Fast living in the Ethiopian highland town of Bekoji

Ejegayehu Dibaba leads her sister Tirunesh (the eventual winner) and another Ethiopian runner, Ayalew Wude, in a 10,000-meter race in Addis Ababa during May’s African Athletics Championships
[Photo: Anita Powell / AP]

It is half an hour before dawn in the Ethiopian highlands, and most of the town of Bekoji still slumbers in the shadows of a 14,000-ft.-high (4,300 m high) volcano. On the streets, though, a silent army is on the move. More than a hundred boys and girls — many in bare feet, some no taller than the goats feeding by the roadside — gravitate toward a vast, grassy plateau on Bekoji’s outskirts. There, a man with a stopwatch, local running coach Santayehu Eshetu, is waiting. So intense is the hunger here for running — and its rewards — that Eshetu’s workouts, initially meant for 25 athletes, now draw 150 or more. Focused and serious, the runners listen to his words of guidance before taking off across the plateau, their feet slapping the earth in thunderous unison. “I have no doubt,” says Eshetu, “that one of these kids will be world champion.”

Anywhere else, that comment might be an idle boast. In Bekoji, it is a virtual guarantee. By an improbable quirk of history, this small community of farmers and herders along the Great Rift Valley (pop. 33,000) has become the world’s leading producer of distance runners. Many of the fastest male and female middle-distance runners on the planet hail from this patch of red earth 170 miles (280 km) south of the capital, Addis Ababa; the athletes attended the same primary school, trained with the same childhood coach and in two cases grew up in the same thatched-roof hut. Led by two sets of siblings — the Bekele brothers and the Dibaba sisters — Bekoji’s runners are poised to rack up medals at this summer’s Beijing Olympics. So many, in fact, that their medal count alone may well surpass that of many industrialized nations. It’s enough to make the hand-painted sign that greets visitors on the dirt road into Bekoji seem endearingly modest: WELCOME TO THE VILLAGE OF ATHLETES.

Born to Race
Bekoji ranks as one of sport’s great anomalies. Here, after all, is a rural African town where time almost stands still, where horse-drawn carts outnumber motor vehicles and neighbors greet each other by asking after their herds or crops. And yet its most famous products are Tirunesh Dibaba, a 23-year-old blur who smashed the women’s 5,000-meter world record in June by five seconds, and Kenenisa Bekele, 26, who has run the fastest times in human history at 5,000 and 10,000 meters. And they are just the beginning. Kenenisa’s 21-year-old brother, Tariku, is the current 3,000-meter world indoor champion, while Dibaba’s sisters, Ejegayehu and Ginzebe, are also world-class runners. Several other Bekoji natives are close on their heels, while hundreds of others — that silent army on the plateau — are striving to join them. “The tidal wave of runners from Bekoji is unstoppable,” says Karl Keirstead, a Canadian investment banker whose foundation, A Running Start, has helped build classrooms in Bekoji. “The physical conditions are just perfect for producing runners.”

It’s tempting, when breathing the thin air of Bekoji, to focus only on the confluence of geography and genetics. The town sits on the flank of a volcano nearly 10,000 ft. (3,000 m) above sea level, making daily life itself a kind of high-altitude training. Children in this region often start running at an early age, covering great distances to fetch water and firewood or to reach the nearest school. “Our natural talent begins at the age of 2,” says two-time Olympic gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie, 35, who grew up in a village about 30 miles (50 km) north of Bekoji. Gebrselassie, who set a new marathon world record last year, remembers running over six miles (10 km) to and from school every day carrying his books, leaving him with extraordinary stamina — and a distinctive crook in his left arm. Add to this early training the physique shared by many members of the Oromo ethnic group that predominates in the region — a short torso on disproportionately long legs — and you have the perfectly engineered distance runner.

