When we watch the Olympics this week, or anytime we watch coverage of a major marathon or track event, it's hard not to notice the dominance of African runners. Unless you have some reason not to, you might assume you know their stories, and assume that their stories are all pretty much the same. In some ways, Julius Achon fits the stereotype of the African runner who quickly rises to the ranks of world-class athletes. But as John Brant writes in The Boy Who Runs: The Odyssey of Julius Achon, Achon's story diverges from the stereotype in many ways.
Achon grew up in the tiny village of Awake, in northern Uganda. His family was so poor they couldn't afford a plastic jerrycan to fetch water. Julius used to run away from school when the teacher asked him to pay his school fees. He expected that he might join the army or the police, or, more likely, become a farmer like his dad. When Julius was a boy, Joseph Kony was beginning his reign of terror in Uganda. A band of Kony's men raided Awake, kidnapping Julius and some other boys. Forced to march cross country and serve at the behest of one of the "captains," Julius spent several months as a boy soldier. Finally, during an attack on Kony's men, Julius was able to escape and return to his family in Awake.
At school, Julius began to distinguish himself as a runner. When he qualified for a meet forty miles away, he could not find anyone to drive him there. So he ran the forty miles, and the next day swept the three events in which he competed. (He was thrilled with the prize: a jerrycan to carry water!) He then won at a national meet in Kampala, accepted a scholarship to an elite prep school there, and became an elite runner. The world running community took notice, and he went to George Mason University, where he set an NCAA record and led his team to an indoor national championship. His appearance at the Atlanta Olympics was a disappointment, but, for a while, he was among the best middle-distance runners in the world.
With his running career faltering, he supported himself by running small races around Portugal for cash. Eventually his old college coach invited him to be a pacer for runners he was training in the U.S. That job got Julius back to the U.S,, working out on the Nike campus in Portland, and selling running gear at the Nike employee store. For a runner who had aspirations for world championships and Olympic gold, and realistic potential to get there, all of this was a let down. In his doubts, "the means by which he had temporarily escaped Uganda--running around in circles faster than the next guy--suddenly seemed like a pathetic sham."
However, during all this time of running for cash prizes and working for subsistence wages, he faithfully sent a large portion of his earnings back to Uganda. He bought land for his family, where they built a compound, keeping them relatively safe from the unrest around them and enabling them to care for war orphans. Eventually, with the help of a partner in the U.S., Achon not only supported orphans but built a clinic in his old hometown. He began to realize that none of the good he was able to do would have been possible without his running. "For a long time he had felt bad about his running, as if he had failed to make full use of the gift God had given him. But as the foundation grew, he concluded that his disappointments with running were all part of God's plan."
Achon's life turned out to be a strange series of contrasts between life in Uganda and outside of it. In Portugal he lived in borrowed space in the basement of an athletic club, but it was a palace compared to his family's living conditions. In the U.S. he made so little money, with no benefits, that most high school graduates would scoff, but he still sent half his salary home, where it was a small fortune. As he neared the opening of the health clinic, he reflected that "Here in Uganda, he may be courted by the president. In America, however, Julius had been just another migrant from an unlucky country, hustling back to the storeroom to fetch a pair of size nines."
The Boy Who Runs does not sugar coat the life of the athlete. Nor does it idealize life in Africa--far from it. Brant does show, in the remarkable life of Julius Achon, that even when life doesn't seem to be going your way, there may be a bigger plan than what we can see in the short term. Achon achieved that bigger plan through his hard work, his devotion to his family, his devotion to God (about which I would like to have heard more), and his discipline to get up and run.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!