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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 races.
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.
But semantics 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."