Running for their lives

Olympic hero returns to Uganda to help orphans

The year was 1988, and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant rebel force in Uganda, was taking up arms against the government. In a small village of northern Uganda, 15 children, not older than 12, were kidnapped by the group and ordered to pillage and kill their neighboring villagers. If they disobeyed, the children learned, they would be shot. If they wanted to live, they would have to become killers themselves.

During one of their raids, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was attacked from the air by the Ugandan government forces. The LRA troops scattered under the spray of bullets, fleeing in all directions. Amid the chaos, the 15 children seized their moment to escape captivity. They ran as if their life depended on it, because it did. Nine were sawed down by bullets; just six sprinted clear of the attack and out of the grips of the rebels.

With such deadly motivation nipping at their heels, it is perhaps not so surprising that one of these children went right on running, soon becoming one of the world’s fastest sprinters.

This one was Julius Achon.

Once back at his small village of Awake, Achon set his sights on winning races. “I started running because of the hardship,” Achon recalls, adding that he also ran in hopes of winning an education. “Other kids were running, but they were not focused. I was more determined to win the races.”

His first triumph qualified him for the district championships in Lira, 42 miles away. In order to get to the competition, Achon did the only thing he could: he ran—for six hours straight—arriving in time to compete, and to win three consecutive races.
At the following national championships, his dominance earned him a high school scholarship in the capital city of Kampala. In 1994, he was selected to run in the World Junior Championships in Portugal, where he donned his first pair of running shoes and took home Uganda’s first gold medal. Again, running equated to delivery, as an American track coach watching the race offered him a scholarship to George Mason University in Virginia.

Running was Achon’s ticket, and he took it as far as it could go. In 1996, he set the current NCAA record for the 800-meter race with a time of 1:44.55. He ran his way to the Atlanta Olympics that year, and then to the semi-finals of the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

But in 2003, something finally stopped him dead in his tracks. During training near his home village in Uganda, he stumbled upon a group of eleven children, sleeping under a bus. “I thought they were dead bodies,” he recalls. The children were orphans on the run. Reminded of his own childhood trauma, Achon knew he couldn’t run from these children. “My heart just said ‘Take these kids to my family.’ Because, one time, I suffered like this.”

He took the pack to his father’s home, and thus began the new motivation in Achon’s life. He stopped running away from his home, and started running a charity to support it from afar. Working and living in Oregon, Achon began sharing the story of his orphans and his village. “People wanted to help me,” he says of the early days of the Achon Uganda Children’s Fund.

His organization now supports 44 orphans and it recently built The Kristina Health Centre, named after Achon’s mother who was killed by the LRA. “When the medical health center was built, so many people in the village were in need, and now they are not dying of things like malaria, typhoid, pneumonia. They have somewhere to go,” Achon says, adding that the facility treats 600 patients a month.

His charity also works with Nike to put on a race each year in Uganda, offering thousands of children the chance to run for one of four scholarship prizes. In this way, Achon hopes to show the kids that “they can be like me, or they can be better than me.”

Achon has inspired more than just the children of northern Uganda. In 2012, the world heard his incredible story when Runner’s World magazine heralded him as its “2012 Hero.” But to many San Luis Obispo County locals, the tale was already a familiar one. Several months before the article came out, Achon had spoken at the Paso Robles and Atascadero Rotary Clubs and to the crowds of participants at the Rotary-sponsored Paso Robles Harvest Marathon.

He had come with a humble spirit, yet the story he shared was one that inspired awe; the basic needs of his eleven orphans inspired generosity. “His cause is very contagious, just because it’s such simple things that he’s raising money for,” says Julie Opheim of the Paso Robles Rotary Club. Opheim says that Rotarians like Katy Wetterstrand in Paso Robles were even moved to visit Achon’s village in person to see how her group’s donations were changing the lives of the Ugandan villagers.

As the 2013 Harvest Marathon rolls around again this October, hundreds will run for the mere satisfaction of completing a physical challenge. But Julius Achon plans to be there again to remind racers of the children who run for survival and for the chance of a better life. He hopes his story may inspire participants not only to run faster, but to run for a reason. To learn how to support the Achon Uganda Children’s Fund, visit, or email

Jamie Relth - local writer and photographer