inspiring athletes

Marathon Man: Claude Umuhire's Inspiring Comeback From Homelessness

Claude Umuhire credits running with helping turn his life around. This weekend, he'll run his first London Marathon

by VICE Sports
23 April 2015, 9:00am

This weekend, Claude Umuhire will run his first London Marathon through the streets of a city where he used to sleep rough. Once homeless and seemingly without hope, Claude is now in work and actively tackling new challenges. He owes a great deal of thanks for this to running.

He first came to the UK as a child, fleeing the 1994 Rwanda Genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were murdered by their fellow countrymen. While still an infant, Claude lost his father and two siblings in a massacre that targeted the country's Tutsi population.

After spending time in Tanzania he came to Britain and joined his mum; the contrast was stark. Life became increasingly fraught during his late teens when he dropped out of university. He found it difficult to hold down a job, making the situation at home with his mum tense, so he left and begun to slip through the cracks. His story is not unusual: 80,000 young people experience homelessness every year in Britain. Ultimately, Claude was lucky.

"I was homeless for eight or nine months, mainly around Camden and Central London," explains Claude. "I started out sofa surfing, but you run out of friends pretty quickly. It's not their fault. I was 18 or 19 at the time, so a lot of them had to ask their parents' permission. Eventually it became impossible for me to keep asking my friends to sleep on their sofas."

Feeling that he had nowhere left to turn, Claude drifted on to London's streets.

"I became street homeless, sleeping in parks and on night buses. I went to my local council to see if they could help. They said that, because I'm a young male with no medical needs, I wasn't a priority. So they suggested I go to New Horizons.

It was at this point that Claude's life began to change. He took the council's advice and started attending New Horizons, a day centre in Kings Cross, where one speaker in particular caught his attention.

"James Gilley, who's the co-founder of the Running Charity, came in to talk about how running helped him cope with a dark period in his life. He was so inspiring. So I said, 'you know what – I'm going to give this a try.' I'd never done any form of long-distance running before but it seemed that if it worked for him, and I had nothing to lose, why not?"

So Claude started running. And as he conquered the challenges placed before him, his confidence grew.

"I learnt that if I give myself a goal I'm very motivated to achieve it. It's something that I'd never done before – something I was never taught how to do before. The Running Charity helped me to work towards those goals. At first it was stuff like improving my 5k time; once that started happening, my confidence started to build.

"At the time I had little to no self-confidence and I started wondering if I could use these goals in my everyday life. I didn't want to be homeless and I wanted to be working, so I began using the same structure, the same way I was taught to use goals, in my normal life. And things got better. I got into private rented accommodations, I got a job."

His current role – which is not his first since putting his life on track – is at the Running Charity. Having introduced him to running, they were also responsible for his entry to this Sunday's race.

"Last year, James ran the London Marathon and publicly challenged all of us on the BBC - he said, 'Next time it's the graduates' turn.' I decided to apply, because chances were I wouldn't get in on my first try anyway. When I did I was like, 'oh crap - I've got to start training!' So that's what I've been doing ever since."

His work at the Running Charity continues to come in useful as he builds towards his first marathon.

"I teach sessions at the centres we have in Kings Cross and Borough. Our new arrivals do circuit training sessions, so I set the circuit and join in – to show them I'm not telling them to do something that I can't. It motivates them to push themselves as well, because some of them want to beat me! So the harder I work, the harder they work. It's mutually beneficial."

Fresh from his longest ever run the previous evening, Claude told us he was "really excited and nervous" ahead of his first marathon. But does he think it will become a yearly tradition?

"Ask me after the marathon! I've caught this bug – and it's quite annoying – where if I push myself and I take part in an event that pushes me to my limit, I want to see how much better I can get at it. So if I run the marathon and I feel like it hit the spot and I've reached my limit, I'll probably want to run another one to see if I can go further."

But whether he contests another marathon or not, Claude will continue to run. Unsurprisingly, he's fully sold on the benefits it can deliver.

"It's the easiest sport to pick up. All you need is a decent pair of trainers, some shorts, and you're out there. It's so addictive and rewarding. I would definitely recommend it to other young people. I'm trying to get my housemates into it too. I've become a street preacher for running."

From street homeless to street preacher, Claude has already come a long way. On Sunday, he plans to conquer the next 26 miles of his journey between Greenwich and St. James' Park.

Claude is raising funds for the Running Charity in this year's London Marathon.