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

The Most Memorable Race I Ever Ran

The telephone rang, and it was Alberto Salazar, the American runner who intended to break the American record at 10,000 meters, in the most incredible 10,000 meters ever run in the history of track and field events in the U.S. Allegedly, a few weeks ago, it was in the Sports News that "Alberto Salazar is going to be the first track and field runner to be a millionaire when Salazar wins his meet with the line up of elite runners, including Henry Rono. Without Rono in the meet, it was meaningless to the Nike Company." To be sure for the entire requirements were met, Alberto Salazar decided to become a race director. It was on March 8, 1982, and the competition was in four weeks.

            "I am promoting a 10,000 meters competition on April 8, 1982 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. Four years ago, you remember you were in good shape and started breaking world records in the spring of 1978. April 8, that was your first world record in 5,000 meters."

 "Yes, I was in very good shape and 99% physically fit.  It took me a long time of preparation for those world records I broke in the summer of 1978."

 Salazar said, "Don't worry for this one I am just letting you know 30 days ahead of the time the race starts so that you can prepare yourself to be on twilight meet April 8, 1982. Before, there is a 5,000 meters race in three weeks from now in California to run. Nike will arrange everything for you to go there as a preparation for April 8, competition at Eugene, Oregon," the home of American runners. They love the sport of running.

I went to California.  It was a small race. I placed second with the time of 13:37, much better than two weeks before at the Walla Walla meet where I was competing with Peter Koech. I came first in the 5,000 meters with the time of 13:53, then, I was assisting and comforting the new comers to college competition from Kenya.  Once I broke 14 minutes in 5K. It is a good indication of the upcoming summer. The world records would be falling one by one.

            After the California meet was over, the guy who won the California 5k told me. "You have one week to race with Salazar, but you are not in shape yet to beat him." But somehow, we both came close, and he beat me by 2 seconds. He was very happy. I was a bit surprised to see my improvement in such a short time. I was pleased I could make drastic changes in the shape I was.

            Salazar made another phone call while I was in California, again telling me, "Henry, you have one week to get ready for the Eugene, Oregon meet. I heard you ran very well." Somehow Salazar became a meet director making sure every elite runner had to be in that meet with a minimum of 15 runners for the special 10,000 metres. Salazar became busy as meet director for the first time.  At the back door, there was a discussion with the Nike Company about how to surprise the top Kenyan runner in that meet of April 8, 1982.

             Salazar already knew that he would win the race with the American record held by Craig Virgin, 27:29, and he might as well break my world record.  At that time, Salazar told me four weeks earlier if I could show up and just run under 28 minutes, he would pay me $2000. "But I am sure you will run 27:58 minutes." That is why I called four weeks ahead of the time so that I could prepare myself. In my mind, I was not even planning to race at the early session in 10Ks. I was not thinking so much about races in the USA. 

            My mind was on books and a little bit of racing here and there with these new Kenyan recruits who were attending WSU at that time, and I was doing that with them with no problems. As for the Salazar meet, I felt like he had dragged me into the race when I was not ready, and he was ready. One way or another, he found out I decamped from his options. He suggested for me to train before his meet.

            In actuality, my formula of training centered on a series of 5k races, and the intervals on the track that it doesn't exit 3 miles put me in great shape.  At this time, I didn't have that preparation.  Anyhow, going back to my California motel, Salazar tells me, "In this 10 days school break, you either come to Eugene, Oregon or train there while I'm waiting for this big meet or go back to Pullman, Washington, and the ticket we will send there.  Just let us know where you are going to be."  On his meet, which was a special 10K organized between him and the Nike company, the intention was for Salazar to start breaking American records from 10ks, 5k, 3ks and so on and thus maybe beating my records.

            The Nike Company would pay him one million dollars, and he was going to be the first runner to become a millionaire in one session.  But Salazar had to be well organized; the special 10K was in the spring session during University of Oregon twilight meets.  He made sure he had international runners from many countries. He was organizing his meet to fit his fitness of 100% condition. 

            In the midst of all of this, there had to be a British runner, a Tanzanian, Italian, Brazilian Kenyan and many others. There were about 15 runners; Salazar was very busy putting the meet together.  His mind was split into three categories of focus: one to win the special 10k along with the American record, the second to be a meet director organizer, and the third is concerned about who is coming and who is not and to make the meet popular. It takes a lot of strength.

            The one-week left before the Salazar meet was headaches for him to get me there. Numerous phone calls in my training camp at Salt Lake City made me think that there is something cooking here. He might be in good shape, and I am not. He is desperately ready to destroy the American 10k record in my presence. In the five days left, I started changing my formula training around.  Instead of two times a week intervals plus weight control, I put in five-day workout intervals.

            To meet my requirements of running around the track 25 laps, like I said earlier, it takes me many 5ks to put me in to the level of racing 10k at the highest level.  This time, I had no room to plan that. Salazar said, "Please come to my meet. Without you, this meet is meaningless." Thursday night was my last workout. I was sore as hell with tight muscles on April 6, 1982. Friday, very early in the morning, I flew to Eugene, Oregon from Salt Lake City where I was training.

            Salazar welcomed me at his Sports Exhibit Banquet, and then, there was the press asking me about my condition "You ran last week very well. Did you like placing second?" I was surprised, but the time I found satisfying. Tomorrow the weather is going to be rainy and cool, no wind, but you Africans don't like to run in the cold, do you?"

"I have run in below freezing temperatures in Spokane, Washington and won and 90 degree heat in Puerto Rico and won, all of them." But this one race, though, I would be ok, my formula of training in Salt Lake City made me confident mentally, but my physical body was very sore. All those intervals I was doing for five-days made me walk around with stiff hamstrings. I was tight from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head the day before the race. After the banquet was over, the athletes were getting their racing numbers, and I asked where was mine. They told me go and ask Salazar.

