This Voice in My Heart by Gilbert Tuhabonye with Gary Brozek

539051While yapping with my very tolerant running buddy this morning, I got to talking about Gilbert’s book and how much I wanted to hug him after reading it. You see, Gilbert’s my running coach. Three days a week, I get to run under his watch with some of the coolest, most positive people I’ve ever met. To me, it’s more than just a running group; it’s a fellowship. We all gather together for the love of running and the joy it brings into our lives. Even after the crummiest day of work, I snap out of my funk the moment Gilbert greets me with an enormous smile and a high five.

I’ve always known the Reader’s Digest synapsis of his incredible story —that he was the lone survivor of a gruesome genocide attack—but reading about it in detail left me awestruck. Despite the unimaginable atrocities Gilbert endured, he managed to find a sense of peace and forgiveness. His palpable joyful spirit seeps into us all as we’re running our drills to the sound of him shouting “woo hoo hoo” or singing a hilariously warped rendition of Pharrell’s “Happy” song…at least I think that’s what he’s trying to sing.

While reading the book, I had the unique advantage of badgering the author about his life in Africa. When I could muster enough oxygen after sprinting up a hill the size of a small mountain, I’d pepper him with all sorts of inane questions like what does sorghum beer taste like? How on earth could you not like hamburgers? Were you nervous when you met Bill Clinton?

My Tues/Thurs running group (aka "the party people")
My Tues/Thurs running group (aka “the party people”)

It was really cool getting a peek in to Gilbert’s life growing up amidst cow pastures and miles upon miles of rugged African terrain. With only a radio for entertainment, he spent his days outside loping like a thoroughbred on dirt roads and helping out with farm chores like cutting wood and tending to cows. I know this is going to sound nuts, but where he comes from, running is considered fun—not a punishment for eating too many donuts. To say he’s a gifted runner would be an understatement.  The sport took him to places most of his schoolmates could only dream of—from Olympic training to Disneyworld.

Me, Gilbert, and my running BFF Karen
Me, Gilbert, and my running BFF Karen

It wasn’t until I read the book when I realized that running literally saved his life. He outran the machete-wielding Hutus after they tried to burn him alive in a gas station near his school.   The healing powers of running also helped him find peace and happiness again–a feat that is still a wonder to me after everything he witnessed on that tragic day.

To Gilbert, running is a vacation. We should look forward to meeting up for training because it’s time to cut loose and have some fun after work, he tells us. And you know what, it’s true! All that junk that runs through my mind after work just magically goes away the moment we begin warm ups. Of course, It’s kind of hard to ruminate when my lungs are burning and my calves feel like they’re about to split down the middle. There’s also something to be said about the runner’s high. Trust me, it’s a thing.

I really like how the book is formatted so that the story unfolds in a chronological manner with a few segments of the 1993 genocide interspersed in italics throughout the chapters. The tension gradually intensifies, keeping me glued to the pages until I can get to the resolution.  Gilbert’s experiences and insights really put some things into perspective—humility, the power of forgiveness, human resilience and hope, to name a few.  Whenever I start to feel cynical about the world (typically when I switch on the news or battle Austin traffic), I’ll keep this passage in mind:

“If I were to place on a scale all the bad things that had happened to me and my family on one side and all the kindness and generosity on the other, the goodness in people would far outweigh the bad. I saw Burundi for what it was—not a paradise and not a hell, simply a land made imperfect by the people who inhabited it.”

Honoring Boston, Running, and the Human Spirit

“If you’re trying to defeat the human spirit, marathon runners are the wrong group to target.” -David & Kelvin Bright

My first half marathon at Disneyland. I’m the one in pink!

These words rang loud and true when Gilbert Tuhabonye – an ambassador of Austin’s running community – commemorated the Boston Marathon victims at a community vigil. As we bowed our heads in silence for 26.2 seconds, I was overwhelmed by the raw emotions that took over the sea of runners.

