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Gilbert Tuhabonye, Champion

Despite the pain of the past, running and life are still fun

By Rita Radostitz, Fri., May 13, 2005

After spending many hours with Gilbert Tuhabonye preparing to write his 2003 story for Texas Monthly, what struck writer Michael Hall was "what an ebullient person he is." Everybody seems to be similarly struck by Tuhabonye's lively personality – his enthusiasm for coaching, for running, for life – permeates every encounter. People who know him light up when they talk about the positive impact he has had on their lives. "Gilbert is the most inspirational guy I've ever met," says Patrick Guy, one of the dozens of runners that Tuhabonye coaches through his Gilbert's Gazelles program (www.gilbertsgazelles.com). Guy admits that when he started running, "I hated it – and yet with Gilbert, it became fun."

Tuhabonye is able to make running fun for his athletes because it is still fun for him. As a child, he delighted in chasing after the family's cattle, and he ran the five miles to and from school not only out of necessity, but because he wanted to. As he got older, running became a way to compete – and to stand out.

Tuhabonye was a Burundian middle distance champion while he was still in high school, running both the 800 and 1,500 meters at record speed. In fact, before "the holocaust" as he calls it, Tuhabonye won almost every race he entered. These days, he no longer wins every race he enters, but for him to have come back from his horrific injuries to compete at a national championship level as he does is simply remarkable. He was an All-American runner, competed at the NCAA Championships, was an alternate on the 1996 Burundi Olympic team, and has won dozens of road races, including a prestigious win at the 2002 Capitol 10,000. And in 2004 he was awarded the Motorola Austin Marathon "Columbia Award," which was created to honor the astronauts who perished in the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Only seven people will ever be given this award, which was designed to honor those who "serve as shining examples of humankind's ability to risk the unthinkable, to achieve the remarkable and to sacrifice the ultimate in the pursuit of goodness."

Every morning at 6am and then at least once again later in the day, Gilbert Tuhabonye can be found in the RunTex parking lot, throwing his head back with laughter, slapping the shoulder of a runner in delight, and imploring those gathered around to remember to warm up, do their drills, lift their knees as they run. His enthusiasm is infectious, and most of the runners are smiling as they head off to begin an hour of training that they pay for – not only for Tuhabonye's expert coaching technique – but because, as Patrick Guy says, "Gilbert makes it fun."

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