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.
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 to improve my life and the life of my family. Scotland was very good to me.” Leaving his country was a quick decision he says. “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.”
As for the group that went with him, some returned back home when the country’s conditions improved. For Twelde, he stayed. He says that everyone in the Shettleston Harriers group is like family to him now after helping him adjust to his new home.
The 26-year-old British national is now getting ready to challenge a strong elite field at next Sunday’s Blom Bank Beirut Marathon, 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.
Tewelde praises the Scottish public for supporting him in getting to this place in his running. He points out that there are many Eritreans amongst his neighbours in Glasgow. They have encouraged him to fit into the community starting off by offering him signature Scottish dishes: fish and chips and haggis.
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. He still has scars and pieces of metal in his body. “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,” he says. “The bomb exploded and hurt many of us. The country has changed a lot now but still sometimes it can be an uneasy place.”
As the political climate of Eritrea has improved in recent years, he has been able to return 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 160 kilometres in preparation for Beirut.
“I’m lucky that now that the situation has improved, 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.”
When training, he runs with notable runners including Samuel Tsegai (2014 World Half Marathon Championships silver medalist) and Girmay Gebrselassie (2015 world marathon champion). This week, Tewelde will travel directly from Asmara to Beirut 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, he has been focusing on road races and club competitions. With the marathon though, he sees a huge amount of opportunity.
“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.” In the future, he hopes to run at the World Championships, the Commonwealth Games and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The first order of business though remains a strong performance at the Beirut Marathon– a challenge he is more than capable of facing.