent, or even their friends) that they were planning on doing it though for obvious reasons. 

CK: Do you sense that the Tigray State conflict interrupts running life in Ethiopia? If so, how has it affected training? Apparently, Letesenbet Gidey had trouble putting in proper training for a while according to Jos Hermens.

MC: It definitely affected people in a variety of ways. For those who are from the Tigray region, it’s directly affected their training when they’ve been there, although many train in Addis Ababa the majority of the time. There’s also the worry of not knowing what is happening to your family and friends and often not being able to contact them, which must be extremely difficult. In the National Team, there are also some tensions between runners from different regions due to various political claims and protests being made, and there have been protests on the track in Addis Ababa by athletes from Tigray in recent months. 

CK: Durham University has a bio of you saying, “my first book…” What is next for you?

MC: I’m writing a new book at the moment about ‘endurance’ more broadly, which is going to involve some writing about technological developments and things like wearable devices and how they change how we think about endurance, but also chapters on some places / cultures we associate with endurance – the Tarahumara in Mexico for example, and Nepalese climbing sherpas. I’m hoping the book will be out in 2024. 

CK: This is a fascinating subject. For example, simply forgetting the watch, completely changes the effort one puts out on a regular run. Canadian Trevor Hofbauer at one point got rid of the watch and subsequently felt very liberated. Not a full correlation, but he dropped his marathon best from 2:18:06 in 2017 to 2:09:51 in 2019. Four-time Olympian Lorraine Moller published a great read in Running Times / Runner’s World titled Becoming a Body Whisperer — pre-dating the “naked running” term.

Will you get into how effort is meted, controlled, and perceived?

Yes I definitely want to explore that. I think there’s a danger that in looking to technology for additional insights into our bodies and selves we might be inadvertently blunting our capacities to actually ‘feel’ a particular pace or effort. I’d not come across the term ‘body whisperer’ but that’s a wonderful way of putting it. 

CK: When you conducted your ethnographic account of subjectification were you suggesting that talking to one person and then another, the very same words and structure can have not just different but brand new meanings?  Can you describe it?

MC: Subjectification refers more to how people construct themselves as a subject — so I’m thinking more about what kinds of person is created through running in Ethiopia (what is their ethical outlook on life? How does running holistically transform their lives / the way they socialise with others etc etc) 

CK: Did you develop a greater appreciation for running while in Ethiopia that you have taken with you back to Great Britain?

MC: Yes, definitely. One thing that particularly struck me is that we tend to think of high-performance sport and joy and creativity as antithetical — that the better you get at a sport the more it becomes about rigidly following a strict training regime, and responding to data, that the joy gets sucked out of it to a certain degree. What seemed clear in Ethiopia was that even the very best runners in the world were trying hard to ensure that they kept their running as creative as possible, and found as much meaning in the life of a runner as they could.

CK: How has that manifested in your western environment, in your day-to-day running?

I actually followed a training program in Edinburgh that had been written for me by a coach in Ethiopia, and what was striking was that rather than starting with the session itself the instructions always began with the surface I was supposed to run on, which is was very rarely a road. In fact, I ended up doing a lot of running on an undulating golf course which turned out to be the best way of replicating some of the forest running in Addis. The main thing I try to do though is to be as creative as possible when coming up with training sessions, trying to inspire as much interest and novelty as I can.