The Air Up There: A Look Into Ethiopia’s Distance Running Legacy

A large group of Ethiopian runners head out for a tempo run on the roads.

Retracing The Route To The Top

Having started my trip in Addis, I traced the route that many Ethiopian runners take to the top backward, as I then travelled via Asella to Bekoji, a small town of 17,000 which happens to be the birthplace of multiple Olympic medalist and world-record holder Kenenisa Bekele (and his younger brother, Tariku), reigning Olympic 5,000 and 10,000-meter champion Tirunesh Dibaba, and two-time Olympic 10,000m gold medalist Derartu Tulu, along with numerous other world champions. The town has recently been bought to light by the film ‘Town of Runners”, which follows the fortunes of two young athletes as they try to follow in the footsteps of the town’s great champions. While there I trained for a week with coach Sentayu, a physical education teacher with no formal coaching qualifications who, aside from Brother Colm O’Connell in Iten, Kenya, is peerless when it comes to identifying young athletic talent.

On my first day he came to meet me at a quarter to seven and we ambled along his familiar route to the track, our progress frequently halted as ‘coach’ greeted everyone we passed. Over the course of a career that’s lasted 30 years there aren’t many families who haven’t contributed at least one young athlete to Sentayu’s vast training group. I’d been training in Addis Ababa for over a month by the time I went to Bekoji, so I thought I’d acclimated pretty well to the altitude. The air in Bekoji, however, is noticeably thinner, and even on the walk uphill to the stadium I was emitting conspicuously large amounts of water vapor into the cold morning air.

At the stadium we were greeted by the sight of 200 young runners sitting on the grass banks waiting to hear Sentayu’s words of wisdom. After a short pep talk we warmed up for 20 minutes — quite a disorientating process, with phalanxes of runners darting around the infield in various directions – and then got started with the morning’s track session. Everyone was doing different workouts, and I was told to alternate between 800 and 400-meter repetitions. Former mile world-record holder Jim Ryun used to describe the wait for the sudden feeling of fatigue that hits you when you’re running intervals as being similar to waiting for a bear to jump on your back. Running in Bekoji, the bear is with you more or less as soon as you start running — and it doesn’t go away. Sentayu described the air as ‘special,’ but it made me feel extremely ordinary as I struggled to breathe while all the local athletes flew past me. It’s safe to say that those who succeed in impressing Sentayu on this rural track will find few tracks in the world that they can’t dominate.

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