In Memoriam: Henry Rono – One Of The Greatest Distance Runners In History

Rono achieved legendary status in 1978 when he set four world records in four different events in 81 days

For the second time in five days, the track & field world has lost a legend. Today, distance star Henry Rono, who turned 72 on Monday, died at a Nairobi hospital in his native Kenya.

Rono is best known for setting four world records in four different events in the span of 81 days in 1978, when he was a 26-year-old student-athlete at Washington State under the tutelage of coach John Chaplin.

First up was the men’s 5,000 record. Rono became the first human to break 13:10 for 5,000 when he ran 13:08.4 at a double dual meet against Arizona State and California on April 8 in Berkeley (previous record was 13:12.8 by Dick Quax). A little over a month later, on May 13, Rono took down the steeplechase record by running 8:05.4 at the Northwest Relays in Seattle (previous record: 8:08.0, Anders Gärderud). Rono’s 8:05.4 would last as the world record all the way until 1989. It remains the NCAA record to this day — 46 years later, no collegian has come within even 10 seconds of Rono’s mark.

The following month, Rono began the European leg of his world record tour. On June 11 in Vienna, he ran 27:22:47 to become the first man in history under 27:30 for 10,000 meters (previous record: 27:30.5, Samson Kimobwa), and that record would last for more than six years. Rono got his fourth world record of the year on June 27 at the Bislett Games in Oslo by running 7:32.1 for 3,000 (previous record: 7:35.2, Brendan Foster). Like his steeplechase WR, Rono’s 3,000 record would stand all the way until 1989.

Rono, whose win streak reached 31 races in 1978, was on such another level that year that he broke two NCAA meet records in the prelims of the 1978 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene. Rono ran 13:21.79 in the 5,000 (supposedly while jogging the curves and sprinting the straightaways) and 8:18.63 in the steeple — on the same day. The latter mark was a meet record by six seconds, and he took another six seconds off the record in the final (8:12.39). Rono didn’t run the 5,000 or 10,000 final as Chaplin scratched him out of concern with a sore foot.

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Rono was far from a track specialist. He was also a three-time NCAA cross country champion, winning the XC titles in 1976, 1977, and 1979 (his 1978 loss came on a cold, snow-covered course in Madison after he ran off-course mid-race). Since Kenya boycotted both the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, Rono never achieved Olympic fame but he did win two Commonwealth Games titles and All-Africa Games titles in 1978.

Rono never achieved the same success that he hit in 1978 as he struggled with a drinking problem for much of his adult life, but he did set another world record in 1981 when he lowered his own 5,000 record to 13:06.20. It was a remarkable feat as early in the year Rono had such a large beer gut and was in such poor form that it was hard for him to get into meets. On July 7, he even ran 15:40 for 5,000, but he quickly raced himself into shape and just over two months later, on September 13, he ran 13:06.20. Making the feat all the more incredible is the fact he reportedly got drunk the night before the race, but ran off his hangover with an hour-long run the morning of the race.

For more on Rono’s 1981 season, I highly recommend you read this except from Richard Amery‘s book, The Five and Ten Men: Ten Men Who Redefined Distance Running, which we published on in 2020: When Henry Rono Went from 15:40 to a 13:06 World Record in Two Months.

At’s mid-Atlantic headquarters in Baltimore, we only have two pictures up on the wall and one of them is an autographed poster of Rono.

In recent years, when I’ve been discussing the crazy fast times that are being put up with the help of super shoes with coaching/stats guru John Kellogg, Kellogg will often bring up Rono’s 1978 world records. He thinks the talent level Rono displayed while running world records often totally solo would stack up quite favorably today.

Considering how fast Rono ran alone in dual meets, without rabbits or super shoes, let alone wavelight pacing technology, it’s impossible to not conclude that if Rono was in his best form right now he’d at a minimum be contending for global medals. Does anyone think Nico Young, who just became the first NCAA runner to break 13:00 by running 12:57.14 at BU, could run 13:08 in a double dual meet in the middle of the day without rabbits? I don’t think so.

“That 7:32 was his best world record in my eyes. The Track & Field News writers were extremely impressed when Rono ran 7:43 a little earlier that year, noting that he wasn’t known as a middle-distance type, but when he popped that 7:32, that kind of changed how people thought about the sort of talent needed for the 3,000. He was utterly dominant for his brief time at the top, and redefined what people thought was possible,” said Kellogg.

RIP, Henry. You are a running legend.

There have been some amazing threads on Henry Rono on the messageboard – where Rono himself used to post – over the years. Here are some of them:

2024: RIP Henry K Rono
2006: Henry Rono training for masters mile record. PART II This was a 186 long page thread.
2005: Henry Rono?
2007: Was Henry Rono the greatest distance talent ever???
2013: Henry Rono
2003: How Henry Rono beat Alberto Salazar (Good Read)
2020: The HENRY RONO Base of Yore

More From Outside Sources: 
*Great NY Times Profile from 2022
*2007 LA Times: “The clock he could handle, the bottle he couldn’t”
*2000 San Diego Union-Tribune article on Rono
*LATimes article from 1987 talking about his struggles
*YouTube: Rono running at 1978 NCAAs

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