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Henry Rono, track-and-field great, dies in his native Kenya

Feb. 28—Henry Rono, a prodigious distance-running talent who set four world track-and-field records over an 81-day period in 1978, died on Feb. 15 in his native Kenya. He was 72.

Rono lived for years in Albuquerque, competing only occasionally as his career wound down while struggling with alcohol abuse, before returning to Kenya in 2019.

According to a New York Times story, Rono died in a Nairobi hospital while being treated for an unspecified illness.

At Rono's best, there was no one better. The 3,000-meter and 3,000-meter steeplechase records he established in 1978 lasted 11 years each; his 10,000-meter record stood for six years. He bettered his own 5,000-meter record in 1981.

"He was such a powerful guy — big barrel chest — and incredibly efficient," Phil English, a former teammate at Washington State University, said in an interview after Rono's death with the Spokane, Wash., newspaper The Spokesman-Review, as reported in the New York Times. "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."

Rono set his 1978 records while attending Washington State. There, he won NCAA cross-country titles in 1976, 1977, and 1979, an indoor 3,000-meter track title in 1977 and outdoor 3,000-meter steeplechase titles in 1977 and 1978.

But, while at Washington State, he developed a drinking habit that eventually would ruin his running career and plague his life.

He first came to Albuquerque in 1980, attracted, as were so many world-class runners, by the city's high altitude and mild climate. That spring, he worked as a substitute teacher and as a graduate assistant for then-UNM track coach Bill Silverberg.

He returned in the 1990s and in 1997 was hired as an assistant track coach at Valley High School. He occasionally competed in local races, winning a 10K in a time of 30 minutes, 27 seconds at age 39 in 1991. In 2003, he was hired as a special-needs teaching assistant at Truman Middle School.

Alcohol abuse, however, continued to drag him down. Repeated DWI arrests — the first in 1996, the last in 2016 — resulted in legal entanglements and financial problems. Rono worked for years as a skycap at the Albuquerque Sunport before finally returning to Kenya some five years ago.

"When an athlete goes down, he goes down and down," Rono said during a 2021 Kenyan television interview. "... My family wouldn't understand an alcoholic person going into rehab after rehab. There's no way to explain (to) them why."

As reported by the Times, Rono was born Kipwambok Rono on Feb. 12, 1952, in an area of Kenya that became renowned for producing world-class distance runners.

As a small child, according to the Times, Rono suffered a serious injury when he fell from a bicycle being ridden by an uncle and caught his right ankle in the spokes.

After his recovery, Rono took up running at approximately the age of 19.

"(Running is) all I had," he said during the Kenyan television interview. "I knew that running would take me all over the world."

By 1976, he was good enough to be named to Kenya's Olympic team — but was denied a trip to Montreal when Kenya joined other African nations in boycotting the games because New Zealand, which had sent its rugby national team to compete in apartheid South Africa, was allowed in.

The 1980 Olympics were denied to him as well, as Kenya honored a boycott of the Moscow games initiated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter after the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan.