Heart of Gold: A Life Defined by Running

Julius Achon ran away from civil war all the way to the Olympics. Then he saw 11 starving orphans huddled under a bus.

Escape to victory

When Achon was a boy, Uganda’s most famous runner was John Akii-Bua, a 400m hurdler who won Olympic gold in 1972. Achon grew up hearing stories about this legendary figure, reputed to own a luxurious car with a personalised number plate. In his mud hut with its leaky straw roof, such extravagance was so tantalising that the 10-year-old Julius began to run, barefoot on the dirt road that led to his village. 

At the time, Uganda was engaged in a brutal civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group notorious for kidnapping children and forcing them to fight. When Achon was 12, soldiers abducted him near his parents’ home and marched him to an LRA camp 100 miles away. He managed to escape three months later by fleeing into the jungle during an air raid, but nine other boys who escaped with him were shot dead.

A year after making his way home, Achon entered and won his first official race. It qualified him for the district championships in Lira, 42 miles away, but there was no money for transport. So, young Julius started running. Six hours later he reached the stadium in Lira. The next day, he won the 800m, then the 1500m. After a lunch of sugar cane, he ran the 3000m and won – easily.

The victories earned Achon, then 13, a berth at the national championships. They also caught the attention of Christopher Banage Mugisha, the sports master at an elite government-aided school in the capital, Kampala. Mugisha remembers watching ‘this boy with no shoes, running very fast’. Though Achon was barefoot and lacked form, Mugisha recalls his raw speed and grit. ‘I said to myself, “I want to coach that boy.”’

Two weeks later, at the Kampala championships, Achon dropped the pack in the final 100m to win the 1500m in 4:09.52. His prize was a five-gallon plastic jug for carrying water. But the race changed his life. Growing up, Achon typically ate one meal a day and, because his parents couldn’t afford the annual tuition fees for primary school, he sometimes attended on the sly, sneaking into one of the packed classrooms and escaping through a window when the headmaster came. 

Mugisha offered Achon a scholarship and he blossomed into an extraordinary runner. At the 1994 World Junior Championships, he became the first Ugandan to win gold – he ran the 1500m in an astonishing 3:39.78. Within days, dozens of US colleges had offered scholarships. He chose George Mason University and his progress accelerated. In 1996, he ran a US college 800m record of 1:44.55. A few months later, he went to his first Olympics, in Atlanta. 

He didn’t make it past the 1500m preliminary rounds, but it was still the culmination of a fairytale, driven by luck, hard work and ambition. It was also a moment when Julius Achon’s star looked certain to continue rising. But, his tale is both sweeter and sadder than miles logged and races won. 

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