Scottish marathon runner Tsegai Tewelde escapes tragic past

Eight years ago, Tsegai '¨Tewelde sought asylum in Scotland, too scared to return to Eritrea where he and five of his team-mates feared they would be tortured and forced into military service as a punishment for not placing higher in a cross-country event in Edinburgh.

Tsegai Tewelde is flanked by Scottish brothers Callum, left, and Derek Hawkins as they celebrate their inclusion in the Great Britain Olympic marathon team. Picture: Jeff Holmes
Tsegai Tewelde is flanked by Scottish brothers Callum, left, and Derek Hawkins as they celebrate their inclusion in the Great Britain Olympic marathon team. Picture: Jeff Holmes

The scars of that decision are as evident as the one on his forehead which serves as a reminder of the day a landmine exploded near him when he was just eight, killing his friend and leaving him with a body studded with shrapnel.

Seventeen years on from that incident, the Shettleston Harriers athlete has been selected to represent Great Britain at the Rio Olympics this summer, after he followed fellow Scot and top-finishing Briton 
Callum Hawkins over the line in Sunday’s London Marathon.

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It is a welcome high in a life that has been dealt a long list of lows. “Sometimes, I used to ask them why they did it,” says John Mackay, secretary of Shettleston Harriers. “And they probably couldn’t answer it. But imagine not seeing your family for a long time. He had a young brother who died and he couldn’t go back. Imagine not being allowed to go to your brother’s funeral.”

Tewelde has spoken to his parents and his siblings, sharing the joy of his achievement. “Yes, they are very proud that I am going to the Olympics,” he said. “I do keep in touch with family and friends. But I don’t get involved in the politics.”

Why would he when he has so much else on his plate. As well as adapting to a new home, a foreign culture and language, he has also had to deal with unwanted souvenirs from the country of his birth, which hindered his running for a while before, in the past year, he started delivering the results his coaches had always believed possible.

“He had to get shrapnel removed from his chest because he’s still got some there from the mine,” said Mackay. “So he has been through a lot. It’s a tribute to him, his inner strength and his ability. We knew the marathon was the best event for him, so we encouraged him and helped him.”

Still a novice over the 26 miles, he completed the London course in 2:12:28. That performance left Derek Hawkins, who had led the British runners home in the Commonwealth Games marathon, sweating on his inclusion in the Team GB squad for Rio.

His younger brother Callum, completing just his second marathon, set the standard for all the other British runners in London, finishing in 2:10.52 and knocking a huge chunk off his previous PB and only other competitive marathon time. It gave him and Tewelde the automatic Olympic slots but yesterday it was announced that Derek would be joining them, much to the joy and relief of the family.

He admitted that waiting for the announcement could have resulted in a sleepless night had he not been so spent from the weekend exertions but he was delighted to be given the nod that will allow him to accompany his brother to Brazil, where they are both aiming for top 20 finishes.

“I got the call just before nine. It was a pretty good call to wake up to,” he said. “From the way training was going, I felt Callum was the favourite between us going into it. There probably was a bit of preparation about the fact that one of us would make it, and the other wouldn’t. So it has come as a total shock that the two of us are going to Rio.

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“In the last year, Callum’s been the most consistent male endurance road runner in Britain. It’s good to have him to train with, especially the last six months, where he’s really kicked on. He had two great half-marathon runs in the spring that’s showed how good he is. To be able to hang on to his coattails has been really good.”

The pair are already planning on rooming together in Rio and the family, happy to have two lads to cheer on instead of worrying about how to pitch their responses to celebrate one and console the other, are looking at whether they can decant en masse.

But for all the performance in London, and in his first outing in Frankfurt in October, 
Callum maintains that the Olympics will be a tricky, yet welcome, challenge.

“I would say the marathon is one of the most unpredictable events in athletics,” said the mechanical engineering student. “It can easily go wrong, so the fact that we both got it right on the day [in London], was pretty impressive

“The duration and how finely-tuned it is, you have to get your pace spot-on, your training spot-on. You can get a cold the week before or a slight niggle, and six months of training can be thrown away.”

“Or somebody can throw in a crazy mile,” interjects Derek, “and you follow, and you find yourself totally spent. Suddenly it bites over the last three or four miles.”

So a bit of luck and solid preparation seem to be everything. But with three Scots safely ensconced in the team, those all seem to be going pretty well for now.