Ronald Musagala has always known his own mind.
When he first got into running, he was dismissed as a potential champion because he hails from the low-altitude region of Kaliro and not the main Ugandan endurance hub of Kapchorwa. Nonetheless, Musagala refused to listen to the naysayers.
In stubborn pursuit of his running dreams, he twice moved schools as a youngster and last year showed similar clarity of thought to drive eight hours to ask Dutch coach Addy Ruiter if he would coach him.
The jovial 26-year-old is now enjoying the best season of his career. He has set three Ugandan 1500m records and recorded wins at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Birmingham and Paris. With the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 next on the agenda, the world No.3 is sure to be a factor in the Khalifa International Stadium.
Musagala is a happy-go-lucky athlete who ignites any room with his energy and positivity. He was born the second oldest of 12 siblings in the village of Busulumba in the district of Kaliro in East Uganda – at an altitude of about 1000m (note, Kapchorwa is almost double the elevation) – in an area that has more of a tradition for football than running. But he fondly recalls harbouring a passion for running from his formative years at primary school.
“I was really young but I used to join in the 5000m and 10,000m against the older boys and run the first three laps or so,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I was very short and they were very tall but when they tried to overtake me I would speed up and try not to let them pass me. I would continue until I got too tired, but I always loved to run.”
He played football for the school team but desired a running scholarship at a Ugandan high school. He looked to a school in the region of Iganga – which borders Lake Victoria – and they accepted Musagala, although not for the sport he craved.
“I asked for a running scholarship but they said, ‘you are not from Kapchorwa (the main Ugandan running hub), you can’t run’. So they offered me a football scholarship.”
Musagala accepted, but after impressing by winning the 10,000m in school sports he was encouraged to switch to the nearby King of Kings School which offered a superior athletics programme.
The Ugandan heeded the advice and moved schools. It proved an inspired decision. It was while at Kings of Kings that a teacher, Mr Munaabi, identified Musagala’s potential as a middle-distance runner. He wisely took on board on the suggestion and in 2009 finished an encouraging ninth over 1500m at the national schools championships. He had found his true calling.
From the classroom to Kampala
Dreaming of a professional running career, Musagala left school and teamed up with his friend, Abu Mayanja – who represented Uganda in the 800m at the 2017 World Championships – to train in the Ugandan capital city of Kampala.
The move paid quick dividends and led to a breakthrough performance at the 2013 Ugandan Championships. Musagala claimed victory over 1500m in a huge personal best of 3:38.89, before romping to 800m victory, recording a PB of 1:45.71 in the heats to snag the qualification mark for the World Championships in Moscow.
“When I was told I had qualified (for the World Championships), it was like, ‘no, no’,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe I had run such a quick time in Kampala. That performance really opened up my future.”
He went on to perform with distinction in Moscow, winning his heat with a gutsy gun-to-tape victory ahead of Poland’s two-time world silver medallist Adam Kszczot and then finished a creditable fifth in the semi-final in 1:45.87.
Building on the experience, the following year Musagala lowered his 800m (1:45.27) and 1500m (3:37:75) personal bests on the international circuit and went on to place eighth and 11th in the 800m and 1500m, respectively, at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
A national 1500m record of 3:35.02 followed in 2015, only to exit in the heats of the 1500m at the World Championships in Beijing. Then in 2016, he successfully navigated a route to the Olympic 1500m final, only to be out-gunned on the final lap and cross the line in 11th.
Musagala started to focus exclusively on the 1500m in 2017 and set an encouraging PB of 3:33.65 in Hengelo, but he disappointed at the World Championships in London when he was eliminated at the semi-final stage.
Frustrated with his performance for several seasons, Musagala sought change and believed Addy Ruiter, the Dutch coach of Joshua Cheptegei and many others in his training group in Kapchorwa, would provide the answers.
“I did not feel (my career) was moving forward,” he explains. “But I didn’t just want to maintain that level, I wanted to move ahead. I needed a fresh start and a free mind when running.
“I knew the great Joshua Cheptegei (the world cross-country champion and world 10,000m silver medallist) had done some amazing things, so I wanted to be coached by his coach, Addy.”
In April of 2018 Musagala drove eight hours to Addy’s home in Kapchorwa to ask the Dutchman if he would coach him. Ruiter agreed and set a programme with heavier mileage to improve Musagala’s endurance base.
Musagala found adapting to the new training regime a struggle, though. “The first time I went for long runs, I thought, ‘when will this end?’ But over time I stuck to Addy’s programme and I could see that I was moving in the right direction.”
Last year he earned his first international championship medal with 1500m bronze at the African Championships behind Kenya’s world gold and silver medallists Elijah Manangoi and Timothy Cheruiyot to hint at his improved form.
Spending several months during the winter training with Cheptegei and others in Kapchorwa clad on extra strength and this season he has emerged a different athlete.
A 3:33.86 victory in Tomblaine in France – in what was his fifth straight 1500m win in 2019 – offered real encouragement he was on the right track, but since then even he has surprised himself with the level of his performances on the IAAF Diamond League circuit
In Lausanne he placed fifth in a national record of 3:31.33 before lowering that time again to place third in Monaco with 3:30.58.
Diamond League wins have followed over the metric mile in Birmingham and Paris – the latter achieved with a flourish by equalling his Ugandan record mark. More recently he placed fourth at the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels.
“I’ve realised that all things are possible when you have clear targets and everything is moving well,” he explains of his Diamond League success. “It is great that my body is capable of running such times. My coach at the start of the season said I could run a 3:32 or 3:31 but I think even he has been surprised by a 3:30. This has been so good for my confidence. It is what I have yearned for.”
With the next stop the IAAF World Championships in Doha, many view Musagala as a potential medal contender. While he doesn’t dismiss the prospect, he cautiously talks of the unpredictable, tactical nature of championship finals.
Yet, as he has shown throughout his life, when he sets his mind on achieving his running goals, very little can stop him.
“I pray to God that I can make the final,” he says of his World Championships hopes. “Once there, I hope to deliver my best and fight for a medal.”
But whatever will unfold in Doha, after his spectacular breakout Diamond League season, life will never quite be the same again.
“Many people are now watching me,” he says. “I am known. Many people are talking about Musagala.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF