The sport of distance-running is undoubtedly dominated by East Africans. Women and men from countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Morocco have indelibly and literally altered the face of the sport. Paradoxically, despite their astounding success, African runners perform in virtual anonymity. This article marks the start of a series of articles, titled Better Know an African, that aims to highlight the obscured names, the overshadowed victories and the untold stories of the best athletes in our sport.
The riches-to-rags story of Henry Rono may be the best place to begin. Interwoven in his story are great highs and lows, world records and homelessness. On April 8, 1978, in Berkeley, California, a few hundred fans looked on as the Washington State sophomore ran a world record of 13:08 for 5,000 metres at a dual meet. Five weeks later in Seattle, a smaller crowd watched as Rono ran an 8:05 steeplechase, a mark that stood for 11 years.
That he was setting world records alone in front of virtually no one hardly bothered Rono, described by many of those who saw him as perhaps the most talented runner ever. About a month later in Vienna, Rono set a third world record, sprinting the final lap in 56 seconds to complete 10,000 metres in 27:22.
Just two weeks after this triumph, Rono was entered in a 3,000 in Oslo and predicted a stupendous fourth world record for himself. Rono later wrote that after one mile, “I noticed the pace felt like a snail’s pace, and they were gasping for air. Suddenly, I thought perhaps the world record might be attainable, and it was true. I came from the back like a rocket and moved 50 meters ahead of every runner. I held this high speed for three and a half laps. The others looked like they were standing.” Rono’s time of 7:32 stood for eight years and remains one of the 100 fastest times at that distance.
In 81 days, Henry Rono had broken four world records. He was the fastest man in the world over any distance between 3,000 to 10,000 metres.
“I had 80 beautiful days of running that money couldn’t buy; 80 days of joy running around the world,” Rono wrote of his superhuman achievements on the track.
Dealing with his superhuman achievements was not as easy as success on the track had been. “The way the media was handling my success was intimidating,” he said in a recent interview. I was not prepared for that. It was very stressful.”
Rono began drinking heavily and would never duplicate his miraculous 1978. Kenya boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, preventing Rono from competing for an Olympic gold medal at a distance of his choice. Nonetheless, his immense ability did not abandon him quickly.
According to legend, Rono drank heavily the night before a race in Osolo in 1981. In the morning, Rono ran for an hour to sweat the alcohol from his body. In the evening, Rono broke the world record for 5,000 metres, running 13:06.
The drinking would take a toll. Not only was it causing Rono’s weight to balloon, but he was missing training and missing races. He never again competed at a world class level after 1982.
Rono faded into obscurity, running road races in the United States in the ’80s for money, overweight and out-of-shape. By 1994, he found himself in a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C.
Gradually, however, he managed to gain control over his life. From time to time, he would be re-discovered by an inquisitive reporter curious about the circumstances of the man who set four world records in three months so long ago.
Today, Rono, now 55, is doing as well as he has in a very long time. He teaches full-time and his weight, once as high as 220 lbs on a 5’8″ frame, is down to 165.
Rono is also running again, with an eye towards competing at the Masters World Track & Field Championships in September in Italy. His ultimate goal is to set a sixth world record, this time an age group record for the mile. Before that, however, he will compete April 1 at the Carlsbad 5,000. His progress can be followed on the LetsRun message board and his Web site
*With apologies to The Colbert Report.