When Bernard Manirakiza helps customers find the right running shoe, it’s a conversation that makes the other person feel excitement for the runs ahead.
What the customer might not know about the man fitting them for shoes, is that his enthusiasm for running is rooted in a deep desire to achieve something greater. That desire took hold when he was a boy growing up on a farm in rural Burundi. The desire persisted as civil war raged around him, and it grew while he watched his cousin Gilbert Tuhabonye return to running after surviving a mass genocide.
While the desire became ingrained in Manirakiza throughout the events of his life, the humility to help others achieve their own running goals became second nature.
Manirakiza’s story is one of unwavering enthusiasm, persistence, and of mentorship. Even as I interview him at a coffee shop a few blocks away from The Loop, I would never have guessed that the man sitting in front of me has overcome the most enormous odds to be here now and thriving. There’s a brightness in his smile and in his tone that makes you feel at complete ease no matter the topic of conversation, which in this case, begins with a long walk.
The first miles
He was born in the commune of Songa on a farm that has been in his family for generations.They grow beans, potatoes, plantains, grains, and sorghum (a grain used to make beer in Burundi). From the time Manirakiza was six years old, he helped work on the land. He picked up grass and weeds when he was a child and eventually harvested and fertilized the land once he got older. His family still lives and works on the same farm today.
Manirakiza attended a school that was three miles away from his family home. Along with his siblings, he would walk to school, back home for lunch, and back to finish classes in the afternoon. In total, Manirakiza and his siblings would walk 12 miles a day. In that time, he also started to run.
“It was fun because you’d meet other kids from the neighborhood. We’d play, walk, and talk. We’d make it fun, that’s how we’d survive,” he explained.
At first, Manirakiza found interest in being a long jumper. He loved any activity that involved jumping, and he discovered this when he won jumping competitions with his friends. As he got older, he started to win the long jump and sprinting events at track meets held against other schools.
Long distance running wouldn’t enter his life for a few more years.
The war that changed everything
On October 21, 1993, Tuhabonye’s school was set on fire in a massacre by members of the Hutu tribe. That morning, Tuhabonye and his Tutsi classmates were beaten and 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. Miraculously, he was able to break a window using a charred femur of a classmate. While on fire, Tuhabonye ran out of the schoolhouse and into the woods to escape. The attack was the beginning of a 12-year civil war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes in Burundi where over 300,000 civilians died.
At the time of the attack, Manirakiza was 14 years old and attended a neighboring school in the village. Once his cousin was admitted to the hospital, Manirakiza rushed to his side to take care of him. For five months, he watched over Tuhabonye and guarded the hospital door, out of fear that the Hutu would return to murder the student that escaped. While his entire body was covered in burns, Tuhabonye couldn’t walk or even use the restroom on his own. Manirakiza and another cousin spent numerous sleepless nights taking care of him.
“Bernard and my other cousin were kind of like soldiers who came and protected me and took care of me. Think about it, I couldn’t do anything. They fed me, they took me to the toilet, there was nothing I could do by myself,” Tuhabonye said.
“It was a very difficult time but he was there for me. Both of my cousins, I owe them a lot.”
While Manirakiza stayed with Tuhabonye in the hospital, his own school was also attacked. A group of Hutu teachers were beaten by the Tutsi villagers while they were walking to school. Manirakiza learned of the attack when one of his teachers received treatment at the same hospital.
“The Tutsis wanted revenge so they attacked the Hutu teachers, but it doesn’t solve anything. That really scared me. I was so lucky that I wasn’t at school,” he said.
The doctors told Tuhabonye that he would never run again, but against all odds, the champion athlete regained his health and eventually went on to become an alternate for Burundi at the 1996 Olympic Games. He later earned a scholarship to Abilene Christian University where he earned seven DII NCAA titles.
Watching his cousin persevere in the face of an unimaginable tragedy inspired Manirakiza to reach higher in his own athletic pursuits.
“It motivated me to become a better runner. I always had this passion, but I didn’t know how passionate I was to be a runner. Gilbert was like an idol to me, and he pushed me a little bit more,” he explained.
‘Running was the way’
He started to pursue middle distance running in high school with the hope that running would present new opportunities in his life. He watched Tuhabonye find success in the United States and he wanted to follow in his journey.
“I wanted the opportunity to get out. My country was not doing well. I knew that after college it wasn’t going to be good. Even if I finished college, I wasn’t going to find a good job. The country was in a bad place…..I just had this feeling that I had to do better for myself, and running was the way,” he said.
After he graduated from high school, Manirakiza had to complete two years of mandatory service in the Burundian military, which actually helped him gain endurance. Every day, the soldiers would run a 10k in the morning, complete military training, and run another 10k in the late afternoon.
After putting in his military service, Manirakiza attended university in Burundi for one year where he competed on the track team. With no sponsor behind them, the team was incredibly small and subsisted off of two daily meals of rice and beans. Manirakiza remembered scrounging for extra cash to pay for avocados just to add some nutrients to the meal.
“For us to run was crazy. Sometimes I think of that and I don’t know how we did it. I don’t know how we survived it,” he said.
The desire to pursue running had taken hold and Manirakiza was willing to do whatever it took to compete for a college in the United States. He consulted with his cousin who told him that he would have to run 1:52 in the 800m and 3:52 in the 1500m to get a scholarship at the Division II level. At that point in his career, Manirakiza had only run 1:58 in the 800m. But with the help of a good friend and training partner, he was able to accomplish the feat by running both qualifying marks at the end of the season.
“I couldn’t believe it when I did it actually…..I was excited but I was so worried I wouldn’t get the visa to come here. My friend Donatien, he was a good runner, but they denied his case to come here. He was such a tough guy, he never gave up,” he recalled.
Manirakiza’s visa was accepted and he was offered a scholarship to compete for Abilene Christian. The opportunity had come, but the road that followed was not an easy one.
Surviving and thriving
Manirakiza arrived in Abilene in 2001 to a team that already had three men from Burundi on it. He barely knew English and was relieved to have fellow countrymen with him. The first encounter with his new teammates is a memory that still makes him laugh.
“I arrived in the summer and I’ll never forget the first time I met them. They were all covered in paint….their hair, their shoes, their clothes. They had just finished work painting buildings and I laughed at them. They said, ‘You will see my friend.’ It was a total shock to me,” Manirakiza said as he explained his previous perception of America as a country full of wealth.
The first day that Manirakiza arrived in the United States, he called his family and quickly learned what his teammates meant.
“I was telling them what life in America was really like, and that I didn’t have any money and they thought I was lying. They thought I didn’t want to send any money [laughs],” he said. “I told them the story of how I lived with three guys in a one bedroom and one bathroom house. We were just trying to survive.”
Manirakiza ended up getting the same job painting houses in order to send money back to Burundi to support his family. To learn English, he was placed in an ESL (English as a Second Language) program for one year where he learned what became his fourth language. He can also speak Kirundi, French, and Swahili.
In his second year on the team at Abilene, Manirakiza won the first of an astounding eight NCAA titles in his college career. It was the 2003 NCAA Division II Indoor Championship and Manirakiza won a sit and kick race to claim the 800-meter crown, a race that he remembers as his most meaningful win.
“That first 800m title was the start of everything. It was like my watch restarted. It was a wake-up call that I could be better,” he said.
“Gilbert was my mentor, we would talk and he would encourage me to do better, start lifting weights more….That’s how I got better actually, was lifting. I do tease Gilbert because I actually have one more NCAA title than him,” he said with a smile.
Manirakiza went on to earn career bests of 1:49 in the 800m, 3:44 in the 1500m, and 4:03 in the mile. He remains in the top 10 all-time best performance list for DII indoor track.
He continued to compete as a professional with standout performances that included winning the 2005 Cap10K. Eventually, Manirakiza moved to Austin where he worked as a retail associate at former running hub RunTex while training under store owner Paul Carrozza. RunTex is also where he met and became friends with Loop co-founder Ryan Hess. He was even a groomsman in Hess’s wedding.
After four years of competing post-college, Manirakiza met his wife Verra through mutual friends in Dallas. Like Manirakiza, she is also from the same province in Burundi, and her family was greatly affected by the civil war. They now live just outside of Austin and have two children together.
Spreading the passion
He stopped competing once he met Verra, but found his calling in coaching and running retail where Bernard serves as Assistant Store Manager at The Loop. He created Bernard’s Breakaways (formerly Speedy Demons) in 2014 with the focus of providing training for shorter distances while staying injury free. He wants to show others that running can bring so much joy and opportunity into your life, as it has done for him many times over.
“Growing up, I wanted to be a physical education teacher. I just wanted to be a coach, but I didn’t get to do that major. When I moved here though, I started coaching with Gilbert which was what I wanted all along,” he said
“I wanted to help people. I had a passion for exercising, not even just running. I want other people to love it too.”