HE WAS ON FIRE. IT was three in the morning, and most of his classmates from the Kibimba school in Burundi were dead—beaten and burned alive by friends of theirs, kids and grown-ups they had known most of their lives. Smoldering bodies lay in mounds all over the small room. He had used some of the corpses for cover, to keep from being hit by the fiery branches tossed in by the Hutu mob outside. For hours he had heard them laughing, singing, clapping, taunting. Waving their machetes, they had herded more than a hundred Tutsi teenagers and teachers from his high school into the room before sunset. A couple dozen were still alive, moaning in pain, dreaming of death.
“There weren’t that many of us left,” he says. “A guy said, ‘I’m going out—I don’t want to die like a dog.’ He jumped from a window. They cut him to pieces. Then they started a fire on the roof. After a while it started falling on me, and I held up my right arm as it came down, trying to pull bodies over me. My back and arm were on fire—it hurt so bad. I decided I had had enough. I decided to kill myself by diving from a pile of bodies onto my head. I tried twice, but it didn’t work. Then I heard a voice. It said, ‘You don’t want to die. Don’t do that.’ Outside, we could hear Hutus giving up and leaving. I heard one say, ‘Before we go, let’s make sure everyone is dead.’ So three came inside. One put a spear through a guy’s heart; another guy tried to escape, and they caught him and killed him. I heard the voice say, ‘Get out.’ There was a body next to me, burned down to the bones. It was hot. I grabbed a bone—it was hot in my hands—and used it to break the bar on the window. The fires had been going for nine hours, so it was easy to break. My thinking was, I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to be identifiable. I wanted my parents to know me. I didn’t want to be all burned up, like everyone else. I was jumping to let them kill me.”
There was a fire underneath the window, set as an obstacle to escape. He jumped. And somehow, in the darkness, amid the uproar of genocide, at least for a few seconds, no one saw him. His back was on fire, his legs were smoking, and his feet were raw with pain. He ran. If you could call it running.
“GILBERT!” ALMOST A DECADE LATER, on March 30, 2003, he crossed the finish line at the Capitol 10,000 in Austin to the sound of hundreds of people clapping, many calling his name. “Gilbert! Woo!” He finished ahead of some 14,000 runners, but it wasn’t good enough, and the look on his face said that he knew it. Others knew it too. A woman off to the side yelled, “Coach, you’re awesome! I love you! You’re number one, Gilbert!” In fact, Gilbert Tuhabonye was number three, a minute and fifteen seconds behind the winner in a race he had won the previous year and was favored to win again. Gilbert turned and jogged back against the flow of the other finishers, shaking hands and high-fiving spectators, who all seemed to know the thin African. Then he ran the last fifty yards again with Richard Mendez, one of many runners he had trained. “Come on! Come on!” Gilbert said to Mendez. “High knee!” When Mendez finished, Gilbert went back and ran with Ryan Steglich, another of his charges. And then with Shae Rainer and Lisa Spenner. “Come on! Come on!” he yelled. “Butt kick!”
Afterward, Gilbert, who stands five feet ten and weighs 127 pounds, hung around talking to the other runners, many of whom wore T-shirts that read “Gilbert’s Gazelles Training Group.” A circle of eight stood basking in his approval, trading anecdotes about their pains and agonies, as runners do. He laughed and joked with them, accepting halfhearted high fives and thin encouragement, which made him look down self-consciously. Eight thousand miles from home, he’s a celebrity in Austin, a 28-year-old with protruding teeth and a boyish laugh, the most popular running coach in a town of rabid runners, a former national champion, both as a teenager in Africa and as a college student in West Texas. Governor Rick Perry, himself an avid runner, seeks out Gilbert to chat. Kids ask for his autograph. Rich white ladies pay him to order them to run laps. Everybody wants him to make them go faster. They’ve heard his mantra: It’s all about form. “If you have good form,” says Gilbert, “running becomes a joy. You can go farther and faster. You can run forever.”
You can run forever. This, to a runner, is heaven. Gilbert’s students see him as a savior, upbeat after all that he’s been through, relentless and optimistic when he has every right to be withdrawn and angry. A man on a mission: to win an Olympic medal, to tell his story, to show the world what one tribe did and what one man—set on fire and left to die—can do. A man with a last name (pronounced “Too-ha- bon-yay”) almost too good to be true. “In Burundi,” Gilbert says, “your last name has to have meaning. When I was born, it was a very difficult time. It was right after the war. There had been a big drought, crickets attacked the crops—and then my mother broke her ankle. When I was born, she said I was special. She said, ‘This is not my son. This is a son of God.’ ‘Tuhabonye’ means ‘a son of God.’”
As the runners dispersed, Jeff Kloster, who works with Gilbert at RunTex, an Austin running store, brought him his warm-ups, and Gilbert took off his shirt to change. Though Jeff had seen them before, he could