By Paul Gains
Champions must often overcome formidable odds to achieve success but few have had to persevere through the obstacles life has put in front of marathon runner Tsegai Tewelde.
The 26 year old British national will challenge a strong elite field at next Sunday’s Blom Bank Beirut Marathon (November 13th), an IAAF Silver Label event.
Tewelde made his debut at the 2016 London Marathon finishing in a time of 2:12:23 to earn a place on Britain’s Olympic team.
He was a promising Eritrean junior middle distance runner when he seized the opportunity to escape the horrible conflict in his homeland. Following the 2008 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, he joined six of his compatriots in asking for asylum. The Scottish club, Shettleston Harriers, supported the athletes.
“It was a very dangerous time for people in Eritrea,” Tewelde remembers. “It was important that I took the opportunity to try and improve my life and the life of my family. Scotland was very good to me.
“It was a very quick decision. We did not plan it. It was my first time to Britain and I truly saw a great place to live and hoped that it could become real for me and that I would have better opportunity.
“Some have remained, others returned soon after the country got better. I have many of my best friends now who are British and (club secretary) John MacKay and everyone at Shettleston Harriers is my other family now. They helped me very much.”
Tewelde praises the Scottish public for supporting him and his friends and points out that there are many Eritreans amongst his neighbours in Glasgow. They have encouraged him to fit in to the community starting off with offering him fish and chips and haggis.
“They make me try it,” he concedes with amusement, “but haggis is strange. I like the chips though. And the square sausage.”
Though life is good now it wasn’t always so. As a child a landmine killed his grandfather. He saw friends killed and he himself was injured by a landmine when he was eight years old.
“Yes, this is true. I have pieces of metal in my body and many scars from the landmine,” he says. “You do not expect these things when you are a child, when you are with your friends and because of a situation that has nothing to do with you. The bomb explodes and hurts many of us. The country has changed a lot now but still sometimes it can be an uneasy place.”
In recent years as the political climate has improved he has been able to return to Eritrea to visit family. His mother was gravely ill and he visited her last year. And he has been returning to Asmara, the capital for periods of high altitude training.
With a group of talented distance runners he has been putting in weeks where he has run as much as 100 miles (160km) in preparation for Beirut.
“Yes I am lucky that now the situation has improved and I have improved my running that I can afford to travel to Asmara more often,” he explains. “My mother was very happy to see me and was pleased with me that I made this change.
“I train with many great runners including Samuel Tsegai (2014 World Half Marathon Championships silver medalist) and (2015 world marathon champion) Girmay Gebrselassie. There are lots of runners and we train twice a day six days a week.”
“I had a small injury just before Rio so I had to pull out of the marathon there which I was very sad about. Since then I am improving every day. I ran at the Great Scottish Run to test my strength. The race was ok, not great, but I continue to improve very much. I look forward to racing in Beirut and visiting the country.”
Tewelde will travel directly from Asmara to Beirut this week to maximize the benefits of his latest high altitude training period. The Beirut marathon course record of 2:11:04 was set last year by Jackson Limo, who is returning to defend his title. Tewelde would like to run “2:10 or better, if possible” and hopes that Limo and the other elites will work together for a fast opening half.
The marathon is still a relatively new event for Tewelde. He ran 1,500m in 3:36.9 at age 19 and since his move to Scotland has been focusing on road races and club competitions. But he realizes that it is his performances in the marathon that could earn him more British vests.
“When the opportunity came that I could qualify for the British team it was an obvious decision as, otherwise, I would not be able to compete at the Olympics or world championships,” he explains. “I believe it is my best distance and I can improve a lot still.
“I wish to run at the World Championships, Commonwealth Games and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They are all the big goals I have now as well as improving my time for the marathon.”
The first order of business though remains a strong performance at the Beirut Marathon a challenge he is more than capable of facing.