            Salazar walked with me towards the motel where I was staying, "I have your number, but we have to go through the track where the meet is going to be held tomorrow."  As soon as we got to the center of the track, he was kind of like showing me the track; we looked around at the track.  He gave me the number 101 and pins. "You have to put it in front on your vest for the camera at the finish line. It is going to be the last race at 2 PM. It is good to be one hour earlier. "Your motel is not too far away from the track." He handed me the number 101 and pins with mixed feelings. One more question from me: "You mean we meet here tomorrow at 1 PM in this track?" I was pointing with one finger to be sure. Somehow at that point, he seemed like there was doubt in his mind as if I would show up or not. He went back to the banquet still putting other things together as the meet director organizing the meet.

              I went for my usual early morning run. I ran in the woods of Eugene, Oregon. In the woods, I could feel fresh air in the early morning. I took advantage of it, and there's a little hill here.  I climbed the hill repeatedly for 45 minutes with intense speed as if I didn't have a race that day and ran back to my motel. I felt no tightness like yesterday in my arms. It was gone. That was a good indication I might finish 25 laps. At the motel, I started imagining how I was going to finish this 10k. I couldn't wait.  I started feeling nervous. Sometimes they say it is a good sign of performing well, and it is true.

            I was at the stadium at 1 PM as we planned me and Salazar; other races had been going on.  The 5k came, and the winner ran on that rainy day, 13:30 minutes. I looked at Salazar.  He was very happy with the 5k winning time.  He noticed there was just a slight rain, but no wind.  The American runners like to run when it is raining, and they happen to perform well in that kind of weather.  Salazar and I couldn't wait anymore for the special 10k to begin.  We had 15 minutes for introductions. Traditionally, the introductions start from the least famous runner to the most famous guy.

            When the introductions began, the crowds were cheering us, starting from low voices to the highest according to how famous one is.  I was the last person to be introduced to that big crowd.  The whole stadium stood up; I glanced at them and hurried to the starting line. 

            Among the spectators was the bronze medalist in the 1972 Munich Olympics pursuing his doctoral degree at the University of Oregon and his family Dr. Mike Boit. They were witness to that meet that day. Dr. Boit was seated at the westside of the stadium watching the unbelievable pace. We were cranking, Salazar and I. Boit seemed like he was watching the clock and comparing the pace we were making and the time. Afterwards, Dr. Boit walked with me to my motel. He whispered to me with amazing face saying that, "Did you guys run the whole 25 laps because the clock was reading close to the world mark? It looks like every time when you are racing with Salazar his heart breaks down even with the shape you are in now"

            The 6.2-mile race was too long for the shape I was in that day.  I ran this race with a different style of pace, unlike many other races I had run.  The plan was to race with just a completely different running style. At the same time, I'm thinking I didn't want to let down my meet director in this race which Salazar is running with me.

            One mile went very easily. I didn't feel any pain.  All I heard was the time, 4:27 minutes. We are on target, running in a group. As a front-runner, we had a good start. I could take the lead for one lap, and another could lead too. About four of those runners were taking turns until we finished the first mile. After that, Salazar and I pushed to the two-mile mark in less than 9 minutes, still negotiable for American records. 

            After half way, the American record is possible. It would come true. Salazar and I passed halfway at 13:45 minutes. It became a two-man race, and the others were fighting among themselves for the third position and left us alone to fight for number one.  The Eugene special 10,000 meters became a set of three groups: one in front, Salazar and I, the second, a group of Solomon Nyambui from Tanzania and with him, a British runner, and the third group, Brazilians and others. As we became that kind of a set up, I didn't have to worry about being placed number three at this point in time. I had secured second position, but I was still negotiating for the first place. It was easy for me to run behind him because of his running style. This went on until we had three laps to go, less than a mile.

            I could feel the crowd itching with amused faces in the stands and watching only two runners in front about 100 meters away from the second group. It became like a show of two roosters fighting: no one could tell which one was breaking down; all you could see were their feathers weathering off. At one lap and a half, Salazar, seemed like he had given up on the record he was expecting. I moved closer. I was still running behind him. It was unusual competition for me, and the only plan I had at that point was to beat Salazar. I normally have some searching pace in the middle of any race I run, but not on this particular one.

            As Salazar and I came to face the eastside, the crowd stood up. I got a little closer to Salazar, who was still leading.  The bell rang for one last lap to go, and we made a left turn, facing the Westside of the stadium. The crowd was standing up waiting for the winner with a big, loud voice, unsure who would win. With 200 meters to go, I came from behind Salazar and ran with him shoulder to shoulder.

            At 100 meters to the finish line, I put my hand up to assure the crowd I was the winner. At 25 meters to go I made a quick pace. Salazar couldn't respond to my pace, he was dragging his feet to the finish. The crowd declared Rono the winner. I beat Salazar by one tenth of a second. I was given a standing ovation, the same way as when I was introduced to the crowd.

            It was the most incredible race in the history of my running races and in the world. It was well published around the world that it was the closest race ever run in track & field in American history.  Afterwards, Salazar commented that he shouldn't have not thought of breaking American record because he missed by one second.

            In my mind, I was about to tell him, "You are a strong man like a four-wheel tractor, someone who is thinking three things while he is running 66 seconds each lap for 25 laps. It is impossible to do it, but you almost did it. I can't do that myself. It could be very heavy on my mind. You are thinking of winning this race, concerned about meet promotions, promises from the Nike Company of one million dollars after the American record, me (Henry Rono), and you almost did it. I came here on just a negotiation basis, and whatever I placed was fine with me, but somehow, you let me slide under your feet at the finish line. All in all, it was the most incredible race I ever ran in my life.

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