It’s 5 a.m. and the sky is dark.
Most people are sound asleep, but Munashe Chigerwe has just woken up. At only 9 years old, he is outside his family’s farm working the fields in Chivhu, Zimbabwe, a small town in the country’s center. He plants corn, removes weeds and herds cattle on the farm until 6:30 a.m.
Tired and sweating from the grueling work, Chigerwe does not go inside his house to bathe. His home has neither a bathroom nor electricity. Instead, he goes out to a river near the farm to clean up. He stands on a smooth gray rock in the river while his older brother Dominic stands a couple feet away, watching the water for sudden movements. Surrounded by trees and shrubbery, the murky river is infested with crocodiles and pythons, but Chigerwe insists the crocodiles won’t attack humans on a rock.
After bathing, Chigerwe gets dressed for school. He puts on his uniform, a solid blue shirt and blue shorts, but doesn’t have any shoes or socks. His school is seven miles away. Chigerwe walks two miles and then, to get to school on time, he runs the rest of the way — barefoot.
“It was pretty normal,” Chigerwe said. “It’s like if you’re born and you don’t get a pair of shoes, you never think that you could have shoes.”
On the way to school, the forest he runs past hides hyenas, jackals, leopards and even the occasional lion, but they usually stay away from humans. The path is soft dirt, but he is cautious of sharp, jagged thorns sticking out from bushes or trees. After what seems like an eternity, school has just started and it’s only 8 a.m.
“When I grew up, running to school wasn’t a big deal,” Chigerwe said. “It was just something we always did, so it was normal for us.”
Born in 1977, Chigerwe grew up on a 100-acre farm where he worked to pay his school tuition. His mother was a strong advocate of education, and when he was 13, he went to a Catholic boarding school. Determined and intelligent, Chigerwe excelled at school. After six years of boarding school, he applied and was accepted to the University of Zimbabwe’s veterinary science school.
Growing up on a farm, animals were always present. They were not only a source of income for his family but also brought enjoyment. His mother kept donkeys, pigeons, dogs, cats, geese and peacocks on the farm. His mother’s love for animals became Chigerwe’s, and it only seemed natural for him to pursue a career as a veterinarian, a profession that could also help his family financially.
Chigerwe returned to constant running in college. Waking up at 5 a.m., running barefoot 40 minutes around the campus’ neighborhood brought back memories of his childhood days.
Veterinary school required Chigerwe to sit through classes nine hours a day with tedious homework assignments. Running every day kept him healthy and provided him with stress relief. Eventually, running became second nature again.
“At that point, I didn’t run to lose weight or be competitive,” Chigerwe said. “It was part of my routine; it really became part of me then and I just got up and did it.”
During college, he ran 40 miles a week and continued to perform well academically. After a final exam during his last year in veterinary school, Chigerwe asked a professor from Auburn, who was part of the examination panel, about graduate school in the U.S. He learned that graduate school helps prepare students for successful jobs and Chigerwe became sold on the prospects of higher education.
Moving to Missouri
Working with cattle as a child, Chigerwe wanted to focus his graduate studies on large animals, so the school he chose would have to satisfy that objective. While searching the Internet, he found MU.
“It seemed like half the number of people in Missouri had cows,” Chigerwe said. “So, I found that interesting and for learning purposes, Missouri seemed like the place for me.”
Plane tickets from Zimbabwe to the U.S. were expensive and Chigerwe saved only $150 — not nearly enough. Fortunately, through a connection with an adviser at MU, he got in touch with an MU professor, Tabitha Madzura, who bought him the plane ticket and let Chigerwe live with her family while he acclimated himself to Columbia.
Before going to graduate school, he did an internship with the MU veterinary medicine school in 2003 to ease his transition to American life.
And with some money he made from his internship, Chigerwe bought his first pair of running shoes.
However, adjusting to the shoes was not an easy transition.
“It took me awhile to get used to running with shoes,” Chigerwe said. “When you run barefoot for so long, it’s real hard to feel comfortable not being barefoot.”
