For many years, the Austin High School track has been the place for thousands of runners to grow as athletes. There are so many unique individuals in the Austin running community that have sprinted through lane one. Many of these runners have lived stories of survival, fearlessness, and strength.
Iram Leon, Kayleigh Williamson, and Gilbert Tuhabonye have beaten the odds of various challenges in their own lives. They’ve inspired countless others by giving back to the Austin running community in different ways. Learn about these three runners and how they are empowering athletes on the track.
Since being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010, Iram Leon has embraced his life to the fullest extent. The president of the Austin Runner’s Club has earned numerous podium finishes in the local racing scene. His story of perseverance in the face of a terrifying disease has caught the attention of numerous media outlets and even inspired an ESPN documentary. As he told Runner’s World in 2015, running makes him feel normal and the right mindset counts for everything.
“Happiness is my default position,” he said. “Everybody dies. I’m just trying to do some living before I do.”
Leon lives bravely every single day. After collapsing at a birthday party in November 2010, a biopsy revealed that he had grade II diffuse astrocytoma, a marble-sized tumor in his brain. The average survival time for the disease is four years. Leon is 38 and in June the doctors said that the tumor is stable, he told the Statesman.
Running has helped contribute to Leon’s well being in several parts of his life. He has completed numerous Spartan races and marathons, including a personal best of 3:07:34 earned at the 2011 Austin Marathon. One of his most memorable performances was winning the Gusher Marathon in Beaumont, Texas, outright in 3:07:35 while pushing his daughter Kiana in a stroller. Leon also celebrated his marriage to Austin Runner’s Club vice president Elaine Chung on August 18 in a running-themed ceremony. Fittingly, the couple met while training for a marathon.
A lot of that training has taken place on the Austin High track. That track serves as a place to build community for Leon and fellow runners.
“I know people have met a lot of other people running out there. Sometimes people meet that are the same speed and they end up being training partners,” Leon told Back the Track. “It’s a good connection point, unlike the trail itself where if you’re near someone you may not ever get to meet them. But here at the track, you have a chance to see and meet others who are going at different paces and so it has given people a place for organic connection.”
Running has truly transformed Kayleigh Williamson’s life and inspired her to share the health benefits with others.
At the 2017 Austin Half Marathon, she became the first person with Down syndrome to complete the race. She danced across the finish line in a time of 6:22:56. Williamson has enjoyed numerous health benefits from running since she started training for 5Ks years ago. She has lost almost 60 pounds, is no longer pre-diabetic, no longer suffers from sleep apnea, and her Graves’ disease is currently in remission.
In response to the momentum generated by her health success, Williamson’s mother Sandy and Dr. Kimberly Davis of RunLab, a running healthcare team, decided to create a running club dedicated to encouraging more individuals with special needs to lead healthy lifestyles. In the spring of 2017, Kayleigh’s Club was formed.
The group meets for practice every weekend. On Sunday afternoons, practice begins at the Austin High track where the group either runs laps around the oval or runs a loop on the Ladybird Lake trail. Since the club formed last year, Williamson improved on her previous Austin Half Marathon finish by one hour and 45 minutes. Two of her new teammates also completed the race.
“When you show them that they are so much more than what the expectations have been, you see them create these wings and they just take off,” Sandy Williamson, Kayleigh’s mother told Competitor Magazine.
Watching the group train together at the track, it’s evident that those “wings” are boosts of confidence. Running has provided health benefits for these runners. It has also given them an opportunity to break a mold of expectations. And the track is where these breakthroughs take place.
“I really love the Austin High track because I love to run. It’s getting me healthier,” Williamson told Back The Track.
It’s shocking to think that the leader of one of the largest running groups in Austin almost didn’t survive past his teenage years. Thankfully, Gilbert Tuhabonye survived to not only inspire others with his journey of strength and resilience but encourage hundreds of runners throughout Austin to lead healthy lifestyles.
On October 21, 1993, Tuhabonye’s school in Burundi was set on fire in a massacre by members of the Hutu tribe. That morning, Tuhabonye and his classmates (members of the Tutsi tribe) were beaten. They were then corralled into the schoolhouse where the Hutu poured gasoline on them and set the entire room on fire. For hours, Tuhabonye lay buried underneath a pile of dead bodies but was able to escape by breaking a window. While on fire, Tuhabonye ran out of the schoolhouse and into the woods. The attack marked the beginning of a devastating 12-year civil war between the two opposing tribes in Burundi where over 300,000 civilians died.
After months of fighting for his life in a hospital, Tuhabonye learned how to walk again. Against all odds, he eventually started to run once more. He earned a scholarship to compete for Abilene Christian University where he became a Division II NCAA champion. After college, he moved to Austin and started the Gilbert’s Gazelles training group.
The Gazelles use the Austin High track almost every week as a place to put in quality workouts. Tuhabonye credits the track as a reason why Austin is one of the fittest cities in the United States.
“I’ve been in Austin since 2001, and it is one of the fittest cities because of two things—the trail and the track,” Tuhabonye said.
“Everyone’s training, no matter if it’s a 5K or a marathon, revolves around the track. Everybody should use it on their journey to get fit. That’s why we should contribute and maintain it because it has contributed to the growth of the Austin community.”
Tuhabonye also hosts Run for the Water, an Austin road race that benefits the Gazelle Foundation, which is a nonprofit that builds clean water systems for the citizens of Burundi. This year’s race will take place on November 4th.
Taylor Dutch is an Austin-based sports journalist who has written for Runner’s World, Bicycling, and Competitor. As a video producer for FloTrack, Taylor produced several documentary series on Olympic champions in track and field. She graduated from UC Berkeley as a student-athlete with a degree in communications. When she’s not running around Ladybird Lake with her dog, Taylor is usually eating all the breakfast tacos around Austin.