Habitam Alemu (© Habitam Alemu)
Running has been the ladder for my life. Some athletes grow up knowing about Tirunesh, Genzebe, and Haile. They have it on their minds to become runners. But my family did not have a TV or radio, so I didn’t know anything about sport. But running has let me see the world.
I was born in Mer Awi, Ethiopia, about 35 kilometres from Bahir Dar in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. I have three sisters and four brothers, and I am the oldest girl. My father died when I was young so my mother raised us and it was expected that I would help her in the house after school.
But I learned in school that I was fast. Really fast. I had a female sports teacher who encouraged me to try running and entered me into my first competition that I won. My brother had moved to Bahir Dar for work and saw famous runners on TV. When he came back to visit he told me I should pursue running, but my mother was opposed. She wanted me to focus on learning and supporting her.
Still, my brother would take me to local competitions and I started to train seriously. Then, my appendix ruptured and my mother’s concerns only grew. She was worried if I started to run again I might die from exertion, and that I should just focus on school. But all day in school I would think about running. Only running.
Eventually I ran at the Ethiopian Championship and was invited to join a club in Addis Ababa – Mebrat Hail.
Coming to Addis Ababa from the country side was a really big deal. When you’re the child of farmers, you think of Addis like Europe. I thought there would be so much opportunity. But it is scary and difficult, especially for young women.
At first, I really struggled. I started seeing my boyfriend, who is now my husband. He was an athlete, too, and for a while we were barely making ends meet. He was running the 400 metres and I was running the 800 metres and we decided we should focus on either his career or mine to make life easier. He had some injury troubles, so he stopped running to support me full time.
Around 2015, I left Ethiopia for the first time. I mentioned Addis was like Europe coming from the country side, so you can only imagine what going on a plane was like for the first time. Even though my mother did not want me to run, she had been supportive, and was so happy when I left Ethiopia and began seeing races. The next year I represented Ethiopia at the Olympics, but I was disappointed not making it to the final.
Success is continuous, and it is inside of you. When you grow up in the countryside with my kind of background you develop so much strength. My mom raised me to be strong and resilient, and I’ve continued to use the gift that strength and the gifts God has given me to win.
My husband, Mule, has been instrumental to my success as well. When I first started I never thought I would reach this level. And most athletes in Ethiopia run longer distances. But Mule now coaches me and he has learned so many new ways to train. Most of the longer distance runners in Ethiopia will just go train long in the forest and then get back in to their cars and head home. But Mule now coaches other middle distance runners and instead of taking us to the forest, we will go to the gym. He thinks, “How can the short distance runners be successful with this training? We need to think and plan properly. How can we create other Habitams in Ethiopia?”
Running is part of our relationship. And it should be that way. When coaches can coach with love, you can really accomplish a lot.
My main goal right now is to get an Olympic medal in the 800 metres, god willing. I want to do something special for that event. Then I hope to move up to the 1500.
My mother has come around and is now fully supportive. She has not seen my house yet in Addis Ababa, and I cannot imagine what will happen when she does. But running has given me a house, a chance to see the world. My life would not be so sweet were it not for running. It’s everything to me.