The Life That Ran Away
Running legend Henry Rono has resurfaced after two lost decadesSteven Downes - Sunday Herald, June 16, 2007
His latest quest began nine months ago when, tired of lugging around his middle-aged, 16-stone frame at the school track sessions he coaches, he determined that he would return to Europe to race at the World Masters Championships, for athletes of 35 and over, to be staged in Italy in September. But as well as trying to lose upwards of 70lb of unwanted bodyweight, Rono declared that he would also break the mile world record for his age.
Such a challenge would be beyond most men, but in the context of Rono's life as an alcoholic and vagrant these past two decades, if he succeeds, it would represent a near-Lazarian comeback.
"I was killing myself, that's for sure," Rono said this week of his old, self-destructive lifestyle, which had seen him living out of a bottle and sleeping rough, drifting from job to job across America for more than a decade, working 12-hour days washing windscreens in a subterranean car park in Portland, or carrying luggage at Albuquerque airport, for whatever pittance he could scrape together.
Rono was the living ghost that came to haunt international athletics - the fabulously talented runner, plucked from a humble African background, vulnerable to the wiles of European agents and meeting promoters. Other Kenyans who tasted the addictive nectar of running success have since died young and penurious - including world champions Benson Masya and Paul Kipkoech and Olympic silver medallist Richard Chelimo - with alcohol dependency and financial mismanagement suggested as having played a role in their demise.
Rono, for his part, was more than once turned away from the door of a Kenyan consulate and the offices of Nike, his former shoe sponsors, when he turned to them for help. "I was in Portland, in the same state where I had started college in America and I went to their office for help."
When Rono was a record-breaker, he was the hottest property on the track. The deal he had with Nike - then a young company trying to establish itself against the European sportswear giants - was rumoured to be worth at least $150,000 a year.
"But they avoided me," he says of when he approached them for help in harder times. "I asked for a job - anything, I offered to clean the floors. But the big guys in the suits, they didn't want to know."
His own national consulate slammed its door in his face, too, telling him he was "a disgrace to Kenya". Rono has not seen his two children for more than 20 years; one of his hopes for his "comeback" tour is that he might earn enough money from hoped-for sponsorships and modest $500 race appearance fees to help towards his son and daughter's college fees.
According to Rono, his downfall started as his greatest fame began. He openly admits to setting his first world record in 1978 with a hangover. "The night before that race in Berkeley, I had been up until after midnight, drinking. When I woke up in the morning, I had a terrible headache, but it didn't seem to matter."
That night, after slicing more than four seconds off the 5,000 metres world record, he partied again to celebrate.
In a wondrous few weeks, he chopped outrageous chunks off the world bests for the 3,000m, the steeplechase and 10,000m, with times that would still be regarded as world class today. "Some of it," he admits, "was overwhelming."
Bill Exum, the US team manager at that time, when he saw Rono's telescopic stride eat up the track at Washington State University, heaped lavish praise on the Kenyan: "What we are witnessing is not taught and it is not learnt. It is a mysterious gift and we have never seen a man more blessed with it than this one."
Yet after missing out on the 1976 Olympics because of the African nations' boycott, to be denied his Games chance again in 1980 by the Jimmy Carter-inspired boycott of Moscow was heart-breaking for Rono. "It made me cry," he says. "To see my friend Steve Ovett there and I was not there winning medals."
Rono's descent thereafter was swift. In 1981, he set his last world record. He was just 30, when he ought to have been approaching his peak. But his form deteriorated, he put on weight and he started to become unreliable, sometimes toeing start lines when worse for wear, if he turned up for the meeting at all. Meeting promoters spurned him.
"The drink wears down the body. When the alcohol caught up with me, I did not know how to handle it. I could not cope with people, friendships. Any money I'd had, I had sent back to my wife, Jennifer, in Kenya. Nobody wanted to put money in my hand because I would spend it on drink. Soon, I was homeless."
It is five years now since Rono last drank. He took up a low-paid job coaching school kids in Albuquerque - New Mexico's 5,000-foot altitude reminds Rono of the crystal-clear air of his home in the Nandi hills. Perhaps that is what is drawing him back to race once more.
"My first profession is sport," he said. "My second is teaching. My ability, my talent of running is something I want to maximise while I'm still at the age I can. I want to use it the right way this time. 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."
But Rono admits that his quest for another world record is a work in progress. He has lost 50lb, but it is the next stage which is proving toughest. "I am able to train twice a day, I can run for two hours. But every time I try to do speed work, I have trouble with my hamstrings and my quads."
Perhaps it's an age thing, Henry? "For sure. But I need to do the speed work to lose another 20lb, to be able to run 4min 40sec for the mile and break the record - they have invited me to Norway, to Knarvik, where I set my last record, to make my first attempt on the record.
"I have two months. I will get close." Rono, it seems, is back on track at last.