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Finishing Race Just a Start for Rono

Once bloated and belligerent, Henry Rono is now hard at work on svelte and sober--this time, he hopes, for good.

But for Rono--in town to run in Sunday’s San Diego International Marathon--history suggests his margin for error is slim.

Rono has been in and out of alcohol rehabilitation 4 times in the past 4 years. His latest stint in a rehabilitation center was a 28-day period ending Oct. 21 in Rochester, N.Y.

His time in Sunday’s race was 3 hours 57 minutes 18 seconds, more than an hour and a half slower than his first marathon 2 years ago in Chicago. Rono placed 398th in the men’s 30-39-year-old division in the fifth marathon he has run.

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“I was hoping for a 2:56,” Rono said, “but I’m just happy to finish.”

First-time marathoners are “just happy to finish.” But a man who has set world records in 4 distance events?

“I’m 20 pounds overweight,” said the 175-pound Rono, who admitted to being more than 200 pounds in recent years and still plans to lose about 20 more pounds. “I use this as a training run.”

It has been 6 weeks since Rono began training again. “The first 2 weeks I ran how I felt,” Rono said, “then I ran 40, 50, then 70 miles a week.”

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Rono has learned, in part through his stay in rehabilitation, that he must listen to his body. “I found that as I was adding more mileage, my mind went too fast, so I cut back,” he said. “I’m building up slowly.”

For now, daily runs of 6 to 8 miles are sufficient.

It’s hard to imagine Rono, now 36, down-and-out at all. He set 4 world records in as many events within 90 days in 1978--3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters and 3,000-meter steeplechase.

But the native Kenyan became trapped in a cycle of “excessives” that included drinking, arrests for a number of offenses and pressure to produce--and not enough running.

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The native Kenyan said he bottomed out in July. “I was so sick,” Rono said. “I thought I was going to die.”

Rono was taken to a rehabilitation center in Rochester and this time, Rono said he is optimistic about recovery.

“The difference this time,” Rono said, “was that my heart was in it. I wanted to change. All the problems I had, all the mistakes I had made, I recognized those things and knew I had to take care of my body.”

“They taught me (in the rehabilitation center) to eat well, get full sleep, live well and heal yourself. . . . I learned about myself,” he said. “I learned I was never patient. I use all the things I learned in my running. Rehabilitation is reforming your body and your mind.”

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Part of his reformation included letting go of the anger he felt for never having participated in the Olympics.

Running is Rono’s life. The boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games kept the Kenyan out then, and in 1984 he was suffering from a nervous breakdown.

“When there’s no Olympics, it’s hard,” Rono said, “and I had nothing to fall back on. I couldn’t even talk to people. I was suspicious of everyone.”

Rono, who works as a YMCA clerk in Utica, N.Y., said he enjoys the marathons and hopes to continue running them.

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“I found out when you get older, you get more endurance,” Rono said. “When I run 26 miles, I feel mentally and physically relieved.”

But he will disclose only sketchy details of his plans, probably because he isn’t sure of them himself.

“I won’t be planning things like I used to,” he said. “You have to be able to do what you say you can. Now, I do things one day at a time.”

He does hope to return to school to earn a degree in physiology and, one day, return to his homeland. “I have confidence that I can go back to Kenya and work with young athletes there.”

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And obligation is no longer his sole motivating factor. “Before, I was famous and everything I did was for world running, not for me. Now I’m starting a new life for myself.”


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