Saturday, October 7, 2017

V 7 N. 67 Book Review "The Boy Who Runs, the Odyssey of Julius Achon"

Book Review:  The Boy Who Runs, the Odyssey of Julius Achon
                         by John Brant,  Ballantine Books, NY 2016.

There are many, many books on running in the market advancing on the subject from a multitude of angles.  Most seem to be geared toward novice runners looking for a way to get faster.  There are so many promises in those titles that I feel like I'm trolling through a maze  of cosmetics ads and anti-aging creams making impossible promises of impossible dream fulfillment.

However, John Brant has taken on the subjects of international  track racing, the NCAA collegiate scene,  African life both beautiful and tragic, the problems faced by former child soldiers, the big business of the running gear industry, the underside of the Nike Oregon Project, the challenges of creating a viable AID project, the description of a beautiful cross cultural relationship between two men, and woven them all into a concise, readable, book that has put all the above into very simple and understandable terms for someone concerned not only about running but also about the world.

Brant's previous book is Duel in the Sun  describing the 1982 Boston Marathon between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley.

In The Boy Who Runs, we're introduced to a young boy, Julius Achon, who lives in the northern reaches of Uganda near the Sudanese border.  When he was twelve, he was taken prisoner by the Lord's Resistance Army of the infamous pseudo-spiritual leader John Kony and forced to be a gun bearer for one of Kony's soldiers.  Julius witnessed horrific killings of his friends and innocent people over and over while held in the LRA.  He eventually managed to escape and returned to his village and resumed his schooling in the devastated area.  At some point his father told him that if he ever hoped to get out of the area he might want to learn to run like his famous fellow Langi tribal member  John Akii Bua the 1972 Olympic 400 meter hurdles champion.  

Julius took his father's words to heart and started running each morning before school, eventually winning a few local races.  When he hoped to go to a regional meet forty miles away, he could not find anyone to take him there, so he ran the forty miles barefoot to the meet and next day won the 800, 1500, and 3000 meters races.   He went from there to winning the Ugandan junior championships in the same  three races and was offered a scholarship to attend Makerere College in Kampala, the nation's capitol.  In a short time he became a world junior champion in 1500 meters.  That led to an NCAA offer from George Mason University in Virginia from then coach  John Cook.  While there, he won the 1996 NCAA indoor mile in 4:02.83.  He was also MVP at the Penn Relays that year. 

In the meantime, the war in northern Uganda dragged on and Julius' family continued to suffer incredible hardship eventually losing Julius' mother to rebel bullets.  She suffered three days from a shoulder wound that infected and took her life when there was no medical facility to treat her.

Julius would go on to represent Uganda in two Olympics, Atlanta and  Athens, although he would not advance from the early heats.  

His career gradually faded, and he found himself living as a refugee in Portugal. Cook went on to be an early advisor when the Nike Oregon Project began and was able to locate and bring Julius with him to be Galen Rupp's pacer in workouts when Rupp was still a teenager.  

Although he was working for Nike in the Oregon Project and also as a shoe gopher in their on site employees' store, he was not part of the Nike dream as far as a long term career was concerned.   He could earn a few dollars in local road races to make ends meet with his paltry salary he was receiving at Nike.  But what he did do  was vow to go back to Uganda and build a medical clinic in his village of Awake, pronounced  'A-waa-kay'.  The last quarter of the book is about the fulfullment of his dream in partnership with a local Portland businessman and runner Jim Fee.  Eventually even Nike bought into Julius' dream, and employees at all levels of the company would come to support Julius' project.

Brant touches on all the subjects mentioned above, and without being overly critical of any one aspect where injustice seems to exist, he manages to tell a wonderful story about the human spirit and how a seemingly impossible goal can be achieved.  This book can be read in a couple of evenings and  a lot can be learned about how the world functions in good ways and bad, but also what incredible resilience some gifted individuals seem to have in order to survive.  

George Brose

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