When Henry Rono Went from 15:40 to a 13:06 World Record in Two Months
By Richard Amery
April 22, 2020
The following excerpt, detailing Henry Rono‘s 1981 and 1982 seasons — including a shocking 5,000m world record and a classic duel with Alberto Salazar at Hayward Field — is from Richard Amery‘s book, The Five and Ten Men: Ten Men Who Redefined Distance Running, which examines the 10 men to have held both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter world records. You can find LetsRun.com’s review of the book here. To order The Five and Ten Men, and support LRC in the process, click here.
By early 1981, Henry was back running for Washington State. Although winning more than he lost, it was hard to believe that he was the same athlete of three years earlier. His weight had gone up, his fitness had gone down, and the once clamorous European meet promoters saw him more as a liability than an asset.
One thing that Henry had shown throughout his career was the ability to train and race himself into shape quickly. If ever that was evident, it was during the 1981 season. His major sponsor – Nike – had sent him to Boulder, Colorado to try and have him sober up, and try to get in some sort of form for the upcoming European summer. It seemed a hopeless task. He was greatly overweight, and resembled more an out of condition office worker than an athlete hoping to take on the world’s best in a few months.
In April, while training in Boulder, he met up with Steve Cram. He told a somewhat bemused Cram that he intended to break a world record during the European summer. One did not need to be a world class runner to see how unbelievable such a proposition was. Even more unbelievable was the fact that just over four months later, Cram himself would be pacing Rono in a race to do just that.
Before leaving for Europe, his last US race was a steeplechase. Finishing fifth, over twenty seconds behind the winner, in a time more than a minute outside his best was a fair indication of his fitness level. The one positive thing he did achieve before leaving was to complete his college course.
Once in Europe, being accepted into races proved almost impossible. Meet directors took one look, and what they saw was not a pretty sight. Rather than the lean world beater of 1978, they saw someone several kilograms overweight with a pronounced beer gut.
Talking his way into a couple of meets in Finland did not really help his cause. Of the two races (both over 5,000 metres), one was a third place finish, while in the other he was lapped twice, finishing fourteenth in 15:40.85. In a later race in July, in Oslo, he was reduced to acting as a pacemaker in a 10,000 metre race, dropping out at the half way mark. Still, running 13:40 while so unfit was yet another indication of what might be possible in the future.
Later that month he decided that some consistent hard training might be the answer to his problems. He relocated to Germany and put in some solid sessions. The average day was made up of a morning run in the forest, followed by interval sessions each afternoon. No easy days, just constant hard sessions. Such sessions included standard repetitions of 400 metres. On July 19, the second day of his training in Germany, the best he could manage were twelve in 65-68 seconds. Four days later he could do the same session, with times between 61.5 – 63.2 seconds, with the last one in 58.5. Three days later, he could complete seventeen in 63 – 65 seconds, while the very next day he managed twenty four, with the last one in 57.7 seconds. Between these days were sessions of 5 x 1,000 m, 24 x 200m or similar. Things were looking up.
After two low key meets, he managed to get an entry into the British AAA championships. Although finishing fifth, some six seconds behind the winner (Eamonn Coghlan), his time of 13:26.45 was a vast improvement on his recent previous efforts. Four days later he was in the central Finnish city of Tampere running 3,000 metres in 7:50.88, and a week later in Zurich for the Weltklasse meet. Originally only given permission to run in the “B” competition over 5,000 metres, he bluffed his way into the main event – and ran well enough for fourth in 13:27.71.
Promoters could see what was happening, and it suddenly became a lot easier to gain entry into the big meets. His next 5,000 metres race was in Koln four days later. The result showed further improvement – second place in 13:23.97. Although obviously improving, few would have predicted his next result. Three days later in Koblenz he improved dramatically to 13:12.15. As was common in most of his fast races, it was a comfortable victory – this time by over fourteen seconds.
A one day break was followed by a 10,000 metre race in Brussels as part of the Van Damme memorial meeting. After lagging well behind the leader, Julian Goater, he gradually reeled him in, and won going away in 27:40.78. A six day break, and then another 5,000 metre competition – this time in Rieti, Italy, the site of so many fast races over the years. The time was another 13:12 (13:12.47 to be precise). Although fast, two others finished ahead of him – the East German, Kunze (in a European record 13:10.40), and the Russian Abramov. Two days later and he was in England for the London Coca Cola meeting. Another 5,000 and another 13:12 – this time a winning 13:12.34.
His last three outings over five kilometres had all been within four and a half seconds of his 13:08.4 world record, a feat that must have been a record in itself. Two days later (September 13) in Knarvik, Norway, Henry was ready to make good on his promise to Steve Cram, made earlier in the year in Colorado. Helped over the first four laps by British runners Cram, Ian Stewart, and James Espir, Rono then pulled steadily away. Until the final stages he set a remarkably even pace, with each of the first four kilometres taking between 2:38 and 2:38.5. However, he clearly had something in reserve, running the final kilometre in 2:33.2, his last lap taking just 56 seconds, finishing in 13:06.20. As was the case with all his world records, the win was convincing – this time just on thirty seconds. It would surely have been one of the great sporting comebacks of all time.
The race was an example of Henry saving his best for last, as it would be his final race for the European season. Sadly, it would also be the high water mark of his career.
There would be a few more races that year, but clearly Henry was slipping back into his bad old ways with a vengeance. After his final world record, his weight started rising again, and his behavior became increasingly unpredictable and erratic. He was a hard man to rely on. However, as the holder of four world records, the last one still fresh in people’s memory, he was still a drawcard.
With this largely in mind, Alberto Salazar, now the premier US distance runner, decided to invite Rono to Eugene to race over 10,000 metres, the idea being to enable him (Salazar) to break the US record. The race was scheduled for April 10. What seemed like a good idea at the time probably seemed like an increasingly bad one as race day approached. Henry, despite being guaranteed good appearance money, decided shortly before the meet that he would not run. Salazar, using a mix of bluff and bribery, finally got him to change his mind.
Race day was cold, wet, and windy. An obviously overweight Henry Rono would face one of the in-form runners in the world. Rono’s only real form guide was over 5,000 metres the week before in Stanford. Second place, over thirty seconds slower than his world record was not exactly encouraging.
A field of fourteen started the race, but it was obvious early on who the race was really between. Rono led at the first mile in 4:27.1, and by just over half way it was a race in two. Salazar was in front pushing the pace, but Rono just would not go away. With just over a lap to go, he went to the lead, but this time it was Salazar’s turn to hang on. In the final straight, he narrowly took the lead, but Rono would not be denied. Beer belly or not, he held on for the narrowest of victories – 27:29.9 to 27:30.0. He would later say that it was the hardest race he ever ran. The simple fact is, that in adverse conditions; overweight, and only a shadow of his former self, he had come within eight seconds of his world record.
The rest of 1982 saw more losses than wins, but there were still the odd outstanding performances. At the Bislett Games he ran 27:28.67 for 10,000 metres, finishing fourth, and ten days later won over 5,000 metres in Stockholm in a fast 13:08.97. However, that would really be his last hurrah, as the next night in Oslo he would be in the very race that dethroned him as the five kilometre record holder. The Englishman, Dave Moorcroft took an early lead and went on to produce one of the most unexpected of all athletic records. His time of 13:00.41 took a huge chunk off the old mark, with Rono himself finishing in fourth place almost 25 seconds behind.
His last good run for the year was in the Weltklasse meet, but even there, his 13:16.14 was only good enough for seventh. After that, most aspects of his life went steadily downhill – except his weight. Whereas his best racing weight was about 63 kilograms (139 pounds), he was now an almost unrecognizable 100 kilograms (220 pounds). After a couple of early season runs in 1983 he essentially disappeared from the athletic landscape. For three years he did little – except continue to drink and indulge his liking for American junk food.
To order The Five and Ten Men, and support LRC in the process, click here.
You can find LetsRun.com’s review of the book here.