Gilbert’s Gazelles Founder Gilbert Tuhabonye on Charging Ahead and Giving Back
by Nicole Beckley
Photographs by Madeleine Landry
Since coming to Austin more than a decade and a half ago, Gilbert Tuhabonye has influenced countless runners as a dedicated coach. More than that, his impact, thanks to the Gazelle Foundation, has been felt globally, particularly in the central African nation of Burundi, where Tuhabonye grew up. After coming to the U.S. to pursue a successful running career at Abilene Christian University, Tuhabonye found his way to Austin, starting the running group Gilbert’s Gazelles and the Gazelle Foundation, which helps build clean water systems in Burundi and organizes the annual Run for the Water. For those who don’t know his story, which he chronicled in 2006’s “This Voice in My Heart,” Tuhabonye escaped genocide as a teenager, witnessing the massacre of his peers and teachers and fleeing his burning school by jumping through a window. The incident left his body scarred but his spirit unbroken — he channeled the trauma toward his passion for running. Here he shares what keeps him moving forward.
You started Gilbert’s Gazelles in 2002. How did the group come about?
It’s kind of a blessing how I started. I started with three individuals. They were training for triathlons, and I happened to win the Capitol 10K, and they asked me to help to improve the running part of their triathlons. In one month, their timing improved tremendously. They went from 10- to eight-minute miles. So they went to their company and told their co-workers. I didn’t have any desire of coaching. I was so selfish — I just wanted to keep running. In one month, 22 people showed up. I was doing it for fun, for free, and they’re like, “Oh, no, we have to pay you. Your time is valuable. You have a child.” Then they helped me write a plan.
It started with three people, and now how many are involved?
It’s a couple hundred. I tend not to count because once you count it, to me that’s the sign of greed … I just keep doing it because I love it and I’m passionate about it. It’s a blessing to do something that I love, that I enjoy.
Do you have a mantra?
Our group is social. There’s a lot of reasons we run, but we run with joy. I teach people from — the youngest is, like, five years old to 74, a big range. And everything I emphasize is joy. Enjoy first, don’t get caught up in, “I want to run nine minutes.” Sometimes your body won’t be able to do that, and you’ll end up getting frustrated. So the best thing to do is enjoy first. I try to be the coach that makes sure that everybody shows up. You might be in a bad mood. I find a way to wake you up, to make you get excited about what you’re about to do.
When you started coaching track at St. Andrew’s High School, you also released your book and started the Gazelle Foundation — all in the same year. What motivated you to tell your story on a larger scale?
I’ve been lucky and fortunate to meet incredible people that inspired me and helped me to get to where I am. [In] 2003, Texas Monthly magazine did an interview, and it was caused by two women that I was coaching. When I was running races, people would look at the scars [Tuhabonye rubs his arm] like, What happened to you? And I didn’t want to talk about it. Finally they’re like, “Today we’re not running. We’re going to talk.” That was the beginning, and a lot of people started to figure out that I have a great story. So when I would go speak to churches or organizations, [they would ask] how can we help? I didn’t have a solution. It was also close to the Olympics. Harper Collins approached me through an agent — that if I make the Olympics, they would [do] the book and pay me a lot of money for the book. I was running like a madman. I was doing 140 miles a week — morning, afternoon, 30 miles a day. And then I just kept getting injured. I didn’t even qualify — I didn’t even get close. So when I didn’t make the Olympics, they’re like, “Okay, regardless, you have an incredible story. Let’s go ahead and publish the book.” That same year, when the book came out, I started thinking, What is the other way to give to the community? What’s a big way to tell your story after the book? It was starting a charity, a foundation, to give back to the people of Burundi. So 2006 was a transition, but to be able to accomplish that was with the help of individuals that really knew what I was doing, with the foundation, the mission. It’s always very critical to have a good team, a team that you trust, that you believe in, that can deliver, and that’s my team.
We are so fortunate here. You get up in the morning — water is a few feet away from you. Somewhere people have to travel miles and miles. How do we teach kids to appreciate what they have? I just did one with Austin High. We raised $18,000. They’re carrying water along three miles to simulate what the people go through on a daily basis. It was powerful. It made me cry.
Do you have a favorite place to run in Austin?
Town Lake is my favorite place to run. It does not get old because I change it up. I can go to the boardwalk and back. I can go east and come back. I like to run up Mount Bonnell, stand on the hill, take a peek of the view, and reflect on the blessing we have to be able to run and come back home.
This interview has been edited and condensed.