Henry Rono raised his most important question immediately: “Do you pay?”
Pay for what?
“Pay for interview,” he said. “I don’t have time to do an interview if you don’t pay.”
Courteously, yet with a Kenyan’s characteristic unwavering resolve, Henry Rono recently spent 15 minutes declining my request for a 15-minute interview because it would not benefit him financially.
But while explaining his rejection, Rono patiently outlined an inspiring tale, a story of what appears to be a day-to-day, in-the-trenches triumph over a serious addiction.
He was calling from an underground parking garage in Portland, where he works for less than $6 an hour.
Henry, I stressed, you are a legend around here, and people would like to know how you’re doing.
“I’m a legend in a lot of places,” he responded. “That doesn’t always pay so well.”
No, sadly, it doesn’t.
To grasp the relevance of Rono’s laboring in a parking garage, it’s important to measure both the heights and depths of his experience - and to recognize that, while this is a long way from the international acclaim he once enjoyed, it is nonetheless a significant step up from where he’s been.
Rono, among the greatest distance runners of all time, blazed through Washington State with such an other-worldly array of physical gifts that he demolished four world records in an 81-day spree in 1978.
He ran with such a regal disdain for the standards of excellence that preceded him that he was tabbed King Henry I.
The rules, then, were simple. Start running when the gun goes off, dispatch all pursuers, stay inside the lines.
But he got drastically off-track in the mid-80s, almost as if he were somehow racing all those miles again in the wrong direction, unraveling the legend he’d built.
Backward through legal problems, backward through financial troubles, backward through rehab clinics, until he reached the point where he was - with laudable effort - returning my phone call.
Rono is not seeking attention, he’s not publicly bemoaning the demons that caused him to squander a career; he’s simply, minute-by-minute, trying to make a living.
And stay sober.
“I work 18 hours a day, from one job to the next; I have to earn money with every minute of work,” he said. “But people should know that I’m not drinking. There’s no drinking. That’s why I have the energy to work this hard.”
There was no shortage of hard work when Rono, a Nandi tribesman from the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, was transplanted in Pullman.
He was labeled a 21-year-old freshman, but then was called 25 or 26 as a sophomore. All of which enhanced the mystery that surrounded Rono, who was described as a quiet loner off the track.
No such mysteries existed on the track or cross-country course, though, as he was an absolute deadly competitor.
“We, the world, have never seen any runner quite like this; he is just incredible,” Kenny Moore, a writer/runner observed at the time.
Racing for WSU coach John Chaplin, Rono won six NCAA titles. He dominated so thoroughly that at the national meet in 1978 in Eugene, Ore., he broke two NCAA distance records in the same day - IN PRELIMINARY RACES.
From April 8 through June 27 that year, Rono trashed records in the 5,000 meters at Berkeley, Calif., the 3,000-meter steeplechase at Seattle, the 10,000 in Vienna, Austria, and the 3,000 in Oslo, Norway.
He would again break the record in the 5,000 - his favorite race - in 1981, and he would win Bloomsday in a record time in 1982.
But he never again approached the brilliance of ‘78. Injuries, scholastic demands (he has a degree in psychology) and a frantic competitive schedule might have been reasons.
Maybe, though, it was simply difficult to race beneath the unbearable weight of everyone’s expectations.
And who could gauge the disappointment caused by the African boycott of the 1980 Olympics, when Rono was deprived the ultimate forum for the display of his skills?
“I don’t want to talk about all those things,” Rono said when asked of the past. “I’ve buried all that.”
A telling quote appeared in a feature written by Bob Payne in the fall of 1978 when Rono reportedly told another runner that “there’s a lot of things in college beside running - like girls and beer.”
Rumors of Rono’s chronic alcohol abuse gained credence as he added weight and slid competitively.
He reportedly returned to Kenya in 1984 to find his transport business in rubble. “After all the problems I had, I didn’t care anymore,” Rono told the Associated Press at the time. “So I ate a lot and drank a lot.”
Standout Kenyan runner Ibrahim Hussein, who had been inspired by Rono, tried helping him, bringing him back to America.
“He has to be with the right people,” Hussein said in 1986. “He doesn’t trust people; he’s very sensitive, very shy and he thinks people will misinterpret him.”
Rehabilitation attempts failed to take, though.
His agent at the time, Tracy Sundlun, explained this week that Rono’s competitive nature might have worked against him because deep down, at the wellspring of his athletic greatness, was a disbelief that anything could defeat him.
“Ultimately, you have to come to grips with the fact that that friendly little amber bottle of beer can kick your ass,” Sundlun said. “You have to understand that it’s stronger than you.”
Another problem was that “Henry was so famous and recognizable that he never ran out of enablers,” Sundlun said. “I remember one time when he was thrown out of his apartment and had been bounced off a bus for not being able to pay, and he walks down the street and somebody says, ‘Hey, aren’t you Henry Rono?’ and there goes another three months of somebody trying to help him.”
Rono ended up in a New Jersey jail on charges that he’d conned several banks out of $1,300. All charges were dropped as a case of mistaken identity.
As is frequently the case, though, news of the charges spread further than the reports of the dismissal.
“The American press has treated me horribly over the years,” Rono said last week.
Although Rono, who will turn 44 on Monday, had been tagged as suspicious and withdrawn over the years, he spoke last week with a palpable optimism. And that was to be the subject of this story - the future.
I think this can be uplifting and inspiring, I told him; not about the fall, but rather about how you’ve fought back. And about where you’re headed.
“What’s happened in the past should be left there, and the future?” he said, hesitating, perhaps reluctant because he recognizes - after all he’s been through - just how fragile this stability can be. “The future? Who can say what will happen?”
True enough, Henry. Good luck, I hope everything works out well for you.
“Sure,” he said. I lowered the phone to disconnect.
“Oh, Dave,” he called out, wishing to add one more thing. “Thank you very much for calling.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.