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

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."

Eighty-one days, four distances, four world records. Rono did it running alone out front, without challengers to push him, without pace-setting rabbits.

He set the 5,000 world record at a dual meet at Cal. He set the steeplechase world record before a couple of hundred people at the University of Washington.

It all seemed too good to be true, and it was. Sadly, lamentably, tragically, it was.

Kenya's boycotts of the 1976 and 1980 Summer Olympics robbed Rono of a world stage and enduring fame. Kenyan track and government officials tugged him in different directions, all the while trying to siphon off his newfound wealth.

And there was his own innocence. Rono had no financial manager, no investments, no retirement portfolio.

"I took it personal, some of those things," Rono says. "I started drinking."

Started, and couldn't stop.

"I appreciate what I did in those years, what I did in running," Rono says. "I did well. I just didn't know how to manage it. Maybe it was an African guy coming to the Western world for the first time -- it's hard to handle that life. I've learned a lot. I've learned a lot about life, about reality."

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.

That night, he ran the 5,000 and broke the world record.

Soon, though, he was missing races and disappearing for long stretches. He was in and out of rehabilitation clinics, in and out of friend's homes across the East Coast.

He had blown hundreds of thousands of dollars. He carried 220 pounds on a 5-foot-8 frame that once had 140.

Six years ago, he was in Washington, D.C. In a homeless shelter.

"That's the lowest you can go," Rono says. "After that, the only place you can go is up. If you go down, you're dead."

He moved to Portland, Ore., where he got a job parking cars for $5.75 an hour. From there he moved to Albuquerque and the job as a skycap.

He works full time at the airport, part time as a substitute teacher, serves as an assistant high school track coach and is taking two computer classes at night.

He is running again, every day at 5 a.m. for an hour or more. His weight is down to 190. He says he hasn't had a drink in two years.

"The key is to keep busy," Rono says. "You come home, you're tired, you sleep . . . I have to keep busy. I'm scared to go back on the street again."

A month ago at the Sports Arena, Rono, now 48, ran a celebrity mile at the San Diego Indoor Games. He was lapped by the leaders and finished last.

Rono didn't care. He crossed the line and smiled. He knew what he has been through, where he has been. He knew that the greatest accomplishment in his life is not 81 days in 1978, but six years at the end of the 1990s.

Not Henry Rono, runner. But Henry Rono, skycap.

"People look at me and they say, 'Henry Rono achieved this and Henry Rono had all this money,'" he says. "You may have money and you may have fame, but you are not free. You have no control of yourself. "I'm free now."

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.

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