RUNNING AWAY : Henry Rono, Once a Record Setter, Trying to Get Life Back on Track

Times Staff Writer

If you want to find Henry Rono, you have to have patience. You have to think where you would go if you didn’t want anyone to find you, and then go somewhere else.

If you want to crack the protective shell around Rono, you have to have persistence. You have to call places he’s just left and others he’s never been to. Rono hasn’t always lived as a fugitive. Once he was hailed as the greatest runner of all time. At Washington State University and afterward, Rono was incomparable. He did what no one else has been able to do: He set four world records in different events in just three months of 1978.

Rono went through a world of changes to get there. He left a farm in Kenya, where he grew up, and enrolled in college in the United States. He traveled the European circuit, making money from his running and stuffing it into suitcases. He had a lucrative contract with Nike when the shoe company was struggling for recognition.


Rono had everything. Most likely, he had too much. At some point he slipped.

He fell into a debilitating cycle of too much intense training and too much competition. He drank, and not just socially. Rono became unreliable, sometimes showing up drunk at meets, sometimes not showing up at all.

Finally, Rono stopped running and began running away.

Little more than a block from the house that Rono shares with his agent, Drew Eckman, is the Citizen’s Bank branch where, police charged, Rono flimflammed the bank out of $300.

Another banking establishment, Oritani Savings and Loan, also filed three counts against Rono. Altogether, four banking firms lost $1,300 in the fast-change schemes, which occurred between June 2 and Oct. 28 of last year.

Rono was arrested Nov. 13, 1986, while he was in a branch of the Oritani Savings and Loan, waiting to open an account. A teller said she recognized him as the man who had deceived another teller at another branch.

After years of anonymity, Rono had surfaced, to shame.

His drinking problem also surfaced. Before his arrest on the bilking charges, Rono had slugged a bartender in nearby Mahwah. He pleaded guilty to being disorderly and was fined $860 and put on a year’s probation.

But it was his arrest on the bank charges that got everybody’s attention. He was put into a Bergen County jail, where he stayed for five days while Merrill Rubin, his attorney, and Tracy Sundlun, then his agent, attended bail hearings in the four municipalities in which the incidents occurred. During that time, Rono, who tried to stay in shape by running 50-yard sprints in the jail corridor, had his shoes stolen by another inmate.


The charges against Rono in the fast-change scheme were dropped on May 27 of this year. The banking firms and the police concluded that the whole affair was a case of mistaken identity.

But for Rono, the damage was severe, and he certainly didn’t need more of that.

Since returning to the United States in May of last year, Rono had been living in seclusion in various small towns. He told friends in Kenya and here that he was training for a comeback. Even at 35, overweight and out of shape, no one doubted that he could do it.

He had come back to stay with his friend and countryman, Ibrahim Hussein, in Albuquerque, N.M., leaving Kenya under false pretenses. Rono told officials there that he was returning to the U.S. to put his affairs in order and pick up some money.

In many ways, it was a flight for his life.

After returning to Kenya in 1982, Rono did little but dwell on the past. He hated his government job. His businesses--running a dairy farm and owning several trucks--were not going well. Life was not going well. Rono, 5 feet 8 inches, had weighed 140 pounds in running trim but had ballooned to 200.

He sat in bars, allowing fans to buy him beers and talk about old times. He was a hero in Kenya, a national treasure. People noticed him.

They also noticed that he had changed and he told one friend that he was getting tired of having people ask him if he was Henry Rono’s father.


So Rono fled to Albuquerque, stayed only a few months, and then moved east. He wanted a base from which he could run in road races on weekends.

He ran in the Boilermaker 15K in Utica, N.Y., June 13, 1986. There, he met a local runner, Brian Fullem. When Rono indicated that he was interested in staying in Utica to train, Fullem took him home.

He stayed at Fullem’s home for nearly three months, or, until the family found out about his drinking.

At first, Rono talked about his family in Nairobi, his wife and two children. Donna Fullem, Brian’s mother, said that Rono seemed lonesome but that she never sensed he was unhappy.

Then, suddenly, he began going out at night. He came home late. His drinking escalated. “A couple of times, my husband had to go out to the bars and ask them not to serve Henry,” she said.

Rono made a deal with the family that he would not drink in their home. But as with many other similar promises, Rono broke the agreement.


Still, he was quickly getting back into shape. He was down to 158 pounds and his training levels were like old times.

Rono was disciplined when it came to training. He’d get up early, sometimes at 4:30, and run twice a day. But all the while, he was staying out at night, drinking.

“He could do anything and his body would recover from it,” said Andy Putrello, who trained with Rono in Utica. “I’ve seen him drink until 2, get up at 4 and run 10 miles, then run a race for a course record. When someone does that, you just throw your hands in the air. You don’t know what to do anymore. The way he treated his body, it’s surprising he didn’t kill himself.”

When relations with the Fullems became strained, it became clear to Rono that it was time to move on. He left Utica, looking for a place where he could train with no one to tell him what to do.

He began to shuttle among Utica, Alfred, N.Y., Boston, Mahwah and Hackensack. He stayed for a few weeks at a time in the homes of other runners. Rono was rootless, but not friendless. Yet.

