Henry Rono's Past
The storied career of Henry Rono - By Mark Zeigler, Staff Writer, San Diego Union Tribune, 2/27/2000
A photograph on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal appeared with a story about survivors of a grisly van crash returning home to Mexico.
The photo caption began: Henry Rono, a skycap at the Albuquerque International Sunport, helps ...
That was all: Henry Rono, skycap.
Not: Henry Rono, maybe the greatest distance runner the world has ever known. Not: Henry Rono, who broke world records at four distances over 81 days.
Not: Henry Rono, the Nandi tribesman from Kenya who attended Washington State in the late 1970s and still holds numerous collegiate records.
Not long after that, Rono was talking to a Moroccan runner who trains in Albuquerque and was jetting off to a race. Rono's boss at the airport happened to walk by.
The Moroccan motioned toward Rono and asked the boss: "Do you know who this is?"
The boss: "Yeah, a skycap."
The Moroccan: "Go home tonight, get on the Internet and type in H-e-n-r-y R-o-n-o."
The next day, the boss pulled aside Rono and said: "You were the highest-paid track athlete of your time. What are you doing here?"
Rono hoisted a bag onto the carousel. "I'm working, you know," Rono told him. "I'm doing my job, just like everyone else."
Everyone has his favorite story of Rono, who last night received the Running Legend Award at the annual Competitor Magazine banquet at SeaWorld.
Tracy Sundlun's story is from the 1978 NCAA track championships in Eugene, Ore. Sundlun was a coach at USC and had a long jumper on the runway, defending NCAA champion Larry Doubley. Rono was on the track, running a preliminary heat of the 5,000 meters.
Rono already had run the prelims of the 3,000 steeplechase and set
the NCAA meet record. He was comfortably ahead in the 5,000 and essentially
running it as a workout, jogging the curves, sprinting the straights. Rono
rounded the turn at the same moment Doubley began charging down the long jump
runway. Rono blew past him, Sundlun swears. "It was like a Peugeot," Sundlun
says. "All of a sudden his hips went back and his knees went up and vooooooom.
He was just toying with everybody." Rono set the NCAA meet record that day in
the 5,000 as well. Both records still stand. "I've always said that two people
were put on this earth by God to run," says Sundlun, who once managed Rono and
now works for Elite Racing in San Diego. "One is Mary Decker. The other is
Henry Rono. If you ever watched him, he was just on another planet."
By the early 1980s, he was drinking heavily and gaining weight.
But even then, his legs did not betray him. In September 1981, he got drunk the
night before a race in Olso. He woke up the next morning and ran for an hour to
sweat out the alcohol. He went back to the hotel, ate lunch and took a nap.
Postscript: I met Henry Rono at a 10k race in Baltimore, MD in 1986. He was overweight and drinking. He ran the race that day. He didn't win, but finished in the top five, then headed straight for the beer table after the race and never left it until it closed down. However, he was a very friendly and approachable guy. Happy to talk running with a mid-packer. I was a fan of his when he was at his peak, that day in Baltimore, and even more so today.