Look for a familiar face on the course at the Austin Marathon this weekend.
Gilbert Tuhabonye, who survived genocide in Africa and now heads the Gilbert’s Gazelles running program in Austin, will compete for the first time as a master when he lines up at the start of the 26.2-mile race.
Tuhabonye, 40, grew up as a fleet-footed son of farmers in Burundi. He ran everywhere — to get the family’s water, to school, and even after the cows and gazelles. In high school, he ran competitively, becoming national champion in the 400 and 800 meters.
When a Hutu mob attacked the school Tuhabonye attended in 1993, he and other Tutsi children and teachers were marched a mile and a half to an abandoned building, forced into a room, tortured and burned. More than 100 people died. Tuhabonye lay for hours under a pile of bodies, finally breaking a window and running into the night.
Tuhabonye eventually moved to Texas and became an All-America runner at Abilene Christian University. He later moved to Austin and started the Gilbert’s Gazelles running group. He also coaches track and cross country at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School.
He last raced a marathon in 2010, when he lost to another local runner, Kiplimo Chemirmir, by about a minute at the finish. Tuhabonye says he put off racing the Austin Marathon again because he was hoping the course, which is notoriously hilly, would change.
“It’s too hard,” he says. “But I’m 40, and that gave me reason to run it.”
The race will be a rematch with Chemirmir, 31, but both athletes acknowledge they’ll be slower this time. That hasn’t stopped them from talking up the duel.
“I’m very thrilled,” Chemirmir says. “He’s been daring me for a while.”
Tuhabonye says he was trying to keep his participation under wraps, but when he ran a 22-miler last month, people got suspicious. His personal record in the marathon is 2 hours, 22 minutes and 7 seconds, set in 2003 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota.
This year he just hopes to run 3 hours or better. “Part of it is I don’t want any pressure,” he says. “People think about what I used to do, and I’m not there.”
Still, he hopes to inspire the runners in his training group, whom he tell to “run with joy.” He started training seriously in mid-December. “I have a good base, I always run, but when you’re training to run fast 8 weeks is not enough,” he says.