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Town of Runners

If you’re looking for something a little bit different to see in the cinema I’d like to recommend Town of Runners, a film I saw last night. It’s a documentary about a tiny town in the highlands of Ethiopia called Bekoji that has produced an incredible amount of world class runners, lots of them female … and it follows two young girls, 16-year-old Alemi and 14-year-old Hawii, as they train to become international athletes under the eye of their coach.

It is a very inspiring film – you end up in awe of these teenagers who give everything to their running, even leaving their families to join athletic clubs in the big cities (with mixed results). For a kid from Bekoj, running is a job, a potential ticket out of poverty, so they’re literally running for their lives. Running is tough enough, but they have so many other challenges to face – even basic things like transport to events. One of the most extraordinary scenes is where the grass has grown over the running track at the end of the rainy season, and the kids have to dig it up by hand (a tarmac track is undreamed-of). They do this with incredible good humour and energy, but it’s also heartbreaking as you think of the training time they’ve missed out on. But then when you watch them warm-up – I have never seen warm-ups like it, like complicated dance routines – you’re blown away by their discipline and talent.

It’s a fascinating insight into a tiny town in Ethiopia that for whatever reason – the altitude? the distances people have to travel? – has produced such a staggering number of world class athletes. The equivalent would be, I don’t know, some tiny village in the west of Ireland producing 10 Olympic gold medallists in eventing or something. They seem to get only minimal help from their government – making their achievements all the more impressive. ‘Running is my life … I will never give up,’ says Hawii at the end of the film. I hope I see her in the Olympics some day.

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