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Almost His Last Mile

While you never quite know where Gabe Jennings is coming from,
the 24-year-old free spirit of running can tell you where he's
just been--and how the trip almost killed him. Jennings, once
touted as America's next great miler, returned last week from a
four-month, 6,000-mile solo bike trek to Brazil, where he
contracted hepatitis A and almost starved to death. "I went there
for strength training and nearly lost all my strength," says
Jennings, recovering at his parents' house in Mendocino, Calif.

Jennings has always combined speed and eccentricity in large
doses. Dubbed the Zen Miler, he wore flowing robes around the
Stanford campus (when not playing harpsichord in the nude),
cheered teammates while pounding drums and philosophized
endlessly about running. After winning the 1,500 meters at the
2000 Olympic trials, though, Jennings failed to reach the final
in Sydney and, over two subpar seasons, spiraled into depression.
"I even wondered if I had a mental illness," he says. Last fall,
Jennings embraced capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance-based martial
art he felt could lengthen his stride by loosening his
congenitally tight hips. In January, Jennings set out from Tucson
on a "vision quest" to Salvador, in northern Brazil, to study
with a capoeira master. The journey was all too eventful. Riding
a 30-year-old bike and towing a small trailer, he was robbed nine
times, hit by a truck in Mexico and targeted by coconut-tossing
monkeys in Costa Rica. Three weeks ago Jennings boarded a barge
in Manaus, Brazil, and, weakened with hepatitis, spent four days
huddled in his hammock without eating. In Salvador he wound up
sleeping on the streets. After several days he phoned his
parents, Jim and Suzanne, who insisted he find a hospital. He
flew home last week, only to learn that Nike had suspended its
sponsorship of him until he regains his form. Jennings plans to
resume training this week and compete during the fall
cross-country season, with an eye on the 2004 Olympics. "I'm
going to find what it takes," he says. "The answer is really out
there." He ought to know. --Brian Cazeneuve

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER HE'S OFF Jennings set out on his "vision quest" in January.