Back In The RunningSan Diego Union-Tribune March 30, 2007 - By Don Norcross, Union-Tribune Staff Writer
The lowest point? Henry Rono said, repeating the question.
He rattles off being homeless for six months in Salt Lake City. No, it was checking into 17 rehab centers for his alcohol addiction.
Or was it blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars, losing jobs, burning friends and spending countless nights sitting on a bar stool, downing his drink of choice, Budweiser?
I would sit there until they closed the bar, says Rono, who 29 years ago set four track world records in a span of 81 days. Every city on the East Coast can tell you that.
Rono, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., is 55 now. He says he's been sober for five years. He says he weighed 220 pounds last June, grew tired of looking at a man in the mirror he didn't recognize and started doing what he does best.
He's down to 165 pounds. At 7:05 a.m. Sunday, he'll continue his comeback, racing in the masters division of the 22nd annual Carlsbad 5000.
Twenty-five years ago, I ran at a high level, Rono said. From there, I went down. Ever since, I've been trying to come back. The only way I can get back on my feet is through my physiological achievement. That's what I'm doing now.
Born and raised in Kenya, Rono was one of the first African runners recruited to run at an American college. He was a 26-year-old sophomore at Washington State when he began his 81-day world-record assault. A look back:
On April 8, 1978, in a dual meet at Berkeley, Rono broke the 5,000-meter mark, running 13 minutes, 8.4 seconds.
On May 13, at a three-team meet in Seattle, Rono broke the 3,000-meter steeplechase record, running 8:05.4.
On June 11, in Vienna, Rono added the 10,000 to his collection (27:22.4).
Sixteen days later, in Oslo, Norway, Rono knocked off the 3,000-meter world record (7:31.1).
Rono held the steeplechase and 3,000 records for 11 years. His 10,000 mark lasted six years.
Said Tracy Sundlin, a former club and college track coach and now a vice president at Elite Racing, which stages the Carlsbad 5000, He is one of only two people I thought were placed on earth to run, the other being Mary Decker. They looked like they came from the gods.
Rono said several factors contributed to his downfall. Kenya's boycott of the 1976 and 1980 Olympics frustrated him, denying him track and field's grandest stage.
He says corrupt Kenyan track officials and agents siphoned money from him. He blames himself for failed trucking and real-estate investments. And for a young man who grew up in poverty in Africa, he wasn't prepared for the fame and fortune thrust upon him in Western society.
If a guy comes here, doesn't know how to swim and he's among the sharks, then you're a fish out of water, Rono said. Alcohol was my way of dealing with the other big fish. If they get under your nose, how do you survive?
After his running career crashed, Rono worked as a skycap. He parked and washed cars.
When a Portland sportswriter recognized Rono and saw him washing cars, the writer asked incredulously, What are you doing?
What do you think I'm doing? Working, Rono said.
The writer said Rono should get a job with his former sponsor, Nike.
Rono said he showed up at Nike headquarters outside Portland more than once and was ignored.
Every time I got to the offices they weren't there, he said.
Rono has worked the past couple of years at an Albuquerque middle school as an educational assistant for a special needs class. He said he took this year off to write an autobiography and train.
He is also coaching five runners.
Henry understands the rhythm of a runner better than any coach I've seen before, said Kris Houghton, who ran for Steve Scott at Cal State San Marcos and is now being coached by Rono.
He seems to understand the little things the body goes through, what the body needs. I think that must come from the fact he wasn't in shape all the time during his career. Being in shape or out of shape, he had to figure a way to get back.
He is really selfless, Houghton said. He gives us a lot of personal attention and he's very optimistic, the most most optimistic person I've been around.
To shed pounds, Rono often runs two hours in the morning and an hour in the evening. To work on his speed, he's incorporating hill work.
His long-term goal? Break the mile world record in the 55-59 division (4 minutes, 40.4 seconds), a record that has stood nearly 30 years. He recently ran a 5:32 mile.
Sometimes at the end of a workout, Houghton said, his sweatshirt's completely soaked. He wants it bad.
I was proud of four world records, Rono said. The way I am now, I am still proud of myself.
Henry Rono's story seemingly is part tragedy, part triumph.
The reality is the world was truly denied the opportunity to witness greatness at two Olympic Games, Sundlin said. Then it was ultimately denied because of his drinking.
But I happen to think anybody who conquers their addiction is a story of triumph, no matter how long it takes.
Don Norcross: (619) 293-1803; email@example.com
What: 22nd annual Carlsbad 5K road races. Sixteen world records have been set at the seaside course. This year's races have drawn nearly 10,000 entrants.
Schedule: Masters men 40 and older, 7:05 a.m.; Masters women 40 and older, 8; wheelchair invitational, 8:50; men's 30-39, 9:25; women 39-under, 10:20; people's 5K walk, 10:25; men 29-under, 11:30; elite men, 12:05 p.m.; elite women, 12:07.
Where: Races start at Jefferson Street and Grand Avenue. Finish line is at State and Carlsbad Village Drive.
The field: 2004 Olympic 5,000-meter gold medalist Meseret Defar of Ethiopia returns, hoping to break the world record she set here last year (14 minutes, 46 seconds). Kenya's Boaz Cheboiywo, second last year, is top returning male.
Prize money: $70,000, plus $10,000 for a world record.
Expo: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. tomorrow and 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday at Roosevelt and Carlsbad Village Drive
A two-time Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon and one of San Diego's top women runners, Tamara Lave outlines race strategy for Sunday's 22nd annual Carlsbad 5000.
You've got to be careful about going out too hard, because it's a downhill start, Lave said. From about 11/2 miles to 21/2, it's an uphill and you need to prepare for it.
For runners doing the race for the first time, Lave suggests that they walk, jog or drive the course before Sunday. The course layout features two sharp U-turns at about 1.3 miles and 2.5 miles on Carlsbad Boulevard.
The second U-turn, you've been running for about a mile up the road, Lave said. It feels like a long way. There's not as many (spectators) up there and you're mentally tired when you get there. It's good to know where it is.
Again, Lave's biggest caution to runners is that they don't start out too hard.
People leading at the mile usually are not the (age-groupers) who win, Lave said. The best way to run a race is to try to negative-split (running the second half faster than the first.)
You go out too fast in the beginning and lactic acid hits the muscles and it slows you down.