The lawns and rhododendrons of the Oregon State campus in Corvallis are dewy this spring morning as Henry Rono runs softly past. The day before, this 25-year-old Kenyan who attends Washington State had won the 10,000 meters at the Pac-8 championship meet, finishing in 27:46.6, the fastest time in the world this year. That is an extraordinary record, made as it was with no competition save a stiff wind that blew up each of the 25 homestretches, but it pales beside two of Rono's previous efforts. On April 8, in Berkeley, Calif., he ran the 5,000 in 13:08.4, to shatter the world record of Dick Quax of New Zealand by 4� seconds. Quax had set his record last year by shaving .1 of a second off the mark established five years earlier by Emiel Puttemans of Belgium. Then, on May 13, before 200 people in a rain-soaked relay meet in Seattle, Rono ran the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 8:05.4, removing 2.6 seconds from the world record of Anders Garderud of Sweden, which was set in the Montreal Olympics final. In response to Rono's records—and it is safe to say they will not be his last—the world's runners have been fairly unanimous. "It makes you want to quit," said Frank Shorter, on hearing of the steeplechase.
Later this day, Rono will come back to win the Pac-8 5,000, so this morning's run will not be difficult. "We will go slowly for an hour," he says. "To just sweat a little, to get out the beer we drank last night with our pizza." Though his companion is comfortable in shorts, Rono wears the bright red sweat suit of Kenya. "We are starting late," he says, shaking his wrist, upon which hangs a heavy digital timepiece. "Joshua Kimeto timed me with my watch yesterday, and I don't know what he did. He changed the program, and it didn't wake me this morning until 7:30. Usually I run at 6:30."
Joshua Kimeto, the two-time NCAA 5,000-meter champion, is Rono's teammate at Washington State and a tribe-mate as well. Both runners are Nandi, the tribe of the renowned Olympic champion Kipchoge Keino. Members of the Nandi are clearly recognizable by the absence of their two middle lower front teeth. "They are not 'knocked out,' " says Kimeto. "They are removed." This is done for reasons of tribal identity and health. If a Nandi contracts lockjaw, he can be fed through a straw. And, as the remaining teeth tend to move into the gap, there is more room for wisdom teeth in the back. "I haven't seen a dentist since I was 10," says Kimeto.
As he runs, Rono begins to sweat freely, though his pace is gentle. He keeps to the shade beneath the fir trees. "It is good weather here," he says. "Like in a forest. The place I come from is 7,600 feet elevation. You can't run easily in that place, the oxygen is so rarefied."
That place is Kiptaragon village in the Nandi Hills, in Rift Valley Province of Kenya. Rono, who is 5'9", 139 pounds and turned 25 on the day he set his steeplechase record, has been away from the Valley for two years. He has run seriously only since he was 18. "At school I played soccer and volleyball," he says, "and I kept in my mind the idea to run later. One day in 1971 I heard that Keino was coming with other athletes to appear at a place near where I lived. He was from only three miles away, but I had never seen him, so I went. The place was a little stadium and there were many athletes there. The announcer asked Keino to put up his hand so we would know who he was, and I saw him."
"Did you speak with him?" Rono is asked.
"No. There were many people around him. The mayor of the place gave him a cup to carry, and the people who wanted to talk could put something in it, like a nickel. I stood by myself above in the stadium and watched." Rono pauses. "From that time I was a runner."
In that decision, Rono was not unlike most runners—the vow to begin is usually solitary and silent. Rono has gone on to combine his natural shyness with an unbending independence. He began running on his own, and though he spoke with other runners about training, he never had a coach in Kenya.
"My first understanding was that you could not become a distance runner quickly," Rono says. "I began gradually, not doing too much. To build my mind I started with the steeplechase."
Almost against his wishes, it seems, he was soon running very well, winning school races, and running an 8:30 steeplechase over barriers, but without a water jump, in 1972.