Alfred is a quiet place of rolling green hills. Rono said he liked it because it reminds him of the place where he grew up. It lies on New York’s southern border with Pennsylvania. The nearest big town is Corning.


Rono found his way there to train and possibly to work as an assistant coach for the Alfred State track and cross country teams. The job would serve a dual purpose: Rono needed the money and he needed to get a visa that would allow him to stay in the country.

Rono lived with Alfred State’s coach, Gary Moore, in nearby Andover. He moved in last September. News of his drinking problem, however, reached Andover before Rono did. Moore forbade Rono to drink in his house.

For two weeks, Rono kept his promise. He enrolled in classes--small engine repair and general agriculture--even though he had earned two degrees at Washington State.

Rono continued his impressive training regimen, getting up early and running in the hills. In the afternoons he ran on the track at the school.

But Rono also backslid into booze. There are three bars in Alfred, and he soon became a regular in each.

In late September, he left Moore’s home, where he no longer felt welcome. Rono had arranged to run some races in Europe and a promoter had sent him a plane ticket to London.


Moore recalls putting Rono on a bus bound for the Newark airport. He said that Rono, at 3 in the afternoon, was still drunk from the night before.

Rono never got to Newark, or London. He met some Kenyan students during a bus layover and while the promoter was waiting for him at Heathrow airport, Rono was drinking in a bar with his new friends.

It was another in a series of last straws. Don Paul, another former agent, said he believes that Rono “went off the rails in Brussels.” Paul had arranged for Rono to receive a $500 appearance fee to run a 10,000-meter race on the track at the Ivo Van Damme meet on Sept. 5 of last year.

According to Paul, however, Rono ran up a $600 room-service bill, ordering mostly alcohol. Rono called friends in Kenya and billed $250 worth of calls to his room. He drank most of the night before the race, and, according to Paul, was “a little drunk when he ran.” He finished 14th.

Paul had to wire Rono money to get back to the United States.

A week later Rono was entered in a half marathon in Philadelphia. The night before the race, he was drinking in the bar of the race headquarters hotel. Drinking heavily and loudly.

Race officials summoned Paul to deal with Rono. Three times that night Paul paid Rono’s bar tab and sent him to his room. Each time, Rono went back out. Finally, during a confrontation in the hotel lobby, Rono punched Paul.


Paul severed his ties with Rono that night.

Rono apparently was out of control and it seemed that no one could stop him. All he had gained was slipping away. He was thrown off track and field’s gravy train--he lost his shoe contract, he was unreliable and thus undesireable for race promoters. After he broke with Paul, Rono sought Sundlun as an agent.

Things went well at first. Rono ran his first marathon, the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 26, and was ecstatic about his time of 2 hours 19 minutes 12 seconds. He was paid $3,000 and had a two-year contract with the race promoters.

Sundlun was optimistic that Rono would get out from under his debts in Kenya, which Sundlun estimates are about $15,000. Sundlun set up a monthly payment schedule to help Rono pay those debts.

Sundlun also found a place for Rono to stay on Long Island. But again, Rono began drinking.

Friends took him to a rehabilitation center. Sundlun and others tried to convince Rono that he needed help. Finally, Sundlun called Rono to his office in New York. He gave Rono the $600 in his account and wished him good luck.

Then came the arrest in November. Sundlun and Rubin arranged for Rono to enter a rehab clinic in New Jersey. The International Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body for track and field, privately pledged $5,000 to pay for the treatment. Rono stayed four days in the four-week program.


In December, Sundlun arranged for Rono to go to a rehab clinic in Pennsylvania. Rono spent 19 days there but left before finishing the program. It was too restrictive, he said. While there, Rono charged $3,400 in phone bills to Sundlun’s office.

For a time, Rono had a room at the Westside Y in New York. He slept at the seedy Port Authority Terminal on Christmas Eve. Then, for a while, he stayed with another runner, Bernie Allen, in Boston. That went well until Rono began drinking again.

There was one more try at rehab, in Upstate New York. Rono left, there, too, and when he was interviewed for this story, said he did not need rehabilitation.

After leaving the third center, Rono returned to Sundlun and wrote a new contract, pledging not to drink. Rono wrote that if he didn’t live up to the terms of the contract, Sundlun had the right to tell the track world he was a drunk--effectively blacklisting him. “He broke all his agreements within 24 hours of signing them,” Sundlun said.

Sundlun, too, left Rono. He never exercised his contractual options, but he said he couldn’t help Rono anymore, either.

“I remember the first time I ever saw Henry run, at the NCAA 5,000 meter semifinals in Eugene in 1978,” said Sundlun, who at the time was coaching at USC. “He was sprinting the straights and jogging the curves. We had a long jumper, Larry Doubley. He was pretty fast. While Larry was running down the long jump runway, Henry passed him.


“He and Mary (Decker, who Sundlun coached in Colorado) are the only two people it looked like God had put them on this earth to run. They are God’s gift. There’s no doubt that he can return to the same level of years ago, even though he hasn’t conquered his drinking. He has an amazing mind set. Only Mary has one like that.”

Tom Sturak negotiated Rono’s last shoe contract for Nike in the late ‘70s. Sturak said that Rono’s loyalty to Nike shoes, and the fact that he set four world records in Nikes, gave the fledgling Oregon company a crucial boost.

“Henry got paid very well and he deserved it,” said Sturak, now an L.A.-based athlete’s manager. “He was the most gifted distance runner I’ve ever seen in my life. That still stands.”

For five years, Rono was nearly invincible. He set six NCAA records. In 1978, when he set the four records, he won 40 of the 52 races he entered. As much as for the records themselves, which often far surpassed the previous record, Rono was impressive for the way in which he set them. He often ran virtually alone, from the front, before small crowds, in difficult conditions.

His records in the 3,000 meters and steeplechase still stand, and, next to the long jump and 400-meter records which were set at altitude in 1968, are the oldest in track and field.

Rono was paid well by the standards of the time. He made $150,000 in 1981. But by all reports he did not manage his money well. Sturak said that Rono wanted it stipulated in his Nike contract that he be paid his entire year’s salary on one day, with four or five different checks.


“I know that he had accounts in Switzerland,” Sturak said. “I know he had one in Brussels and one in London. I think he took the checks and deposited them in each account.”

Rono’s problems with banks didn’t begin in New Jersey, though. He would save the money he made on the European circuit and put it in a bank. Then he’d drink and forget in which bank he had deposited his summer’s earnings.

“He once asked me if I could help him find a bank in Brussels,” Sturak said. “He said he didn’t know which bank it was, but if he could see it from a taxicab, he’d know the corner. He’s got one like that in London, too.”

As Rono’s drinking increased, his running deteriorated. He was paid to run races and never showed. Even for a great champion, even for the name , Rono was not worth the gamble for promoters.

In 1982, Rono asked Nike for a ticket to Europe to compete. Sturak refused. Rono asked again. Finally, Sturak relented. Rono was not in shape and was lapped in the 5,000 meters at Helsinki. The track world was appalled at Rono’s condition. Rono then asked the meet director in Oslo to let him run the 10,000 meters. The meet director refused. Rono begged to run.

In the end, Rono was allowed to run but as a rabbit, setting the pace for other runners. It was a poignant moment: The 10,000-meter world record-holder was setting the pace for other runners to break his record.

Like an aging, bloated prizefighter, Rono was beaten but didn’t know when to leave the ring. After that outdoor season, he returned to Kenya and didn’t run again for four years.


Henry Rono was talking about stress and pressure. He felt both acutely. It was his first interview in a few years and he was skittish. Since the news of his arrest last year, reporters have been trying to find Rono.

“They were starting stories, things I never said, I couldn’t sleep,” he said during lunch at a Hackensack restaurant. “It was not a normal life. The whole of December, they were after me. There was a time when I didn’t even trust my lawyer. Ibrahim is the only one I trust. It is a lot of pressure when you talk all the time about running, running, running.

“It helps a lot when you have something to do. It balances your life. You have a lot of demands. When you have an agent pushing you, ‘Run here, do this, you don’t have any money, this meet promoter is going to give you this much.’ It’s terrible, it’s difficult. When I was in Washington, it was not like that. Now there is greed, they push.”

Rono speaks softly. He says little, but he rambles. He talks about his lack of stability, about his lack of privacy. He talks about his running and his running away.

“I don’t have a home. You don’t have privacy. I never feel at home,” he said. “I stay some place about two weeks. Actually what it is, the pressure starts when people are monitoring you. In our (Kenyan) tradition, when people are monitoring you, you believe it is like witchcraft--finding your weaknesses and strengths.

“All of this because of money. You could stay in your own home and nobody would bother you. You could just sit there.”


Rubin, his attorney, is filing a suit against the banks charging false arrest and defamation. Rubin said it may be filed before the one-year anniversary of Rono’s arrest. Any money from a possible settlement, though, would come in much later. Rubin estimates that he has spent $15,000 of legal time on Rono.

“Henry doesn’t care about money and it’s one of the things he thinks about all the time,” Rubin said. “It’s ironic.”

Rono, who is described by all who know him as markedly unmaterialistic, needs money. He needs to run to get money. In his mind, running and money and pressure are melded.

Rono used to have an almost mystical regard for running. It was freedom and expression and power. Now, he believes, that has been taken from him. His running has been soiled.

“These people are pushing you,” Rono said. “If you don’t run, you don’t make money. This pushes you to drink. I didn’t feel free with the running anymore. I didn’t feel like a human being, I felt like a machine or something. They were all saying, ‘He has money in his legs.’ ”

Sundlun acknowledges that Rono has been under pressure, but said that before anything else, he must solve his drinking problem.


“I like Henry, I believe in Henry,” Sundlun said. “I don’t give a damn if Henry runs again or not. I’d much rather have a sober, nice Henry who gets on with his life than a drunken runner.”

Sturak sees more. He sees a victim of culture and change.

“Henry represents to me more and more what is great about this sport and what is wrong with it,” Sturak said. “Money does change people. It makes them behave in odd ways. You’ll hear a lot of people saying Henry Rono was ruined by money.”