Running on Empty

An Olympic champ struggles to focus on racing following the death of his fiancée
February 07, 2005

In his much-anticipated U.S. debut, Kenenisa Bekele, the world's top distance runner, showed how difficult it is to run with a heavy heart. Competing in his first race since the death of his fiancée one month ago, the Ethiopian, who was the 10,000-meter gold medalist in Athens, briefly slowed to a jog after the 14th of 15 laps, thinking he had won the 3,000-meter race at the Boston Indoor Games last Saturday. By the time Bekele realized his mistake, Ireland's Alistair Cragg had passed him. Bekele tried to rally, but he crossed the line in second place in 7:41.42, 1.67 seconds behind Cragg. "My head was not on the track," Bekele said afterward, "because my heart is still with Alem."

Bekele, 22, had planned to marry Alem Techale, 18, in May. But during a training run on Jan. 4 in the forests of Ararat, near the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Techale, a world junior champ at 1,500 meters, suddenly collapsed. Bekele carried her to his car, but she died on the way to a hospital. Bekele said he thought the cause of death was heart-related, though doctors, in keeping with Ethiopian custom, didn't performed an autopsy.

"Honestly I did not want to run again. Ever," Bekele said after Saturday's race. "What is the point of all these glories if you can no longer share them with your great love? But the public embraced me, and her parents said she would want me to run in her honor." Bekele had gone into seclusion to mourn and had resumed training only a week before the race. He shaved on Friday morning for the first time since the tragedy, having observed the custom of growing a beard in memory of a lost loved one. "During training, I was not really focused," he said. "I was used to training with my fiancée, and without her it was not the same."

Roughly 100 people among the 3,500 fans at the Reggie Lewis Center waved Ethiopian flags and chanted a song in the Amharic language that hailed Bekele as a "brave warrior." And the crowd observed a moment of silence for Techale before the start. But in the race Bekele looked nothing like the commanding runner who last year set world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters nine days apart and was named world athlete of the year by both Track and Field News and the IAAF. "I am half the man without Alem," he said. "I honestly do not know if I can ever be the same runner again."

--Brian Cazeneuve

COLOR PHOTOMICHAEL STEELE/GETTY IMAGES (TECHALE) LOST Grieving Techale (right), Bekele (above) was beaten by Cragg. COLOR PHOTOBRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS (BEKELE) LOST Grieving Techale (right), Bekele (above) was beaten by Cragg.