The Bekoji Track Classic

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Time trialling at 2,800m

The small, rural town of Bekoji lies around 200km south of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. It looks and feels just like any number of town centres in the African nation, and you could easily pass through and think it was nothing spectacular.

Bekoji however, is somewhat of a holy place for runners. It’s where champions such as Derartu Tulu, the Bekele’s, the Dibaba sisters, and many more have got their start and been moulded into world beaters, all under the watchful eye of Coach Sentayehu.

Coach has three main training centres at his disposal. On the outskirts of town is a eucalyptus forest on a hill, perfect for zig-zagging through the trees and building strength up hills. Easy runs take place in a field at the end of a dirt road close to town. Runners share the field with cows, and each afternoon the athletes can be seen going back and forth over the uneven ground and long grass, sometimes creating a 10km loop in a very small field.

Where the real magic happens is at Bekoji’s famous track. It’s a vivid red dirt surface, with weeds creeping over the outside lanes, especially on the finishing straight. We happen to be in Bekoji on the morning when Coach decides to put his under 17 athletes through a time trial. Events include 5,000m, 3,000m, 1,500m, 800m, and the 400m.

First up was the marquee event and Ethiopia’s favourite distance, the 5,000m - three male and three female runners lined up for this, with roughly 60 other young athletes cheering them on. The six athletes completed their warm ups together, before Coach Sentayehu gave them some final words of encouragement and sent them on their way.

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The boys time trial was hot from the start, while the girls was treated more like a tactical race, preferring to stay together until the last couple of laps. Running on the track in Bekoji is difficult, and not just for the altitude and the animals taking up residence occasionally. The dirt track is littered with stones and small rocks, and in patches the grass has grown over several lanes.

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The girls all crossed the line in the 19 minute region, while the fastest boy was Mulugeta Beji at 15:15, which Coach Sentayehu believes translates to around a 14 flat at sea level.

Next up was the 3,000m, followed by the 1,500, 800m, and the 400m.

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It was a true privilege to be in Bekoji for this random Tuesday morning time trial. Coach Sentayehu’s athletes live together in accommodation at another training ground in Bekoji, a small village where nothing is easy. There are signs of poverty everywhere you look; small children wandering the streets, wild dogs eating scraps off the ground long after the market has closed, and the horse and cart still one of the main modes of transport around the town.

Running provides an opportunity for these young people. They toil away in the hopes of one day being able to escape the harsh realities of growing up in one of the poorest countries in the world. Some will undoubtedly become names on the world stage, and others will learn valuable life skills from their time running for Coach Sentayehu.

Thank you to Coach Sentayehu and his athletes for being so welcoming and open to our cameras.

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