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Gary Wolfram holds the shoes of record-breaking runner Henry Rono. Collegian | Aubrey Gulick
Gary Wolfram holds the shoes of record-breaking runner Henry Rono. Col­legian | Aubrey Gulick

When Dr. Gary Wolfram, pro­fessor of eco­nomics, saw Henry Rono’s picture in the 1978 Runner’s World Mag­azine, he decided to move across the country to train for a year with the Kenyan runner. 

Forty years later, a visitor to Wolfram’s office can still see Rono’s running shoes hanging from a hook on the side of a book­shelf and can inspect an old, yel­lowing pho­to­graph fea­turing runners from Wash­ington State Uni­versity, Wolfram, and his wife. 

Over the span of 81 days in 1978, Kenyan long-dis­tance runner Henry Rono broke four world records: the 10,000 meter at 27:22.5, the 4000 at 13:08.4, the 3000 at 7:32.1, and the 3000-meter steeple­chase at 8:05.4. At the time he was running as a col­le­giate athlete at Wash­ington State Uni­versity (WSU).

“It’s phe­nomenal,” Coach Bill Lundberg, assistant pro­fessor of sports studies, said. “I mean, he’s one of the greatest long-dis­tance runners of all time.” 

While Rono broke world records, Wolfram pre­pared to compete in the Olympic trials as a marathon runner hoping to attend the Russia Olympics in 1980. 

“I was teaching at the Uni­versity of Michigan – Dearborn campus, and I picked up this Runner’s World, and there’s Henry right on the cover,” said Wolfram. 

More than impressed by Rono’s records, Wolfram decided to find a way to spend a year training in Wash­ington. He con­tacted a pro­fessor from his time at the Uni­versity of Cal­i­fornia – Berkley, Gary Walton, who was the dean at WSU at the time. 

“I called Gary Walton and said, “Can you give me a one-year vis­iting appointment, and I can train with these ath­letes if I come out there?’” Wolfram said. 

Wolfram obtained his leave of absence and a year-long vis­iting appointment to WSU. When he arrived, he received a locker beside the track ath­letes and a 350-person eco­nomics class. 

At WSU, Wolfram, Rono, and pre­vious world record holder Samson Kimobwa trained at the Snake River Canyon, just 15 minutes from campus, and went on longer-dis­tance runs in the moun­tains of Idaho.

“We would add a camper to the back of my pickup truck and load people in the back, my wife and maybe a girl­friend of somebody, and a couple of other runners,” said Wolfram. “We would drop the wives and girl­friends to go fishing at a lake there, and then we would just start running and go on an hour and a half, two-hour run, then come back and pick everybody up and drive back.” 

During one of their training outings, the group drove through the Mount St. Helen’s vol­canic eruption. 

“We sort of knew it might happen,” Wolfram said. “Henry, Samson, and I and the other guys are out running, and ash starts falling, so we run back, get everybody loaded in the truck and start driving back.” 

Although the drive was merely 10 miles, Wolfram said he remembers looking at his rearview mirrors and seeing them com­pletely dis­appear in a curtain of ash. 

“I didn’t know whether to turn on my wind­shield wipers, because I don’t know if that’s rec­om­mended, but I couldn’t see hardly,” he said. “I turned them on, and it worked out.”

After a year of training with Rono, Wolfram returned to Ann Arbor, Michigan to con­tinue training while teaching. Rono fin­ished his degree at WSU, but he was unable to go to the Olympics due to Kenya’s boycott of the 1980 Olympic games.

After his grad­u­ation, Rono came to Michigan to live with Wolfram and his wife for a few months. Since Rono’s con­tract with Nike had expired, Wolfram managed to con­vince a local business to sponsor Rono temporarily. 

“He had stopped running, so when he got here, he was totally out of shape. He’s at my house and we’re training together, and all of a sudden, two or three weeks later, he’s back in really good shape,” Wolfram said. “He goes over to Europe and breaks the world record in the 5000 meters wearing a running shirt from a local business in Michigan.” 

Throughout the years, Wolfram made a point of staying in touch peri­od­i­cally with Rono and helped to bring him on a visit to Hillsdale for the 2007 Gina Relays. 

“There was def­i­nitely a lot of hype, because there were people that were so familiar with him,” Lundberg said. “We’ve had some phe­nomenal runners come before, but there was a lot of excitement.”

At 55 years old, Rono ran as a masters runner in both the Gina Relay and the WYLD Bill 5k.

“We had lots of heats, and he didn’t even run until near mid­night,” Lundberg recalled. 

In an article in the Michigan Runner’s July 2007 issue, writer Sean Sul­livan described his aston­ishment learning Rono was at the race. 

“I lined up for what I thought would be a low-key, 92-runner race,” Sul­livan said. “To find, standing near me, five-time world-record-holder Henry Rono.” 

Although Rono didn’t break any world records while at Hillsdale, the Kenyan runner left a pro­found impression on Wolfram.

“It was aston­ishing how quickly he got back in shape,” Wolfram said. “He got sixth at a local road race in Michigan, and within six weeks he’s out there, breaking the world record.”