Kirsty Reade has been to a screening in Oxford that also included a Q&A with the director and Coach Sentayehu
Bekoji is a small town with 16,000 inhabitants located at 10,000 feet above sea level in Ethiopia. It would be indistinguishable from many other Ethiopian villages except for the fact that it has produced some of the best male and female distance runners the world has ever seen, such as Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele, and Derartu Tulu. The director of this film, Jerry Rothwell, having spent some of his early years in Africa, was interested in discovering what makes this town such a hotbed for distance running and spent 3 years following athletes to find out.
I expected it to be a documentary about the training, the environment, the diet, the commitment and hunger to succeed and it was all of those things, but the real beauty of this film is that it was all framed by human stories. The main focus of the film is on Alemi and Hawii, two girls who show great promise in their mid-teens, and are desperate to make it as athletes.
They train in Bekoji under the benevolent eye of Coach Sentayehu Eshetu, a man for whom the word ‘inspirational’ was created. ‘Coach’ has trained numerous Olympic champions over the years but as there is no professional athletics club in Bekoji, his mission is to coach and train athletes and secure them places in professional clubs elsewhere in Ethiopia. He comes across as a hugely warm man, committed to these youngsters, supporting them to a better future, and liaising with their families to get the best for them. He organises daily training for 200 athletes with few facilities (the dirt 400m track must be cleared of grass after each rainy season and we see the athletes with scythes and spades doing the back-breaking work which takes a month) and very little money.
The other key character in the film is Biruk, a young boy who works in his Grandmother’s kiosk and is also desperate to make it as an athlete. He keeps studying hard as well, as he also dreams of being a doctor. Biruk, Hawii, and Alemi live in a community where farming is the only way to make a meagre living and even this is a gamble with the weather. The young runners dream of a better life than their parents and athletics is realistically the only way for them to achieve this.
Their hunger to succeed comes across in the film through their commitment, their ready acceptance of how hard they have to work, and the sacrifices they have to make. Athletes who make the grade in Bekoji may have to travel hundreds of miles away from their families and leave their education behind in order to train in government funded running academies. This may work out well for them, or it may turn out to be a big mistake (the quality of these academies varies according to funding and community support). If it doesn’t work out the girls can’t just go back to their families. Firstly they are under contract for 2 years and secondly it would be shameful for them to just return to their villages.
The film follows the runners’ progress in Bekoji and beyond but the most striking part for me was watching coach’s training sessions. The drills were all carried out in perfect unison, with huge groups of runners all moving together with metronomic timing. This footage was accompanied by perfectly appropriate music and I would recommend seeing the film just for these scenes.
The screening I went to in Oxford had a Q and A with the director afterwards and he also brought along Coach Sentayehu and an interpreter. Coach has been in the UK visiting running clubs and trying to build some links to Bekoji at the grassroots level of the sport. It was a huge privilege to hear him answer questions about the differences between UK running clubs’ training and his (in the UK we focus more on individuals, in Bekoji it’s all as a group), how to encourage runners to improve (set the quickest off first and make everybody else chase them!) and about cultural issues involving women pursuing athletics careers (it is an accepted and respected career for women in Ethiopia so women enjoy equal status with men, unlike other areas of life).
This film is a fascinating insight into what factors come together to develop top Ethiopian runners, told through captivating human stories. Do these runners make it? I can’t tell you, you’ll have to see the film. It will appeal to runners and non-runners and I can see it having that ‘Born to Run’ effect where it inspires people to get into running, or take it to another level.
The aim of this film is to get people involved in supporting the coach and the runners in Bekoji. You can be part of this by getting involved in their outreach projects, connecting your club with Bekoji, raising funds for a new track surface, supporting the coaching by training assistant coaches and supporting education in the area. See the website for details on this and on where you can see the film. You can also organise a screening for your running club.
There is an excellent website (www.townofrunners.com) accompanying the film where you can see clips, ‘meet’ the runners and coach, and even get training tips
I’d describe myself as borderline obsessed with running, racing, reading about running, and watching others run so hopefully I’m fairly typical of Run247’s visitors. I tend to do longer races, particularly off-road marathons and ultras, but am pretty much a fan of any distance. The thing I get the biggest kick out of is being involved in my running club, Didcot Runners, encouraging people to get into running through a group I have in Oxford, and coaching runners to improve.