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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Legendary Washington State distance runner Henry Rono dies at 72

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Henry Rono resisted having his life defined by 81 magical running days in 1978, or by the tragic downward spiral that overtook him a scant few years later.

For him, it was all just a part of the view through a personal kaleidoscope that would also reveal poverty and struggle during his youth, opportunity denied by two Olympic boycotts, later-life recovery and reconciliation, fulfillment as a coach and teacher and, finally, a return to his native Kenya.

It was there that he died on Thursday, in a Nairobi hospital after being hospitalized for 10 days with an undisclosed illness.

The Washington State University legend was three days past his 72nd birthday.

He had been on campus not yet three months when he won his first NCAA championship in 1976, one of three individual cross country titles he would collect. A year and a half later, he began a blitz through track’s record book that saw him shatter world standards in four different races in the space of less than 12 weeks.

“That’s something,” said his retired WSU coach, John Chaplin, “I think you can safely say will never be done again.”

It was nothing short of stupefying. But then, so were his early workouts upon arriving in Pullman after the 1976 African boycott of the Montreal Olympics – at least as remembered by former teammate Phil English.

“You have to remember he hadn’t trained after the boycott – I mean, what for, right?” said English, a coaching fixture in Yakima for four decades. “So we’re doing a workout of 800-meter intervals – eight times 800, I think – and he’s kind of trailing the other Kenyans, maybe 20 meters back.

“Two weeks later, same workout – and he’s 20 meters ahead. And he’s not resting between the intervals.”

His capacity for training truly came into focus during that sensational 1978 season.

Rono broke his first world record on April 8 of that year in a double-dual meet against Arizona State and Cal in Berkeley, running the 5,000 meters in 13 minutes, 8.4 seconds. A month later at the rainy Northwest Relays in Seattle, he shattered the 3,000-meter steeplechase mark by running 8:05.4 – a world record that lasted for 11 years, and still stands as the collegiate record.

When his season moved to Europe, Rono took down the 10,000-meter record in 27:22.5 – the first man under 27:30 – in Vienna, and two weeks later added the flat 3,000 mark in 7:32.1 in Oslo, Norway.

It was all part of a 31-race winning streak at those and other distances, which included two NCAA meet records on the same day in Eugene in preliminary races of the 5,000 and steeplechase.

“Some of it,” he would tell an interviewer from The Spokesman-Review years later, “was overwhelming.”

Given his start in the sport, it had to be.

Rono grew up in Kiptaragon, a village among the farms in Kenya’s Nandi Hills. His father died before Rono turned 10, and his mother struggled to afford to keep him in school. He didn’t begin running in earnest until age 19 upon seeing national hero Kipchoge Keino make an appearance at a stadium. Five years later, he made the 1976 Kenyan Olympic team – only to see African nations pull out at the 11th hour.

But it was there in Montreal that a phone call was placed to Chaplin by two of his Kenyan athletes, John and Kip Ngeno, wondering if he might be interested in “our third steeplechaser.”

“ ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Chaplin said. “ ‘Of course I would.’ It was not exactly a recruiting coup on my part.”

Rono put on the WSU singlet for the first time that October in a low-key cross country dual in Missoula – and promptly knocked 35 seconds off the 4-mile course record teammate Joshua Kimeto had set two years before.

His Cougar resume includes those three NCAA cross country titles, two more in indoor track – most notably the 2-mile in 1977 when WSU won its lone national championship – and steeplechase titles outdoors in 1978 and 1979. A six-time All-American, he set seven collegiate records and has seven school records that still stand.

Henry Rono trains in the Snake River Canyon as a member of the Washington State track and field team in May 1978.  (Tony Duffy/Allsport)
Henry Rono trains in the Snake River Canyon as a member of the Washington State track and field team in May 1978. (Tony Duffy/Allsport)

“He was such a powerful guy – big barrel chest – and incredibly efficient,” English said. “The incredible thing about those world records is the versatility it takes – the speed for the 3,000 and the skill of the steeple and then the far reaches of the 10,000. You just don’t see that kind of range.”

And as Chaplin noted, “He never got rattled.”

But that indomitable streak couldn’t hold up to politics or personal demons.

Another boycott of the Soviet-hosted 1980 Olympics cost Rono likely his last chance at medals, and he was souring on interactions with international track officials, the Kenyan federation and agents. His issues with alcohol that surfaced in college began to grow, though his ability to power through them was revealed in one last competitive hurrah.

In May 1982, Rono won the Lilac Bloomsday Run in Spokane, chugging through the 12 kilometers – he would admit later – with a powerful hangover. When he headed to Europe to run that summer, he did so with a pronounced beer gut that had meet promoters reticent to have him race. In a July 5,000 in Finland, he was lapped and failed to break 15:40.

Yet he somehow raced himself back into shape in meets across the continent, and by September broke his 5,000 world record in a race in Knarvik, Norway.

But by 1984, he had disappeared from the public eye, and life spiraled out of control – his prize and sponsorship money frittered away or stolen, his friends unable to indulge his ways between trips to rehab. He spent time in homeless shelters in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. In time, he found a haven in New Mexico, gained sobriety and coached distance runners in the Navajo Nation. In 2007, he returned to run Bloomsday – in the masters division – and granted a remarkably candid interview.

“You think you can handle all that happens because you’re a champion,” he said, “and champions handle things. I used to win races when I was drinking. Who’s (to tell) me I’m an alcoholic?”

Rono returned to Kenya in 2019, on the family farmstead he purchased with some of his racing winnings. Back in Pullman, Chaplin continues to campaign for a statue of his star runner to be erected on campus.

“At Washington State, he was surrounded by world-class athletes, but he already stood out in that crowd,” English said. “And then he went on to accomplish things that were incredible – and would be even by today’s standards.”