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 sub-par 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 congenially 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.