What we are
witnessing is not taught, and it is not learned," said Bill Exum, the 1976
Olympic track manager from Kentucky State. "It is a mysterious gift, and we
have never seen a man more blessed with it than this one."
The man was Henry
Rono of Washington State and Kenya, running to a 150-yard lead in a qualifying
heat of the steeplechase last Thursday at the NCAA track and field
championships in Eugene, Ore. His stride smooth and precise, as if his legs
weighed nothing after 3,000 meters, 28 barriers and seven water jumps, Rono
crossed the finish line in 8:18.63, breaking by 6.2 seconds the meet record of
the University of Texas at El Paso's defending champion, James Munyala.
Rono's run seemed
such a blithe squandering of energy that even WSU Coach John Chaplin's eyes
were wide. "Maybe his sore foot [bruised three weeks earlier in his
world-record 8:05.4 steeplechase] hurts more when he runs slowly," said
Chaplin, who had given Rono no instructions to go wild. "I ran fast for my
thinking," said Rono, breathing easily, "for my confidence."
Four hours later,
after a nap and a shower and nearly an hour's warmup, Rono took the track again
for a 5,000-meter heat. By his own choice he was entered in the steeple, the
5,000 and 10,000 meters, but nevertheless he had grumbled about the need for
heats. "His foot is taped," said Chaplin. "If he goes poorly,
that's O.K. We're in no position to win the team competition, so frankly I'd
rather he just ran the steeplechase and skipped the rest." But to run the
steeple final, once he was entered in the 5,000, Rono had to run the 5,000
heat. That was because the NCAA has a rule requiring "honest effort" in
preliminaries, the penalty for dogging it being disqualification from later
In the heat, Rono
transformed honest effort into fiery resolve. After a lap in 65 seconds, he
burst down the homestretch with the wind and hit 2:06 for the half mile. Into
the next homestretch he lifted yet again, his elbows rising behind him as he
accelerated, and completed that lap in 59 seconds. A 63 brought him past the
mile in 4:08, the most extraordinary first mile in 5,000-meter history. Still
he looked calm and eager, not bearing out but running two inches from the curb
on the turns, which, like a thoroughbred, a runner will not do if he is tired.
His arms, when he was not blasting down each homestretch, were carried in
effortless rhythm; his stride was mesmerizing in its fluid power. The Eugene
crowd rose to him and began clapping and stamping in time with his footfalls.
These were moments of awe, of a sense of privilege to be witnessing this
unexpected, truly profligate display.
Rono ran past two
miles in 8:33, slowing, but still a vision, an image all runners would carry in
their mind's eye if they could. One spectator, seeing the joyous effort on
Rono's face, said, "I wonder where he is right now."
A hundred yards
behind, though 50 yards ahead of the rest of the pack, was a man who perhaps
knew where Rono was, and why. Joshua Kimeto, his WSU teammate and fellow
Kenyan, had said earlier, "Running is a kind of play, I think. When you are
moving well, you feel like a spectator enjoying this movement of your own. If
there is a great crowd with you, you are moved." Running thus disembodied,
Kimeto felt, was when one reached his ultimate. "But if you start thinking
of the number of laps to go or the time or how tired you will be at the end,
you will start getting tense and then you will lose the rhythm, and when that
stops you can't go anymore."
If this is true,
if the essence of running well is running for the moment—and Rono was running
well—he could not think of saving himself.
intrude. Surely it was not play as Rono passed three miles in 12:56 and
stretched into a rakish sprint to the finish, the crowd howling him home. He
hit the tape unseeing, in 13:21.79, to take the meet and field records of the
late Steve Prefontaine.
John Chaplin was
left trembling. "He's lost every marble he owns!" he cried. "He's
mad now, because his foot hurts him a little, and he gets irritated and runs a
fast lap to test it and gets caught up in the crowd and runs two collegiate
records in the heats. The best distance double in history in the heats! I've
had good kids before. I've had world-record holders before. But I've never had
anyone like this." He paused, then said softly, "Maybe the world has
never seen anyone like this."