The small Ethiopian town of Bekoji is struggling. It’s main access has long been a mud road until Chinese foreign aid recently helped to build a paved one. Impoverished farmers cling to small plots of land through the unpredictable swing from dry to wet seasons. A small store, really just a roadside shack , is lucky to stock even the barest of essentials.
Yet as Town of Runners documents, the town has also raised a disproportionate number of world-class runners. They from 10,000-metre Olympic and world champion Derartu Tulu to the 5,000- and 10,000-metre Olympic and world champion Kenenisa Bekele. Most of Bekoji’s runners have been trained early in their careers by coach Sentayehu Eshetu, an unassuming man with a boyish face and easy smile.
The lack of funds cause havoc for aspiring athletes and coaches alike. It takes a minor miracle to provide basic training conditions, let alone stage regional track meets. The local running track in Bekoji has to be laboriously cleared of overgrowth every year with picks and shovels. Most serious is the fact that the runners, particularly the two charming young female distance runners highlighted in the film, compete for spots in amateur training camps where dismal living conditions often destroy runners’ health and morale. Still, the young athletes try to stay optimistic and win races.
The documentary, a must-see for any runner looking for inspiration, only skirts the reasons why the town of Bekoji seems to provide such an advantage to its young athletes. Is it the altitude? The work ethic? The reality for many of the young people that athletics is their only way out of town? It does show that whatever the circumstances, the runners from the town who make it to the world meets and win don’t get there simply because they are lucky to come from Bekoji. They are there by dint of individual, super-human perseverance.