Jemal Yimer — 5th fastest 10,000m athlete in 2017.

From the town of Debre Marcos, Ethiopia, to the World Athletics Championships, London, @mphcrawley brings Jemal’s athletics journey to life.
Jemal Yimer running alongside Mo Farah at the 10,000m World Championships final, London. Credit: Keith McClure

There were two huge races over ten kilometres in 2017. Both were run at a torrid, honest pace from the gun and demanded an intelligent racing brain and a finely-tuned ability to judge pace and effort from competitors. The first, the World Cross Country Championships, was run on the grassy expanse of Kololo Park in Kampala, Uganda, in oppressive heat, with flag-bearing fans accompanying the runners round the course. The second, in London’s Olympic Stadium, was at the World Championships before tens of thousands of people screaming Mo Farah’s name.

Only one runner was able to finish in the top-five in both races, even though some greats of the sport (Kamworor, Cheptegei) tried. His name is Jemal Yimer from Ethiopia.

As Jemal’s parents watched the World Championships at home in Debre Marcos the electricity went off — as it often does when you least want it to in Ethiopia — and they had to rely on his girlfriend for updates over the phone. I spent most of the time watching both races similarly in the dark, thinking that Jemal had been dropped from the lead group. He seemed to spend the first half of each race lurking just out of shot, only to appear with his distinctive leaning-back, arms close to his chest style, just as I’d given up hope.

In the World Cross Country Jemal didn’t enter the top ten until over sixteen minutes had passed, before patiently working his way up to fourth, just outside the medals.

In the World Championships he stayed back, riding out the Kenyans’ surges before patiently working his way back to the lead pack.

Jemal Yimer in the pack of 13 athletes with 10 laps remaining of the 10,000m final

With 200m to go, when the camera pans away to follow Mo Farah streaking to victory, he is in 7th place, tracking Abadi Hadis with a gap in front of them to the World Cross Country champion, Geoffrey Kamworor.

When the camera returns to the finish line after Farah has won we see Jemal lunge for the line in 5th place, squeezing every fraction out of a fourteen second PB (26.56) and beating Kamworor in the process.

As the camera focuses on Farah’s celebrations we can just see Jemal in the background, hands on hips, looking up at the screen as if to say, ‘did I really just break twenty-seven minutes?’

The IAAF photo of thd Day captured by Paul Gilham with the top 5 from the 10,000m World’s final

Well, he did and he’s had a fairly remarkable journey these past 16 months.

— 4th 10,000m African Championships (28.08), Durban, June 2016
 — 1st Istanbull 15km (44.14), Turkey, September 2016 
 — 2nd Houilles 10km (28.18), France December 2016
— 5th EAF XC Trials, Addis Ababa, Febraury 2017
— 4th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Kampala, March 2017
 — 2nd IAAF World Challenge & Ethiopian Trials (27.09), Hengelo, June 2017 
 — 5th IAAF World Championships (26.54 PB), London, August 2017
 — 5th Birrell 10km (27.56 PB), Prague, September 2017

Individual 4th place for Jemal Yimer at the World XC Champioships helps Ethiopia to Team Gold. Credit IAAF

Achieving this level of consistency — especially for an endurance runner, and especially so early in a career — is a rarity. Running appeals to many because it gives them a sense of progress, of riding an upward trajectory, or of being ‘better every day’ to quote a t-shirt slogan from Jemal’s sponsor Nike. But the reality is that avoiding injury and getting the right balance between training, recovery and racing is a fine art, and one that few master. It involves making tough decisions about when to hold back, when to skip a race that you really want to run and when to really go for it. For professional runner like Jemal, these are decisions that must be negotiated between himself, his coach, his National team and his manager.

Jemal Yimer racing abroad for the first time at the African Championships in Durban, South Africa. Credit Roger Sedres

Jemal’s first race abroad was representing Ethiopia at the African Championships over 10,000m in Durban. He saw this 4th place as a wasted opportunity. He was leading with five laps to go and readying himself for a long, hard finish when his team manager shouted to him to ‘wait’ in the pack and rely on his sprint. ‘That’s not the way to race’ he tells me. ‘I was very upset after that race. It’s not good to lose because of tactics.‘

He is pleased with his performances at the World Cross and World Championships because the races were fast from the start.

