Bekoji is a small town of farmers and herders in the Ethiopian highlands. There, time almost stands still, and horse-drawn carts outnumber motor vehicles. Yet, it has consistently yielded many of the world’s best distance runners.
It’s tempting, when breathing the thin air of Bekoji, to focus on the special conditions of the place. The town sits on the side of a volcano nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, making daily life 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. Added to this early training is a physical trait shared by people there－disproportionately long legs, which is advantageous for distance runners.
A strong desire burns inside Bekoji’s young runners. Take the case of Million Abate. Forced to quit school in fifth grade after his father died, Abate worked as a shoe-shine boy for years. He saw a hope in running and joined Santayehu Eshetu’s training program. This 18-year-old sprinted to the finish of a 12-mile run with his bare feet bleeding. The coach took off his own Nikes and handed them to him. To help Abate continue running, the coach arranged a motel job for him, which pays $9 a month.
Most families in Bekoji live from hand to mouth, and distance running offers the younger generation a way out. Bekoji’s legend Derartu Tulu, who won the 10,000-meter Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 2000, is a national hero. As a reward, the government gave her a house. She also won millions of dollars in the races.
Motivated by such signs of success, thousands of kids from the villages surrounding Bekoji have moved into town. They crowd the classrooms at Bekoji Elementary School, where Eshetu works as a physical-education instructor. All these kids share the same dream: Some day they could become another Derartu Tulu.