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.

The hard yards

The road here certainly hasn’t been easy. Shortly after Achon set his college record, aged 19, his coach and father figure John Cook left George Mason. The war in Uganda was also escalating, with rumours spreading of the LRA torturing villagers. Unable to contact his parents and fearing the worst, Achon dropped out of college and flew home. Although he found his parents alive and well, the trip proved disastrous in other ways. His student visa expired, leaving him stranded in a war zone. Desperate, he signed a contract with the Portuguese running club. ‘I didn’t want to go back to where I came from,’ Achon recalls. ‘I wanted to keep going forward.’

In that, he succeeded, making it to the semi-finals of the 1500m at his second Olympics, in Sydney. But he was living in an unheated Lisbon basement and following the club’s relentless race schedule that was wearing his knees.

He was still in contact with Cook, though, and in 2003, just months after he’d stumbled across the orphans in Lira, Cook offered him a job pacing elite runners at Nike. The salary was almost five times what he was earning in Portugal. ‘That moment changed my life completely,’ Achon remembers. He moved to Portland, US, with his wife Grace, but life proved harder than expected, with his lavish-sounding salary barely covering their living costs. He still managed to send $100 a month for the orphans’ food, but worried that they weren’t attending school. Reluctantly, he asked his brother to drop out of college so the money that Achon had been contributing towards tuition could pay for the orphans’ school fees. Jimmy could then return to Lira to care for the orphans, taking over from his parents who were worried about losing their farm and wanted to return to their village, Awake.

Jimmy agreed and soon after, Julius qualified for his third Olympics. But the joy was short-lived as a few weeks later he found out his mother had been shot by LRA soldiers. She needed £1,000 for her hospital care, but Achon didn’t have enough. While he tried to raise the cash, his mother slowly bled to death. 

Devastated, he struggled through his work, then returned home and wept. ‘My wife would hold me on her lap like a baby,’ he says. He tried to continue his Olympic training, but was eventually forced to withdraw. In retrospect, Cook says he regrets not taking Achon’s bereavement more seriously. ‘I told him, “I think your mother would be proud of you. Work your way through this. You’re on the cusp of being a great world-class runner.”’ Instead, his career gradually collapsed, after injuring his knee in a race and then his back in a car accident.

Haunted by the death of his mother, he spent the next three years sending home every penny he could. Then, in January 2007, he met Fee. On hearing about Achon’s situation, Fee and his wife decided to contribute to the orphans’ care and over the next year, Fee and Achon 

met up often on the Nike Portland campus. Achon was living in what Fee remembers as ‘an awful little mouldy, one-bedroom apartment’. ‘It was at that point I realised: they have nothing,’ Fee says. Soon after, Fee retired, partly so he could devote more time to helping Achon’s tiny foundation, the Achon Uganda Children’s Fund. Then in 2010, at Achon’s urging, Fee travelled to Uganda.

When he and Achon visited the orphans, they found a four-year-old girl feverish and ill. Suspecting malaria, Achon took the children to the local clinic and all 12 tested positive. The next day, Achon and Fee took the children for treatment and bought mosquito nets for their rooms. The experience stayed with Fee: ‘We’d taken care of 12 kids with malaria, and got mosquito nets for them – all for $150,’ he says. ‘I thought, “It’s so little, and it makes such a difference.”’ 

Fee and Achon began talking about expanding the foundation and building a village clinic in Awake. With Fee’s help, Achon began giving fundraising talks. Getting the project off the ground was challenging, but things soon improved. The day after Achon arrived in Uganda, he received an email from Nike reporting that a recent fundraiser had brought in around £25,000, almost enough to cover the remaining construction costs. It was 3:30am, but Achon woke Fee up and the pair spent the rest of the night tinkering with the plans for the clinic. 

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