He stunned the running world with his speed.

In 1978, Washington State University distance runner Henry Rono broke four world records in just 81 days, an unprecedented achievement that has yet to be matched.

He lowered the 10,000-meter by almost eight seconds, the 5,000-meter by 4.5 seconds, the 3,000-meter steeplechase by 2.6 seconds, and the 3,000-meter by three seconds.

Man runs up a hill above a river
Henry Rono trains in the Snake River Canyon as a member of the Washington State track and field team in May 1978. (Photo Tony Duffy/Allsport-Getty)

Rono (’81 Gen. Stu., ’83 Psych.) died February 15, 2024, in Nairobi, Kenya, at the age of 72.

The Kenyan athlete left behind an incredible legacy at both WSU and on the world stage.

John Chaplin (’63 Geog.), WSU head track and field coach at WSU from 1973 to 1994, recruited Rono on the advice of two other Kenyan distance runners on the team, John Ngeno (’76 Gen. Stu.) and Kip Ngeno (’76 Gen. Stu.).

A pioneer among Kenyan runners, Rono couldn’t walk until he was six due to an injury as a toddler. Later as a teen, he was inspired by two-time Olympic champion Kip Keino. Rono, known as the “Nandi Warrior” after the Nandi Hills around his home village of Kiptaragon, arrived in Pullman on an athletic scholarship in 1976.

While running for WSU on Chaplin’s squad, Rono won the NCAA Cross-Country Championship three times in 1976, 1977, and 1979. He was only the third runner in history with that accomplishment, after another WSU legend, Gerry Lindgren (’68 Poli. Sci.), and University of Oregon’s Steve Prefontaine.

Rono also set the fastest 10,000-meter cross-country time in NCAA history in a 1976 victory, a record that still stands.

He went on to become the NCAA steeplechase champion in 1978 and 1979, and then NCAA Indoor champion in the 3,000-meter in 1977. WSU’s lone track national championship came from Rono’s two-mile run in 1977.

In all, Rono still holds seven collegiate records and seven WSU records. He was a six-time All-American. Among his other honors, in 1978 Rono was named athlete of the year from Track and Field News, track athlete of the year from Sport magazine, AP European Sportswriters sportsman of the year, and North America winner of Helms Athletic Foundation World Trophy.

He also won the admiration of many of the world’s best distance runners like Britain’s Brendan Foster, the second-fastest man in the 10,000-meter at the time, who said in 1978, “Can Rono be beaten? Certainly. But I don’t know by whom, or how.”

Beyond his records with WSU, Rono won 10,000-meter and 3,000-meter steeplechase gold medals in the 1978 All-Africa Games. In 1981, he set another 5,000-meter world record in Norway, and also won gold medals in the 5,000-meter and 3,000-meters steeplechase at the Commonwealth Games in Canada.

Despite Rono’s successes, he never had the chance to show his speed in the Olympics. He made the Kenya squad in 1976 but didn’t run because of the African nations’ boycott of the Montreal games.

At age 33, Rono joined the 1980 Olympic team from Kenya, but again missed out because of a boycott. That didn’t slow him down, though; Rono broke his own world 5,000-meter mark in 1981, his fifth world record in a three-year span.

Rono struggled with alcoholism, and, by the mid-1980s, he had vanished from the world sports scene. He spent time in homeless shelters and rehab for years as the money from sponsorships and winnings was stolen or spent.

As he turned his life around, Rono got sober and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he coached high school sports, including Navajo Nation distance runners, and pursued a graduate degree in special education. He published his autobiography, Olympic Dream, in 2007.

He moved back to his family’s farm in Kenya in 2019.

“There simply never has been another distance runner with his strength, his ability for distance, and yet his speed,” Chaplin told Spokesman-Review sportswriter Bob Payne in 1978. Still an admirer of the amazing runner, Chaplin is pushing for a statue of Rono on the WSU Pullman campus.


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Video: Henry Rono on the move