This is the first in a three-part series of an interview with Ugandan Olympian and now Portland runner Julius Achon, originally posted on Run Oregon’s original home on OregonLive.com in March 2011. Read our entire interview with Julius Achon: Part 2 – Part 3
Have you ever met someone who gives of themselves beyond what you would have ever thought possible?
Please allow me to introduce Julius Achon, who has an impressive running resume, and an even more impressive dream to provide homes, food, and medical care for the people of his northern Uganda home village of Otuke.
I met Achon on Tuesday night at our family pizza place. He arrived with Portland runner Chris Cook, whose name you might recognize from the Nike 3k XC Summer Series. Within five minutes of meeting him, he was telling me his life story.
Achon was logging miles before he was even born. On December 11, 1976, his mother walked four miles to a hospital where she gave birth the following day to her first child. For the first three months of his life, his mother’s milk came in blood so she had to walk him one mile to a neighbor’s house for 3 months to breast feed him as a baby, he was old enough to be able to drink cow’s milk. Julius Achon grew up in a village where the average life expectancy was around 50 years, entire families sleep on the floor of small huts, and girls did not go to school.
Uganda in the 1980’s was going through a series of conflicts which tore through villages, killing families, and kidnapping young boys to take up arms in the self-named Lord’s Resistance Army. Achon became one of those boys in 1988, when he was only 12 years old. He and 15 other boys were stolen from their families and marched 100 miles over three nights to the LRA’s camp.
Fortunately, it was only a few months before the bombing of the LRA camp by planes owned by the Ugandan government created enough of a distraction for the boys from Achon’s village to escape. They hid out in the bush, marked the location of the sun each morning, and traveled each night, covering the 100 miles back to their families in three nights. During this journey, 9 of the 16 children were shot. “We didn’t say, ‘they were killed’,” explains Achon. “They were shot.” Their return was bittersweet; the families who’d lost their sons mourned while the village celebrated the return of those who escaped with their lives.
So it was at age 13 in 1989 that Achon returned to school to finish his elementary education, something he realized even at that age was the most important thing in his life. Despite living four miles from the nearest school, he always knew it was what he needed to do. His family could not afford the $15 tuition for a year of school, so Achon attended when he could, leaving when the tax collectors came around, and finally finishing his elementary education by attending three different schools. He also did a lot of running; when those tax collectors came looking for his tuition fee, he would literally jump out the window and run away. He ran the four miles to and from school, rinsing off at the pump outside the school and learning his lessons with steam rising from his shoulders.
That same year, knowing that he was a fast runner (just not knowing how fast!), he competed in some races at his school. Weighing all of 99 pounds, Achon won the 800, the 1500, and the 3000; all in the same day. Achon ran barefoot – he’d never even worn shoes; and the track was all grass.
Achon was chosen to represent his county at the Lira District track competition, 42 miles from his village. There was no other way to get to the meet than to run there. Achon left his home at 8a on Thursday, running the 42 miles and being greeted by his first views of roads, buildings, and electricity. He rested on Friday, then raced on Saturday. He won the 800 and 1500 before a lunch of sugar cane, which was all he could afford; the energy served him well and he capped off his day of competition by winning the 3000. At age 13, he was the county champion among all runners in three different distances.
As the winner of those events, Achon was selected to represent the Lira District of Northern Uganda at the national championships in the capitol city of Kampala. It was 200 miles away, but his bus ticket was provided, and it was in Kampala where he saw his first cars, and competed for the first time against runners wearing shoes. At this meet, he would be running the 1500; he was more nervous being in a large city than he was to race. Kampala is in Southern Uganda, which was much more wealthy; he was ostracized for being from the poor Northern region. He locked into 4th place early on in the race, then kicked with 150 meters to go and won the race in 4:09.52.
This meet brought him one step closer to his dreams of having a good education. His performance attracted the attention of a high school in Kampala, which offered him a scholarship. Achon traveled home with the good news, and his prize of a 20-liter water jug that his family could use for fetching water. He arrived to the cheers of the people living in his village, who had heard the results of his race on the radio and from the news; they were cheering not just for his success but for the sense of community pride his win created.
Achon knew that he was a talented runner, but for him it was more of an accomplishment to have earned the ability to get a high school education. Just two years before, he’d been kidnapped and forced to fight for a horribly violent warlord; running had opened the door to his future.