His doctoral mentor and residency adviser, veterinary medicine professor Jeffrey Tyler, said that Chigerwe underestimated his own intelligence when he first started at MU.
“In terms of veterinary medicine, Munashe was quite competent when he got (to MU),” Tyler said. “He showed up with a solid knowledge base, very solid technical skills. He was certainly ready to do the work and ready to learn.”
Finding his stride
Chigerwe, always busy with work, rarely had time to converse with classmates in graduate school who also found his accent difficult to understand. At times, he wondered if he was even too old to make friends. But a veterinary resident who worked with Chigerwe invited him to join his running group, which met at 5:30 a.m. The time worked perfectly, and Chigerwe liked the idea of having people to run with.
“At that point, the only place I felt accepted was while I was running,” Chigerwe said. “When I started running in groups, I saw that people were nice in Columbia.”
He soon started to spend time with the group members outside of running.
“The members of the running group become my first real friends,” Chigerwe said. “They would talk to me during training and would ask me, ‘Do you want to come to this race?’ or ‘Do you want to come for dinner?’ and I just felt very accepted.”
After familiarizing himself with Columbia and settling in to a routine with school, Chigerwe decided to challenge himself with running’s ultimate challenge, the marathon.
When he lived in Zimbabwe, the Canadian Embassy held a 10-kilometer (6.2 mile) run to raise money for cancer. Chigerwe ran the race and felt so good afterwards, he decided to run the course again. And then two more times. The course ended inside a stadium in Zimbabwe and after finishing the course for the fourth time, he ran a few more miles on the half-mile track.
When course officials who were cleaning up the stadium asked how long he had been running, Chigerwe told them. The officials responded by telling him that he had run longer than a marathon. After running an unofficial marathon, Chigerwe decided when he came to the U.S. he had to run an official one.
Going the distance
His marathon training consisted of running all around Columbia, but it was trail running that Chigerwe found most nostalgic.
“It makes me almost cry sometimes,” Chigerwe said. “Some of the landscape in Missouri resembles back home, especially when you get on the trail.”
Many of his long-distance runs were done in groups. While the first half of the runs were enjoyable for Chigerwe, conversing with group members about different aspects of life, the second half proved emotional.
“It’s kind of therapeutic; you feel like you are almost home, but you’re not home,” Chigerwe said. “By that time, everyone is tired, and people don’t really talk. At the same time, I get time to think about what we used to do when I was a kid.”
His first marathon was in Des Moines, Iowa, and after running other marathons and enjoying the experience, he set a lofty goal, running the Boston Marathon.
On a cold, wet and windy day, Chigerwe ran the 2007 Boston marathon in 3 hours and 19 minutes. Although the time was 20 minutes slower than his personal best, the ambience made the race special.
“Other than being big, you get to see people from other countries,” Chigerwe said. “You get to see Kenyans and you think ‘Oh, that’s close to home.’ You get to see South Africans, as well, who are just a couple hours away, and that’s why I like Boston, because it brings people from all over the place.”
Chigerwe, 30, currently balances running 50 miles a week and keeping up with his studies. He will be graduating in May with a doctorate in veterinary pathobiology and a master’s of public health.
“He is probably the most determined person I know, just in anything,” running friend Mike Tripp said prior to the marathon. “Right now, he’s got a really bad running injury, and he’s still determined that he’s going to run the Boston Marathon.”
Chigerwe is battling shin splints, a painful injury to muscles around the shin that makes running difficult and even walking unbearable. He said that since he already paid for the marathon, transportation and accommodations, skipping the race was not an option.
On Monday, Chigerwe ran the 112th Boston Marathon in 3 hours and 32 minutes. The time was undoubtedly slow for Chigerwe, but considering the time off he’s taken to rest his injury and the injury itself, a successful run nonetheless.
“He’s the best person I know,” Tyler said. “When people ask me how I feel about Munashe Chigerwe, I say he’s the most decent person I’ve ever known. The running joke that my wife always gives me is that I don’t know whether to adopt him or ask him to marry my daughter.”