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.”