Bekoji’s coaching guru: Training with the man behind the world’s greatest distance runners.
I spent 5 days last week in Bekoji, a small town about 200km from Addis at 3,000m above sea level. The journey – Gudisa said it would be ‘about three hours’ – took seven hours, so by the time we arrived it was too late to get any training done, and we arranged to meet coach Sentayu the following morning.
At quarter to seven he came to meet us, and we ambled along his familiar route to the track, our progress frequently halted as ‘coach’ greeted everyone we passed. Bekoji is not much bigger than a village, and over the course of a thirty-year coaching career there aren’t many families who haven’t contributed at least one young athlete to Sentayu’s vast training group.
In the course of the short walk to the stadium we pass the houses in which both Deratu Tulu and Keninisa Bekele grew up. Bekoji’s few thousand inhabitants have a tally of eight Olympic golds and counting.
I’ve been training in Addis Ababa for over a month now at 2,400m, so I’ve acclimatised pretty thoroughly to the altitude. The air in Bekoji, though, is noticeably thinner, and on the walk uphill to the stadium I was emitting conspicuously large amounts of water vapour in the cold morning air.
At the stadium we were greeted with the sight of 200 young runners sitting on the grass banks waiting to hear Sentayu’s words of wisdom. After a short pep talk we warmed up for twenty minutes – quite a disorientating process, with phalanxes of runners darting around the infield in various directions – and then got started with the track session for the day. Everyone was doing different things, and I was told to alternate 800 and 400 metre repetitions. Jim Ryun used to describe the wait for the sudden feeling of fatigue that hits you when you’re running intervals as being like waiting for a bear to jump on your back. Running in Bekoji you don’t have to wait too long to feel this way. Another runner joined me mid way through the session, and much to my surprise he was struggling to keep up by the end, which definitely helped to keep me going. Unfortunately for my ego, when I asked Sentayu about him, his response was ‘his name is Rata. He hasn’t got much power… or energy.’ I suppose by association he was implying that I didn’t either!
Rata, my training buddy on the track.
For anyone looking for training secrets from a man who has probably coached more Olympic champion distance runners than any other, I’m afraid to say training in Bekoji was very simple. Apart from the track session and a session of 15 (!) reps of a 500m long hill, we did a lot of slow running across farmland. The fact that you can do vast amounts of aerobic running on a soft surface in a beautiful place can’t hurt, but I think it’s mainly due to the altitude that the runners here are so good.
The advice that I was given by Sentayu was to relax my arms and shoulders, as he said this is vital to allow the lungs to do their work. He demonstrated several deep breaths in and out. ‘Oyxgen, carbon dioxide, oxygen, carbon dioxide!’ A simple mantra. Mine was more like ‘Oxygen! Oxygen! Oxygen!’
When I ask his opinions on the most important forms of training for 10km runners his response is succinct: ‘Short hills – for strength here (he grabs his hamstring). Long runs, for endurance (more deep breaths to indicate aerobic training). And speed.’ To emphasise his final point he banged his fist on the table, the cadence and volume increasing until he has the attention of all the other customers in the café where we had breakfast after training.
Back in Addis this morning I did the best job I’ve done so far of keeping up on a 12 mile ‘hard’ run with the group, so hopefully his short period of tutelage has helped to an extent.
I leave you with a random photo of the Bekoji market place and the news that, as most of the feedback on last week’s blog revolved around my hair being too long, I’m off to get my head shaved and go from one extreme to the other…