Marathon runner spent early years running for his life

When people talk about Saskatchewan marathon runners of renown, Ted Jaleta's name is often quick to surface.

When people talk about Saskatchewanlong-distance runners of renown, Ted Jaleta's name is often quick to surface.

Over the past quarter century, the 51-year-old Regina man has won numerous races in Saskatchewan and elsewhere. He's been called one of the top Masters Division runners in the world and has been inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.
Ted Jaleta is a familar face on Saskatchewan's marathon circuit. (CBC)

Less well-knownare his early years of struggle in Ethiopia, including a horrific stint in prison for political activity. Even then, running was the one constant in his life, his saving grace.

"I've run for pleasure and I've run for my life," Jaleta told CBC News in a recent interview.

He grew up on a farm in eastern Ethiopia in a family of eight. His parents grew wheat and coffee and raised livestock.

"I thought it was just heaven. I was a carefree child. Happy," said Jaleta. "Our mode of transportation was by foot. So if you wanted to deliver a message, you had to run. If you went to school, you had to run."

And so he did. Jaleta was so fast that by his late teens, he was competing against the best runners in Ethiopia. He made the junior national running team, putting himself one step away from the Ethiopian Olympic team.

"I did have a great hope to become an Olympic member of the training team," he said.

His hero was the legendary Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia's first Olympic gold medallist.

Bikila was the barefoot runner who won gold medals in the marathon in the 1960 and 1964 Olympics.

Bikila visited Jaleta's school in rural Ethiopia.

"It was just an incredible feeling meeting a man of his stature," said Jaleta.

"He made me believe to not to set the barriers and work hard and achieve goals. His message was so powerful."

Bikila died in 1973 following a car accident. To this day, Jaleta says he thinks of Bikila every time he runs.

Sadly, the Olympic glory that Bikila experienced wasn't in the cards for Jaleta. Historic events intervened.

It was 1974 and Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the military.

The country was in turmoil. Jaleta, a university student, marched in the streets of Addis Ababa.

"We are marching and suddenly the military showed up. They started firing towards us. So much commotion. Yelling and screaming. I started running. I was shot. I could see the blood in my pants. I just fainted," said a teary-eyed Jaleta.

Jaleta was caught, cuffed and jailed.

"The torture was unbearable," he said.

For six months, Jaleta was convinced he was going to die in prison.

But then he caught a lucky break. One day, while in an open area, he saw a way out and noticed there were no guards in sight. He ran and he didn't stop for days.

Once again, he was running for his life, this time back to the countryside of eastern Ethiopia. He roamed the mountains for two years before fleeing the country and entering the dark world of refugee camps. He spent four years in the camps in Sudan and Kenya.
Ted Jaleta wins a Regina marathon. ((Courtesy Ted Jaleta))

"The conditions were terrible. No lights. Nowhere to shower. There was lice and disease," recalled Jaleta."We may have been fed in the morning, but there was no guarantee we would get food the rest of the day."

Jaleta did not give in to despair. He applied, was allowed to emigrate to Canada and landed in Regina in 1982.

'Canada came to me'

"Canada (has) meant a lot to me because Canada came to me when I didn't have any country. Canada gave me a second chance," Jaleta said.

His struggles weren't completely over. He was alone with little money and he was fired from his first job. He was down, but he wasn't out.

"I've been through more difficult times and I said, 'This is nothing,' " Jaleta said.
In 1978, Jaleta was living in an African refugee camp. ((Courtesy Ted Jaleta))

He found more work and he started running competitively again.He also began winning races.

In 1997, he was ranked seventh in the world by the prestigious Runner's WorldMagazine in the Masters Division.

In 2005, Jaleta was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.

Inspiration for runners

These days, he coaches the long distance running team at the University of Regina. He also trains other people to run. He's helped many runners from Saskatchewan make it to the Boston Marathon and other prestigious running events.
He's been an inspiration, as well, to his son Adam, who was born in 1986.

"You look at a lot of things you see in Afghanistan or Israel and the Palestinians. He's basically been through that," Adam said. "He's lived through that. He totally knows what it's about. And to keep his head where it is right now, it's definitely great."

Through the years, Jaleta has built a career, ending up at Revenue Canada. He's a tax man who makes house calls. Jaleta visits homes of new immigrants to help them navigate through tax forms.

From time to time, he also offers life advice to the newcomers.

"You have got to be resilient, not to give up," he explained to Reza Hosseini, a new immigrant originally from Afghanistan, during a recent home visit.

It's a phrase that has over the years become his mantra.

A book by Deana Driver, Never Give Up: Ted Jaleta's Inspiring Story, will be released Oct. 26.