Rono runs ahead to put his troubled past behind

Times Staff Writer

Henry Rono, once the world’s preeminent distance runner and some say the greatest of all time, probably is best known for his mind-boggling assault on the record books in the spring and summer of 1978, when he broke world records in four events over an 81-day period.

“I was ahead of everybody,” he says. “I wasn’t competing with people. I was competing with time. It was me and the clock.”

The clock he could handle.

The bottle, he couldn’t.

The Nandi tribesman from Kenya, who in 1978 was a Washington State student unprepared for the sudden fame and blinding spotlight, has battled alcoholism for nearly half his 55 years.


His country’s boycotts of the 1976 and 1980 Olympics denied him an international showcase, and he says unscrupulous managers and corrupt Kenyan track and field officials, combined with his own erratic behavior, left him penniless.

Rono notes in his soon-to-be-published autobiography that he was so down on his luck in the mid-1990s -- homeless and out of prospects -- that he showed up at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and pleaded for a job cleaning floors.

His former sponsor, the great runner says, turned him away.

If that was a low point for Rono, it was one of many.

He says that he was intermittently homeless through much of the 1980s and ‘90s, was arrested more than once for driving while drunk, and drifted in and out of rehabilitation centers more times than he cares to remember. Friends took him in, then threw him out when his drinking got out of control. In steadier times, he worked as an airport skycap. He parked and washed cars.

But all that is past, Rono says. His life is on the upswing. After shuttling from town to town for years, he says, he finally settled 11 years ago in Albuquerque. He says he has been sober for the last five.

A full-time teacher pursuing a graduate degree in special education, he has taken a year off from work to write his recently completed memoirs and train for the Masters World Track & Field Championships in September in Italy.

On Sunday, he will compete in the Carlsbad 5K, and before the year is out he hopes to establish an age-group world record in the mile.


“I want to alert the public that I am back into running,” he told race organizers in Carlsbad after signing on for their event. “I want to teach people that you can come back from the streets and being homeless and recover your life again.”

The 5-foot-8 Rono, whose weight once ballooned to 220 pounds, says he is down to 165, 20 less than he weighed in December, when he ran in a 5K in Cincinnati and said, after spying a photo of himself, “I look like a heavyweight boxer.”

His goal, he says, is to slim down to about 140. That’s what he weighed as a 26-year-old sophomore in April 1978, when in a dual meet at Berkeley he set a world record of 13 minutes 8.4 seconds in the 5,000 meters. A month later, in Seattle, he established a steeplechase mark of 8:05:4, and a month after that, in Vienna, he set a record of 27:22:47 in the 10,000 meters. Sixteen days later, in Oslo, he set his fourth world record: 7:32.1 in the 3,000 meters.

“It was amazing,” he says, “but the way the media was handling my success was intimidating. I was not prepared for that. It was very stressful.”

Don Franken, a longtime track promoter and president of a sports celebrity talent agency, says Rono was “a fish out of water,” struggling to find his way.

“It was such a culture shock coming here from Kenya,” Franken says. “He was lost -- and he had an addiction. You could call him a tragedy, but how many people set four world records in such a short span of time?”


Rono’s records in the 3,000 and the steeplechase stood for years, but by the early 1980s, he was drinking heavily. He started showing up drunk at races, or not showing up at all. But his talent was so immense that, in September 1981, he reportedly got drunk the night before a race in Oslo, ran for an hour early the next morning to sweat out the alcohol, then set a world record in the 5,000 that night.

Those days are long past, but Rono says his life has changed for the better. No longer homeless, he bought a house a few years ago.

“I feel happy with what I’m doing now,” says the gap-toothed Kenyan, noting that he runs two hours every morning and another hour in the evening. “I’m enjoying running. I’m doing more running now than even when I was young.”

He is reclaiming his identity, he says, “controlling my life.”

Franken is rooting for him.

“He’s gone through a hell of a lot of struggles,” the promoter says, “but he’s come out a survivor. Yeah, it’s a tragedy that his career wasn’t longer because he could have achieved so much more. He could have put every record out of sight.

“But you talk to him now and he has a very good attitude. I think in the long run he’s going to contribute a lot more in other ways, so his talent will not be wasted. I think he’ll be able to still inspire and motivate people, and that’s going to be his legacy. I think he’s still got a lot more to give.”