Decked out in glow sticks and our favorite race shirts, we all stood together in honor of the Boston Marathon victims. As I looked around the massive crowd, I was struck by a powerful sense of solidarity.  The hugs, the tears, the reassuring smiles, the unified run around Town Lake – everything about that night was like chicken soup for the soul.

It’s hard to believe the Boston Marathon – a symbolic event of joy and charity – could be the target of mass destruction. The gruesome images of victims and blood-soaked sidewalks immediately stirred fear and doubt in my mind.  And that’s exactly what the terrorists hoped to accomplish.  Little did they know, they targeted the wrong group.

Here’s the thing about runners: They push through in fierce defiance of adversity. When their tired bodies beg them to quit, they ignore the pain and come out stronger and more euphoric than ever! Marathon runners aren’t just in it for themselves; they’re in it to raise money for charity, to honor dead loved ones, to support each other, to exemplify the power of the human spirit. You can see it in those images on TV – people running into chaos to carry a blood-soaked stranger to safety, marathoners rushing straight to the blood bank to save lives.  After looking at those heroic acts of kindness, my fears and doubts were quickly replaced by a surge of faith in mankind.

That feeling of pride was strengthened last week when I ran for Boston at Town Lake. I couldn’t think of anyone more perfect than Gilbert 539051Tuhabonye to comfort Austin’s running community during this dark time. In his autobiography “This Voice in My Heart,” he gives a gruesome eyewitness account of how he survived – physically and spiritually – a brutal massacre.  As he hid under a rubble of dead bodies, he heard a voice inside saying, “You will be all right; you will survive.”

It’s inspiring to know that someone can survive such an unimaginable nightmare and come back fighting.  It just goes to show that the power of faith and human strength can get us through just about anything.  Some of you might be rolling your eyes at my corny platitudes, but that’s okay. Go run a marathon, and I promise those cynical thoughts will disappear.

 Long before I ran my first race, I already experienced the palpable sense of joy emanating from the spectators.  I love standing on the sidelines and giving the runners high fives with my fellow cheerleaders. I’m surrounded by thousands of perfect strangers, but we all seem to be knitted together by sheer good will. As I watch for my husband, I cheer on the legions of beleaguered runners at mile marker 22. I like to stand at this particular spot because it’s known by many as “the wall.” It’s where runners start to feel the pain and need that extra push to propel forward.

The hubster (in the green shirt) and his fellow Gazelles at the vigil.
The hubster (in the green shirt) and his fellow Gazelles at the vigil.

This is going to sound really corny, so please bear with me. The first time I experienced a marathon as spectator, tears welled up in my eyes when I saw a runner embrace her family after she crossed the finish line. Okay, go ahead and laugh because I’m being a complete cheese ball, but it might not seem so silly once you experience a marathon for yourself. It’s a testament of strength, perseverance and drive. I’m so proud of my husband for completing  multiple marathons, and helping his fellow Gazelles push through “the wall.”

I know all too well what it means to conquer that wall – in life and on the racetrack.  Despite the pain in my legs and the lack of oxygen in my lungs, I’m always craving that indescribable sense of euphoria that comes from a long run. At that, I’ll leave you with these inspiring words that I found on the Fifth Third River Bank Run blog.

“…Running is a gift. Today is a gift.  We took off for our run with a renewed perspective. Running the mile today was less about getting a specific time and more about getting together as a running community and running as hard as we could for a mile. It felt great to run hard. I felt like I was able to leave all my mixed emotions on the track as I ran. I felt like we were proving that runners don’t quit. Runners are willing to get up early on Saturday mornings, push their body to exhaustion/pain and run through disgusting weather … and then go out the next week and do it again. Runners don’t quit. We aren’t afraid and our sport isn’t going anywhere.”

“…Let’s run. Let’s run in solidarity with our runners/spectators in Boston. Let’s run because we know that there is good in this world and we will not live each day in fear. Let’s run because we know that we need race day, spectators, and other runners in our community.