Tomas Abyu has run past the Lowry Centre on countless occasions but has yet to pop inside to view the paintings. At 5ft 7in and 8st 10lb, the 29-year-old would have made a perfect matchstalk model for the artist who put Salford on the map. But L S Lowry would have needed to have been quick on the draw to capture him on the local landscape; Abyu, who runs for Salford Harriers, is the fastest British entrant in today's Flora London Marathon.
Like the protesters on the streets of the capital a week ago, the adopted Mancunian will be chasing the Beijing Olympic flame – metaphorically, at least. If he manages to overcome a recent bout of bronchitis and finishes inside the Olympic qualifying time, 2hr 12min, Abyu will be going to Beijing as a member of the Great Britain team. And what a triumph that would be for a man who came to these shores as a political refugee, fleeing tribal conflict in his native Ethiopia nine years ago.
Granted political asylum in 2000 and British citizenship in 2005, Abyu lives in Moss Side and does much of his training in the shadow of Old Trafford, although on one occasion he ended up running down the hard shoulder of the M60 and was picked up by the police – presumably for speeding – who dropped him off outside the Theatre of Dreams. "I'm a United fan," Abyu said. "I've been to a few games. My favourite player is Ronaldo."
In his youth, Abyu crossed paths with another stellar talent of the sporting world. As a junior runner in his homeland, he used to train and race with Gezahegne Abere, the Ethiopian who went on to win the Olympic marathon in Sydney in 2000, the World Championship marathon in Edmonton in 2001, and the London Marathon in 2003.
"We are [from] the same area in central Ethiopia, a place called Arsi," Abyu said. "We trained together and raced together so I know him very well. I never beat him, but one time we ran a 5km race and we finished together."
It is hardly surprising that it has taken time for such a promising pedigree to develop in Britain. When Abyu made his debut as a marathon runner in 2002, winning the Manchester event in 2hr 25min 58sec, he was working 12-hour shifts at Rathbones Bakery in Old Trafford.
He qualified for the British team for the European Championships in Gothenburg in 2006, finishing 27th in 2:20:45, but it was not until last autumn that he started to show true international class, after giving up work to concentrate on his running and then struggling to make ends meet. "Tomas was actually close to quitting the sport last September," James Kovacs, Abyu's manager, advisor and Salford clubmate, said.
"It was just so difficult to run full-time with the money he was earning in local races in the UK, but luckily he had a breakthrough in the Great North Run and in the Dublin Marathon. Without those two races, when he finally delivered, Tomas probably wouldn't be here now preparing for [today's] race."
As it is, Abyu has been preparing for what doubles as a British Olympic trials race as a 2:10.37 marathon man. The personal best he clocked as the runner-up in Dublin last October is 1min 23sec inside the Beijing qualifying standard, although the fact that the course in the Irish capital has not been officially certified by the International Association of Athletics Federations means he is obliged to chase it again today, despite losing 10days of training last month with bronchitis.
Still, with Stroud's Dan Robinson the only other British marathon runner expected to claim a spot on the team (courtesy of his 11th-place finish at the World Championships in Osaka last summer, which is likely to be backed up by a personal best today), that Dublin run could yet prove to be a passport to Beijing for Salford's matchstalk marathon man.Reuse content