While 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?
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.
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.”