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

Rono not running from past

John Blanchette - The Spokesman-Review, May 6, 2007

He set his last world record in 1981 and won his only Bloomsday in 1982, and at least one of those was done with a hangover – something he acknowledges with neither shame nor pride, but simply with the acceptance of a history that cannot be changed.

Or maybe it can.

Surely it can be amended – wikied, if you will – and so Henry Rono is back in Spokane this morning, charging down the Riverside grade, whistling past the graveyards, making the hard right and slogging up Pettet, as he did back in the day. Only much, much slower.

"I remember 25 years ago like it was yesterday," he said with a smile. "It was so good, going down that last straight and waving to the crowd. That was fantastic."

So give him a wave back today – this champion, this survivor.

This runner.

Henry Rono once again takes pride in that distinction.

"My first profession is sports," he said. "My second is teaching. My ability, my talent of running is something I want to maximize while I'm still at the age I can. I want to use it the right way this time around. Before, I don't think I used it properly because my life was mixed up, with my lifestyle in college, with alcohol, with struggling in the American culture. I understand it all better now."

If so, maybe he can help us understand.

It was impossible to fathom Henry Rono from the beginning, which for us was 1976 when he arrived at Washington State University, a Nandi tribesman from Kiptaragon village in Kenya's Rift Valley. That first fall on campus he won the NCAA cross country championship. By 1978, he was a global phenomenon on the track – chopping outrageous hunks off four world records from 3,000 to 10,000 meters in a span of 81 days.

"Some of it," he admitted, "was overwhelming."

And by 1984, he was a ghost, an afterthought.

His name would surface intermittently thereafter. A sports writer in Portland found him parking cars in the mid-1990s. In 2000, he was photographed in an Albuquerque newspaper working as an airport skycap.

Honest work – and, as it turned out, the high points of a two-decade drift through a personal hell.

The good-time Henry many Wazzu students of his era remember holding court at The Coug – or wearing the green singlet of a Spokane saloon as he won Bloomsday – had careened into the hardest of times, unable as he was to handle his urge and addiction to alcohol, his track winnings and sponsorship money squandered and stolen and simply lost, his friends fed up with his recidivism.

He bounced from city to city, in and out of a dozen rehabilitation centers. He lived in homeless shelters in Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City. In an autobiography he has written and published portions of on the Internet, he recalls showing up at the headquarters of Nike – his old shoe sponsor – in Beaverton, Ore., to plead for a job cleaning floors.

He said he was turned away.

Rono can identify any number of villains in this awful tale – politicians whose pointless boycotts kept him out of two Olympics, corrupt government functionaries in his native Kenya, promoters and would-be agents and coaches, business partners who betrayed his trust – but before he does he accepts the responsibility that has to come before recovery.

"What did I learn from this?" he said. "I learned my mind was too small and weak. I was not able to handle or channel the energy in the proper place. I learned how you abuse yourself when you're successful.

"You think you can handle all that happens because you're a champion and champions handle things. I used to win races when I was drinking. Who's (to tell) me I'm an alcoholic?"

Even in 1981, having skipped his last WSU track season to finish his degree and woefully overweight thanks to his appetites, Rono raced himself into shape in Europe and knocked his own world record in the 5,000 down to 13 minutes, 6.20 seconds – after turning the night into day on the eve of the race.

He touches on these low moments now only to take heart in how he's fought back, how he is "in control of my life." Living in Albuquerque for the past 11 years and sober, he says, for the last five, he has been a special education teacher at a middle school until taking this year off on his running quest: to compete in the World Masters Championships in Italy in September and break the age 55-59 world record for the mile.

He has lost 50 pounds from the 220 he weighed a year ago ("I couldn't bend over and tie my shoes because I had a big belly stomach"). He tacks photos of himself on the wall to mark his progress. Last month in San Diego, he was second in the Carlsbad 5000 – in his age group.

"I see old ladies passing me by and I think, 'Am I really that slow?' " he said, the smile coming alive once more. "I still have it in my mind that I'm fast, that I can run all day. The only thing I've found is, I'm too slow.

"But I don't want to accept that."

No reason he has to. History, Henry Rono is learning, doesn't have to stand still.

Home  Contact