This piece first appeared in Competitor Magazine in the spring of 2008.
Written by: Bob Babbitt
The women and men glide across the grass in a series of mile repeats for Coach Alberto Salazar. This particular spring morning in Eugene, Oregon is grey with a touch of dampness lingering in the air. Julius Achon (pronounced A-shon) from Uganda is helping out with Salazar’s Olympic hopefuls on Team Nike Project, first running with the women and then switching into another gear and catching up to the guys. His job is to push the pace and up the ante for each group as the Olympic Trials loom. There is a smile on his lips that seems to be tattooed on and a love of running in his stride that is tangible, even from a distance.
Achon has had a lot of success in his running career, including winning the 1,500 meters at the Junior World Championship back in 1994 and taking third at the All-Africa Games at 1,500 meters in 1995. He came to the United States in 1996, ran for George Mason College and won the NCAA Championship in the mile with a 3:56.77, ran 1:44.5 for 800 meters and ran in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney for Uganda, making it to the semi-finals in the 1,500 both times.
Running, when done right, appears easy, effortless. That is exactly the way Julius Achon looks as he circles the field. But if his running life appears easy and effortless, his struggle to get to this point has been anything but.
Imagine being 12 years old and the oldest of nine children when Ugandan rebels, members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) invade your village, kidnap you, place a semi-automatic weapon in your hands and insist that you help them overthrow the government… or die. The group kidnapped an estimated 20,000 children between 1996 and 2006.
That is the nightmare that Julius Achon was forced to endure.
Like most children growing up in Uganda, young Julius ran five miles each way from his village to school and back every day… barefoot. When he was 12, he and a number of other youngsters from the village of Lira were kidnapped and forced to walk 100 miles in three days without eating anything at all. “They forced us to be soldiers,” he says. “We were in the bush for over three months and they put drugs in our food. One time they tried to get me to shoot a lady who was supposed to cook for us, but I refused. They caned me and I couldn’t sit down on my butt for seven days. But I was lucky the person in charge of our group was from my village. If it had been anyone else, they would have shot me.”
Eventually the government’s planes found the rebels and attacked. Achon and his friends all dropped their guns and started running. “There were 15 of my friends from the same village and we started running for home,” he remembers. “We knew we were about 100 miles away, but we really didn’t know where we were going.
To avoid getting shot by the government planes, the boys got down on their bellies and crawled through the scrub to safety. Six survived, nine were killed. “We made it back to our village in three days,” he says. When he arrived home his parents and his family were gone, off hiding in the bush. “When the rebels found the parents, they would kill them and steal their children. Everyone was on the run.”