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.



A good day

I meet Achon in Kampala. Now 35, he retains the slight, muscular body of a professional runner. He’s accompanied by Jim Fee, whom he met in Portland, Oregon back in 2007, while working as an assistant to coach Alberto Salazar. Fee has since been the unpaid business adviser to Achon’s one-man charity foundation.

Though officially a work trip to check on the construction of a clinic near his home village, the morning feels like a victory lap. With the help of Achon’s brother, Jimmy, the orphans have spent seven years living in a house that Julius had constructed, and eating two meals a day. All attend school and one boy, Samuel, has followed in Achon’s footsteps and earned a running scholarship at a prestigious Kampala school.

Recalling his decision to shelter the orphans, Achon is pragmatic. In Uganda, he observes dryly, housing standards aren’t the same as they are in the first world. ‘If you are poor in Uganda, you just sleep on the ground like the cows.’ Childcare was also no problem, he says, as children contributed to household chores and tended to be well behaved. ‘As long as there is enough food, they are easy to mind,’ he says. And while accepting responsibility had been daunting, he admitted, his time in the States and Portugal had cast the financial obligation in sharp relief. ‘I calculated: if these 11 kids stay, for $100 a month I could feed them all,’ he says with a shrug. ‘There was no decision.’

At the compound, Jimmy’s wife Florence is cooking lunch for 25 on a traditional outdoor stove. The home has expanded to now house 15 children, and provides food for up to a dozen more. In 2005, Achon paid to have a private water pump installed, then, in 2009, an electricity pole to supply light. Sitting under a shade structure of woven grass, Achon pulls out a tub of Gatorade mix he’s brought over as a treat, then hands out a stack of shorts he bought on sale at the Nike employee store. The kids assemble for a photo: two rows of skinny boys in matching oversized shorts, bare chests puffed out, staring soberly at the camera. ‘This is beautiful, Julius,’ Fee says. Achon nods. As the kids disperse, I ask him what he’s thinking. ‘That it’s a good day,’ he says. ‘It’s been so hard... I just thank God for this.’


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