After whisky chasers, Rono chases those records againLondon Times April 7, 2007 - By David Powell, Athletics Correspondent
From his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Henry Rono talks of breaking his sixth world record. His fifth was not exactly yesterday — 1981, in fact — when, with a last glimpse of the brilliance that had enraptured world athletics three years earlier, he improved the 5,000 metres global mark for the second time.
Rono had the world at his feet, but his downfall was the glass in his hand. In 1978, Rono went around the world clock in 81 days, setting record figures between April and June in four events. First came the 5,000 metres, then the steeplechase, then the 10,000 metres, then the 3,000 metres. By the time the Nandi tribesman from Kenya was beaten by Steve Ovett over two miles in September, he had put together 31 races unbeaten outdoors that year.
But drink became the opponent that Rono could not beat. Claiming to have been robbed of his wealth by unscrupulous officials, agents and coaches, he descended into alcoholism and homelessness. “I was sleeping on the streets of New York and Boston,” he said, speaking to The Times this week. “I ended up in houses for the homeless and they don’t take anybody — you have to be qualified.”
By the mid1990s, Rono was working as a parking attendant for $5.75 an hour (about £2.93) in Portland, Oregon. On another occasion, according to his version of events, he turned up at the headquarters of Nike, in Beaverton, Oregon, his former six-figure sponsor, and asked for a cleaning job. “They didn’t answer,” Rono said. “I heard they thought it would be too embarrassing to hire me.”
So any job would do. In 2000, Rono worked as a porter at Albuquerque airport. When a front-page local newspaper picture of him appeared helping survivors returning home from a fatal road accident, the caption simply read, “Henry Rono, skycap”. No realisation that this was the man who, to quote from the autobiography he is writing, achieved “the most ferocious assault on the track and field record books in the history of the sport”.
Rono, 55, claims to have been off the drink for five years. He has been working for the past two years as an educational assistant for a special needs class. He is helping to coach other runners. He is running again with greater intent than at any time for more than a quarter of a century.
Although Rono has tried veterans’ racing before — he ran on the United States masters’ circuit in 1995 — he was still drinking. In 2000, he appeared in a celebrity race in San Diego and finished last.
Now he is trying again and his sights are set on breaking the mile world record for the 55-to 59 age group, which stands at 4min 40.4sec. He says that he is training twice a day, covering 100 miles a week. Another of his targets is the World Masters’ Championships, in Italy, in September.
“I should be ready in about two to three months,” Rono said, fresh from finishing second in a five-kilometres road race in Carlsbad, California, last weekend, in which he recorded a time of 17min 48sec and described it as “a very uplifting experience”.
His weight, once an athletic 10st, ballooned to almost 16st but he has trimmed back down to a touch over 12st.
During his heyday as a Nike-sponsored athlete, he said, the company had paid him $100,000 among total earnings of $250,000 one year. But the squabbling had begun between parties trying to profit from his success. “It was like a fight between me and whoever was closest to me,” Rono said.
It was a fight that Rono lost. So he turned to beer, then to whisky. “I just did not know how to manage it,” he said. It was still early days in the African domination of distance running. “Maybe it was an African coming to the Western world for the first time,” he said.
He describes his book as “an epic masterwork full of great pain and tragedy”. Torment is now put to rest. “I want to teach the people that you can come back from the streets, and being homeless, and recover your life,” he said.
“At these places for the homeless you can go through programmes, and I managed to stop drinking. I have learnt a lot about life, a lot about reality. I am a proud man to have come out of that. I was addicted to alcohol but running is my addiction now.”
Four world records in 81 days
April 8, 1978 Recording 13min 08.4sec for 5,000 metres in Berkeley, California, Rono takes 4.5sec off a mark reduced by only 3.7sec over the previous 11 years
May 13, 1978 Showing versatility over the barriers in Seattle, Rono improves 3,000 metres steeplechase record by 2.8sec, clocking 8min 05.4sec
June 11, 1978 World record 10,000 metres times run by Lasse Viren and David Bedford in the early 1970s are made to look pedestrian as Rono takes 27min 22.4sec in Vienna, improving record by a huge 8.1sec
June 27, 1978 Brendan Foster’s four-year-old record is no more as Rono records 7min 32.1sec in Oslo. The mark lasts for 11 years.