The Coach Behind Many of the World’s Greatest Runners

Haji Adilo during a training session in Ethiopia.

Source Hannah Borenstein

Why you should care

Because it's more than natural talent putting these elite runners at the front.

“This is very difficult work,” coach Haji Adilo says as we drive past an elderly woman toting a bundle of sticks on her back down Entoto Mountain in northern Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on a Thursday morning. “She’ll probably only get a few hundred birr for this.” Then he pulls out a 100 birr note (a little more than $3) from his pocket and hands it to her through the window of his black Toyota.

Four-and-a-half hours earlier, as the sun was just beginning to rise, we were driving up the same mountain for a training session. Adilo, 44, was monitoring a different kind of difficult work — often glorified in Ethiopia: marathon running. Entoto Mountain stands around 10,000 feet and overlooks Ethiopia’s burgeoning capital city. It’s the highest nearby reachable point to push athletes to their peak endurance and part of the schematic planning that Adilo oversees as coach of Ethiopia’s preeminent marathon training group.

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Adilo during a training session.

Source Hannah Borenstein

When we arrive, Adilo greets his two brothers and assistant coaches, Kassim and Moges, and his 100-plus athletes, taking the time to shake everyone’s hand individually and kiss each of them on the cheek. He then orders a one-hour-and-40-minute endurance run for most athletes and an easy 45-minute jog for those about to head out to the Berlin Marathon. Among the latter group is Kenenisa Bekele, who would win that week, two seconds shy of world-record time. Lelisa Desisa leads another pack, and two weeks later, he’d become the world champion in Doha, Qatar. Now Desisa is looking to defend his New York City Marathon title this weekend — requiring quick-turnaround training arguably more innovative than Eliud Kipchoge’s recent feat of finishing a marathon in under two hours.

As the athletes head off in single-file lines, zigzagging their way through the eucalyptus forest, Haji, Kassim and Moges jog next to each other, looking to spot their athletes, observe their form, talk strategy and share a few jokes.

he’s become more than a coach to me. He’s like a brother, like a father.

Marathon world champion Lelisa Desisa, on haji adilo

Countless stars from Ethiopia throughout the last few decades have trained under the tutelage of the Adilo family, who, as former athletes, understand the slog. Thus, the brothers are constantly talking to their athletes and consulting with each other to see how each individual is feeling physically and emotionally.

“Our philosophy is structured around the athletes maintaining interest and excitement in the training,” Adilo says. “So one day we might go to Entoto for endurance training, but then we may drop down to [lower-altitude] Sebeta for speed work.”

At the end of some training sessions, the coaches host an open forum, where the athletes and supporters — partners, siblings, etc. — can voice concerns and express feedback. The coaching magic occurs by taking each individual’s training progression, race date and mental, physical and emotional health into consideration, then producing workouts that upward of 90 people can do together: collectivism in an individual, often solitary, sport.

But extensive familial ties are more than a coaching style for the brothers — it is a way of life. Adilo was raised in an agrarian family with 13 siblings near Mount Chilalo in the Arsi province, famed for being the birthplace of many Ethiopian icons. He went on to win several international marathons, but his career was cut short due to injury. Now, at any given time, up to 17 extended family members reside in his sizable Addis Ababa home. And Moges lives five houses down.

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Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa celebrates as he wins the Men’s Marathon at the 2019 IAAF Athletics World Championships in Doha.

Source GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty

Adilo has always incorporated attention to athletes’ entire well-being, from advising them about financial investments to sharing personal experiences. In 2006, he and Hussein Makke, of Elite Sports Marketing & Management, met through a mutual Ethiopian friend. From there, they began working together to develop the next great crop of Ethiopian distance runners

“What makes Haji such a good coach is his ability to read each athlete individually,” Makke says. “He’s very understanding and genuine.”

Berlin Marathon 2019

Adilo’s athlete Kenenisa Bekele runs in the 46th Berlin Marathon and wins with a time just two seconds shy of the world record.

Source Christoph Soeder/Getty

However, the coaching and management in Ethiopia expand beyond the marathon. While Moges, Kassim and Haji administer the marathon training program, they also are bringing up Ethiopia’s next generation of track champions. That includes several 2020 Olympic hopefuls in middle and long distances, such as 800-meter Olympian Habitam Alemu, 1,500-meter world-record holder Samuel Tefera, world silver medalist Selemon Barega and 10,000-meter world cross country champion Senbere Teferi.

This breadth of talent is a testament to early and gradual development, and individualized training plans. The world champion Desisa, for instance, was approached by Adilo more than 11 years ago. “He found me at a junior competition and told me to come and train with him,” Desisa says. “But now he’s become more than a coach to me. He’s like a brother, like a father to me.”

Desisa’s training partner and last year’s runner-up, Shura Kitata, will also be toeing the line in New York. So, too, will 2019 Tokyo Marathon Champion Ruti Aga.

Some controversy has stirred since Aga and Desisa were selected to represent Ethiopia at the world championships. Because of Doha’s grueling temperatures, the competition, usually held mid-summer, was pushed back to October. The move made it interfere with the fall marathons, and the heat still proved to be a determining factor. The race was run in 90-degree heat with 70 percent humidity, causing Aga and 27 other women to drop out. Desisa endured slightly cooler temperatures to win the men’s race. However, many have questioned the training program to be able to run two marathons in such close proximity (most elite athletes run only two per year).

It’s required a shift. Although athletes and coaches, like much of the world, were impressed by Kipchoge’s recent sub-two-hour feat in the marathon, it was run under ideal conditions. Preparing for two different top-tier marathons in divergent climates arguably requires even more creativity.

“In many ways, this preparation has gone against our past training philosophies,” Adilo says. “We’ve had to adjust and create a specific approach based on a long build-up and an active recovery period between marathons. It’s been challenging, but they are capable.”

Marathon spectators have come to expect runners from Ethiopia and neighboring Kenya to be out in front, and Africans are often seen as naturally talented runners. But the Adilo brothers show that it takes difficult — and innovative — work to get there.

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