‘I like a strong pace,’ he says. This is reflected in his favourite training sessions, which are of the relentless, monotonous and psychologically daunting kind. ‘My favourite is 3,000m reps’ he told me. ‘On the track, four or five times, at a strong pace.’ If that doesn’t sound relentless enough, try his second favourite: 30 laps of continuous running on the track to ‘adapt’ to the monotony of the 10,000m.

Athletes training environment outside of the capital Addis Ababa

Jemal has been employed by Amhara Prisons club since 2014, and lives in their training camp in Debre Marcos most of the time.

The camp is a simple one — grass track, barracks-style shared rooms — but it is surrounded, he says, by the ‘perfect’ distance running environment.

Rolling hills at 2,800m above sea-level, kilometre upon kilometre of forest and hills of varying severity for hill sprints. ‘Compared to Debre Marcos,’ he says, ‘Addis Ababa is easy.’ This is why he prefers to return to the club between races, rather than live in the city like many other top athletes do. Essentially, Debre Marcos is where people who live at 2,500m above sea-level go for altitude training. Jemal’s Coach is Habtemariam who also coaches his girlfriend Agrie Belachew, World U20 3,000m steeplechase Bronze medalist (also represented by Moyo Sports).

Jemal and 3000m steeplchaseer Agrie Belachew at the Hengelo World Challenge

Hailye Teshome, Moyo Sports’ sub agent in Addis Ababa, has been telling me for a while that Jemal is ‘special’ and it is this single-minded focus that sets him apart. If you’ve lived in the training camp of the Amhara Prisons club for two years, training morning and evening. eating a simple diet in the club canteen and surviving on fifty dollars a month, it can’t be the easiest thing in the world to suddenly see $6,000 in your bank account and to leave it there.

But as Jemal sees it, the money can wait, but his running can’t. Jemal approaches each race with intense focus. As Hailye puts it in English, ‘he’s not like the other athletes, he’s not interested in hodgepodge things’ like Facebook and football.

Jemal Yimer in orange sprinting to 5th palce at the Ethiopian Athletics Federation XC trials, February 2017.

He is also willing to listen — to Hailye, to his coaches and to his manager Malcolm Anderson — and to wait. His favourite training sessions suggest that he is building a formidable strength for the half marathon distance, and he had to be persuaded to wait another year to make his debut at the distance. He will make his debut next year, although his focus will still be on the 10,000m. These can be difficult decisions to make, as the roads are often more lucrative than the track, but his patience has probably contributed to his consistent performances over the shorter distances.

He had also been entered to run against Mo Farah in Ostrava at the Golden Spike World Challenge meet in July, but the decision was made to withdraw him to focuss solely on the World Championships that August.

It is clear from his race profile that Jemal has not competd that much compared with many Ethiopian athletes, but when he has it has certainly counted.

Jemal Yimer 2nd on his European 10km road debut at the IAAF Silver label Houilles 10km, France, in December 2016

It is difficult to relate to someone who can run under twenty-seven minutes for ten kilometres. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to be among the five best in the world at something.

Remember too that the 10,000m London World Championships race was the second time ever that seven men broke 27.00 minutes in the same race. It was historic.

In 2016 Jemal ran just over twenty-eight minutes for 10,000m and I almost felt sorry for the sincerity with which he told me this time. Fast-forward a year and he has run seventy-two seconds faster than that — a PB of 26.56 / 5th fastest in the World— and has still only run the 10,000m abroad three times. Even still for 2017 this has rightly meant being included in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) out of competition international testing pool. Currently back in Ethiopia preparing for his next race he simply wants to continue to run fast, represent his country more and hopefully, one day, win individual medals to go with his team gold from the World Cross country.

He looks up to and admires the exlpoits of his countryman and multiple Gold medalist Kenenisa Bekele. The chance of him breaking Kenenisa’s records on the track is probably still as thin as the air in which he trains, but he is certainly getting closer.

(Follow Jemal Yimer on Twitter and Instagram)

Jemal Yimer relaxing after the World Championships in London with Tower Bridge and The Shard in the background