Henry Rono - A Story of Triumph
An epic masterwork full of great pain and tragedy, and even greater redemption and joy

Once best in the world, Rono returns to running

John Crumpacker, Chronicle Staff Writer - San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 2007

Henry Rono was a world-record holder in 4 eventsLike many a middle-aged man, Henry Rono was dismayed to discover he was more than a few pounds over his playing weight, with a concomitant rise in blood pressure.

So he dug his running shoes out of the closet and got to work, work that continues Sunday with the 96th Bay to Breakers, when he will run as a masters competitor.

But this is no ordinary middle-aged man. Nearly 30 years ago, for one transcendent season, Henry Rono of Kenya and Washington State University was the finest distance runner in the world.

In a wondrous stretch of 81 days in 1978 he smashed four world records, setting marks at 3,000 meters, 5,000, 10,000 and the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

The years since were not always kind to Rono, who was boycotted out of two Olympic Games and struggled to find his place once his running career was over. He settled on teaching and has been with Albuquerque's public schools for 11 years.

Not too long ago he weighed 220 pounds, well over his long-gone racing weight of about 140. As a middle school teacher in Albuquerque, he could hardly preach the virtues of exercise to children without getting some himself.

"When I stopped running, I started eating like these kids, too, food that was not healthy,'' the 55-year-old Rono said Friday at a news conference in San Francisco. "I gained weight and had high blood pressure. I realized I needed a good, healthy lifestyle.''

Rono took a year off from teaching to train as a masters runner, and at 170 pounds, he's still a work-in-progress. A week ago in Spokane he ran the Lilac Bloomsday 12-kilometer race in 50 minutes, 35 seconds. For his first Bay to Breakers, also a 12K (7.46 miles), Rono wants to better his Bloomsday time.

That's worlds removed from the magnificent runner Rono was in 1978, when from April 8 to June 27 he broke world records in the 5,000 (13:08.4, at Berkeley), steeplechase (8:05.4), 10,000 (27:22.4) and 3,000 (7:32.1) with times that are still world class.

The great disappointment in Rono's career is that he never got to run in the Olympics. If he had, he might have three gold medals to show for it.

He was set to run -- and win, he said -- the steeplechase at Montreal in 1976 until black African nations boycotted those Games in protest of New Zealand's rugby association with then apartheid-governed South Africa.

In 1980, Kenya and most Western nations joined the U.S. in boycotting the Moscow Games over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. That boycott prevented Rono at his peak from challenging Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia for gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000.

Fast-forward to 2007 and Rono at 55.

"My shape is still in progress,'' he said. "I'm in shape to just get in a race, or in shape to train. It took me eight months just to prepare to take my body from 220 pounds to 170. I am able to train twice a day.''

Sitting on the dais alongside a number of young lions of Kenyan distance running, Rono was every bit the gray eminence as well as a proud elder of his tribe, the Nandi. He noted many of the Kenyans participating in Sunday's footrace from Spear and Howard streets to the Great Highway are also Nandi.

"It makes me feel good,'' Rono said of his countrymen and women in the race. "There are so many of them all over the world dominating, even the women. I'm proud of that. Coming from a country with no money, the athletes now have a life.''

As Rono wryly noted, Kenya's economy is fueled by coffee, tourism and runners.

The men's winner will almost certainly be a Kenyan, unless John Yuda of Tanzania breaks up the monopoly. This year's stalwarts include Julius Kibet, Josphat Ngetich, John Korir, Linus Maiyo, Ernest Meli Kimeli and Nicholas Kamakya.

The women's field is a little more diverse, although still loaded with Kenyans, such as Edna Kiplagat, Catherine Ndereba, Gladys Asiba, Emily Chebet and Caroline Cheptanui. Other elites include Dire Tune of Ethiopia, Luminita Talpos of Romania and Sylvia Skvortsova of Russia.

With the elite women given a head start of 4 minutes, 40 seconds (the difference between the course records for both genders), the overall winner will receive $25,000. In addition, male and female winners will receive $7,000 each, meaning someone is going to take home at least $32,000, with $5,000 going to the first runner to crest the Hayes Street hill and $3,000 if course records are broken.

This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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