When Callum Hawkins crossed the line in fourth place at the World Championships in 2019, getting heartbreakingly close to a marathon medal for the second consecutive World Championships, few doubted he’d be going shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s very best for the foreseeable future.

He’d established himself as Scotland’s fastest-ever marathon runner and had pushed himself to within touching distance of a major championship medal in an event that has been monopolised by Africans in recent years.

Elite sport is cruel, though, which Hawkins has found out to his detriment since that second World Championship fourth place in Doha in 2019.

The past three-and-a-half years have seen Hawkins plagued by injury, to such an extent that he’s spent far more time undergoing rehab work than racing.

For some, the constant stream of injuries would have been enough to consider hanging up the trainers for good.

It’ll take far more than a few long-term injuries, however, to force Hawkins to consider giving up the battle.

“I’ve honestly never thought about stopping,” says Hawkins, convincingly.

“I’m going to keep going until the legs fall off. Until I go for it and it really doesn’t happen for me, I’ll keep at it.

“The prospect that this might be it and I wouldn’t make it back honestly never entered my head, I always knew I’d keep going.”

Hawkins’ unwavering self-belief is almost certainly a by-product of the mindset that saw him become one of the best marathon runners on the planet.

In addition to that brace of fourth place finishes at the World Championships in 2017 and 2019, he also claimed a top-ten finish at the 2016 Olympic Games and set Scottish records over 10km, half marathon and marathon.

The Herald: Hawkins was fourth at the World Championships in both 2017 and 2019Hawkins was fourth at the World Championships in both 2017 and 2019

That streak of results and records, however, was brought to an abrupt halt soon after the 2019 World Championships, with that race being the last time he crossed a marathon finishing line.

In the aftermath of those World Championships, Hawkins got himself in “silly” shape, which is his way of describing fitness levels that were as good as he’d ever achieved.

He was, he believed, well on track to better his Scottish half marathon record at the New York Half Marathon in March of 2020 but then, the pandemic hit and the world turned upside down, with Hawkins deprived of any opportunity to showcase his fitness.

Since then, the chips have refused to fall for Hawkins.

He failed to finish the Olympic marathon in Tokyo in 2021 but in reality, his issues had begun some time before then.

The end of 2019 saw him hampered by what he calls a “stiff, niggly ankle” but such a prosaic description fails to do justice to the longevity of the injury.

A failure to identify the problem, as well as several misdiagnoses, saw Hawkins caught on a seemingly never-ending path of rehab, recovery and re-injury, with this the primary cause of his withdrawal mid-race at the Tokyo Olympics.

Hawkins was due a slice of luck but the running gods had other ideas for the Kilbarchan man.

He underwent surgery in early 2022 to rectify the ankle issue which had, finally been definitively diagnosed as a loose bone fragment. This was successful but, just as he was preparing to make his competitive comeback in Valencia at the tail end of 2022, a stress fracture of his femur put paid to that competitive appearance while 2023 followed an almost identical pattern of Hawkins suffering a hamstring tear, plus yet another stress fracture, this time in his pelvis, just as he was regaining fitness.

It has been, admits the 31-year-old, an almost interminable few years which has seen him make only sporadic competitive appearances, all over shorter distances than his specialist 26.2 miles.

“It was so tough going round getting advice but nothing was helping me,” he says of his ankle injury. 

“Athletes’ careers are short. And especially as a marathon runner, you miss three or four races and that can be two years out of your career.

“So it’s hard feeling like you can never quite shake off the injuries.”

It’s a slog that would have proven too much for many.

The hours upon hours of soulless rehab, with little to show for it in terms of race results, would be enough to bring on retirement for mere mortals.

But with age comes maturity and that maturity ensured Hawkins was never even close to walking away.

“With previous injuries, I have wondered if I can keep going but that was in the past, when I was much younger and much earlier in my career. I’ve had two knee surgeries years ago and I remember thinking that if I needed a third one, I didn’t think I could keep going,” says Hawkins, who was famously leading the Commonwealth Games marathon in 2018 before crashing out due to heat exhaustion.

“But now, I’ve got a great ability to put things to the back of my head and move on. 

“It’s a bit of a curse as well because it means you forget your great achievements because you don’t reflect on them. When you do well, you can just think ok, onto the next thing rather than really taking it in. 

“But the huge advantage of having that mindset is, whatever happens, you set the next goal, focus on that and forget about the setbacks.

“It’s turned into quite a natural thing for me to always look forward and never back so the motivation to get back was always there, that never disappeared. 

“I love running and racing so I put everything in to ensure I could get back to doing it.”

The Herald: Callum Hawkins

Finally, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for Hawkins.

Slowly but surely over the past few months, he’s been creeping closer to race readiness.

Today, he’ll pin on a race number for the first time in months, at the Podium 5k race in Leicester in which, incidentally, 2022 1500m world champion Jake Wightman will also compete.

Today’s run will, Hawkins warns, “not be pretty”, but it’s very much a means to an end.

The big goal is next month, when he’ll be on the start line of a marathon for the first time in almost three years.

The London Marathon, which takes place on the 21st of April, is a fitting place for Hawkins to make his comeback over the distance.

It’s where he first highlighted his potential to the wider world, finishing inside the top 8 in 2016, and where he set his Scottish record of 2 hours 8 minutes 14 seconds in 2019.

With five weeks still to go until London, he remains somewhat unsure as to quite how close to full fitness he’ll be come race day, and he admits the relief of being back on a marathon start line will likely be overwhelming.

And he will, he admits, have to make a conscious effort not to let his emotions get the better of him when it comes to his race tactics.

“It’s been far, far too long since I’ve run a marathon,” says Hawkins. 

“So to actually be on the start line will be massive. It’s why I’m going to just go out and do London, no matter what shape I’m in.

“I just love competing. Most athletes are like that – we don’t put all these hours in just to keep fit.

“It’ll feel so nice to be doing these long races again – I always get better when it goes a bit longer. Once it goes over an hour, that’s where I like to be. I don’t feel like I really get into a race until after an hour.

“I need to be pretty strict about how I run in London, though. 

“There’ll be pacers so that will help but I do think I might need to be a bit stricter than normal, especially in the first half of the race. 

“I’ll need to bite the bullet and be sensible and not listen to my pride, which will probably be telling me to go faster.

Hawkins has physical scars from his injuries and it would be entirely understandable if the past few years had inflicted significant mental scars on him too. But there appears to be nothing of the sort.

Such is his belief that he’s finally on the road to full fitness, he even lets the prospect of making it into Team GB for the Paris Olympics this summer to enter his head.

He will, however, only countenance a third Olympic appearance if he can do himself justice – he has, he says, little interest in heading to Paris merely to make up the numbers.

But whatever the timescale, Hawkins is not shy in admitting he wants to be back to competing with the best.

He’s well aware how difficult a task it will be to regain his place at the top table of marathon runners but half the battle is already won by refusing to let any shred of doubt about his comeback abilities enter his head.

“I believe I can still compete at a very high level. There’s a natural belief there,” he says.

“I’m possibly a bit deluded at times but I always think best-case scenario. 

“I still believe that I’m a development athlete and that I’ve got a long way to go even though I’m 31. Until I actually start slowing down and there’s proof it’s not happening, I’ll always believe my ability’s still there.”