No formula, however, can conjure up the desire that burns inside Bekoji’s young runners. Take the case of Million Abate, an 18-year-old who caught Eshetu’s attention last year when he sprinted to the finish of a 12-mile (19 km) training run with his bare feet bleeding profusely. The coach took off his own Nikes and handed them to the young runner. Today, as he serves customers injera, the spongy Ethiopian flat bread, at a local truckers’ motel, Abate is still wearing the coach’s shoes. They are his only pair, though he confesses a preference for running in bare feet. “Shoes affect my speed,” he says. And speed may be his only salvation. Forced to quit school in fifth grade after his father died, Abate worked as a shoe-shine boy before getting the motel job, which pays $9 a month. All along, he has never stopped running, chasing the dream of prosperity his mother imprinted on him shortly after his father’s death, when she changed his name from Damelach to Million.

A Place Called Hope
By Ethiopian standards, Bekoji is not a desperately poor town. The famine and malnutrition that stalk other parts of the country have bypassed this region of potato and barley farms. Still, families in Bekoji’s outlying villages often live hand to mouth, and distance running — like football elsewhere in Africa or baseball in the Dominican Republic — offers the younger generation one of the few ways out. Bekoji’s trailblazer was Tirunesh Dibaba’s aunt, Derartu Tulu, who left home to avoid an early arranged marriage and ended up a national hero, winning the 10,000-meter Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 2000. As a reward, the government gave her a lovely house behind a stand of eucalyptus trees on the runners’ plateau. Dibaba herself has used some of her millions of dollars in winnings to build her widowed father one of the only two-story houses in Bekoji (the only other is the Bekeles’). Though locals gawk admiringly, the mansion is often empty. Dibaba’s father prefers to stay in his old village tukul, or conical hut, where he can cook over an open fire and keep an eye on his herd of goats.

Motivated by such signs of success, thousands of kids from the villages surrounding Bekoji have moved into town in the past several years. Many of them rent dingy rooms for a few dollars a month and fill their bellies with what they call “counterfeit pasta” — rolled-up wheat paste eaten with a pinch of salt. Some, like Million Abate, work long hours at regular jobs. Others crowd the classrooms at Bekoji Elementary School, where both Dibaba and Bekele attended and where Eshetu worked until recently as a physical-education instructor. Enrollment at the school has tripled over the past 15 years, and many of the runners are too exhausted to concentrate. “It’s difficult to teach kids under these conditions,” says principal Toshaoma Ida’oo Gaaguroo. “But in terms of running,” he adds, with a rueful smile, “we could beat any school in the world.”

Nearly every aspiring runner in Bekoji hopes to train with Eshetu, a former footballer who, despite his affable demeanor, has earned a reputation for punishing workouts: endless double-hill climbs, zigzag sprints through dense forest, even trudges through mountain streams. “These kids are willing to do anything to succeed,” says Eshetu, who toned down his training regimens after one of his runners began urinating blood. Two years ago, the local government tapped Eshetu to lead a new initiative called the Bekoji Project. His job is to identify and train the town’s top 25 teenage prospects, though he still mentors a group of 30 younger runners and informally coaches 100 others, including Million Abate. During a workout one afternoon at Bekoji’s “stadium,” a modest oval track whose grass-covered bleachers are manicured by a few stray goats, Eshetu looks out over the crush of athletes. “Even like this,” he says, “I still have to turn away more than a hundred runners every year.”

Run for Your Life
It is make-or-break time for million Abate. Though he is now the third-fastest 1,500-meter runner in town, Abate knows, at age 18, that he needs to win a big race soon to get noticed by the powers that be in Addis Ababa. The brutal calculation of success and failure in Bekoji leaves very little room for error: he either makes it into Ethiopia’s élite, where he can finally live up to the promise of his name, or he returns to a life of subsistence farming. To free up more time to train, Abate has started working for no salary at all, just food and shelter. “I have so much stress,” Abate says, his eyes tearing up. “Coach tells me not to beat myself up so much. But I want to lift myself up in life, and I get very angry when I’m overtaken by a single step.” Pushed by anxiety and desire, Abate gets up extra early these days so that he can be the first to arrive on the plateau, before any hint of light has touched the morning sky.