His Olympic 'X'leads to exilefrom Ethiopia
He's the loneliest of long-distance runners, a man far removed from his country and his family. These days, Feyisa Lilesa runs not for personal glory but for emotional therapy and for a purpose he believes to be far bigger than himself.
Lilesa works his legs both to remember and to forget and also, most importantly, to remind non-Ethiopians what they need to be thinking about when they see him churning by on the open road.
Through an interpreter, Lilesa admitted two days before his bid to win the Aramco Houston Half Marathon for a third time and improve upon his own course record, "I'm not very relaxed."
How could he be?
Since last summer, when he won the silver medal in the Olympic marathon, then crossed his arms in an "X" in front of his face in a show of solidarity with his Oromo people, he has been trapped in a self-imposed exile, trying to make a new life for himself at least temporarily in Flagstaff, Ariz., a world away - in every way imaginable - from his home in Ethiopia.
Lilesa told reporters in Rio de Janeiro that he believed "the government will kill me" if he returned. (Government officials rebutted his claim, saying he was in no danger.) While the Oromo are by far the dominant group in terms of numbers, they have been historically treated poorly by the Tigrayans, who make up barely 6 percent of Ethiopia's population but have enjoyed disproportionate influence and representation in the corridors of power.
One of Houston's biggest annual sports days returns today, when the Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon take to the streets:
Start time: 6:45 a.m. (wheelchair race), 7 a.m. (marathon and half-marathon).
Starting point: Congress and San Jacinto in downtown Houston.
Runners: Roughly 27,000.
Spectators: Estimated 250,000.
Representation: Runners from all 50 states and 47 countries.
TV: KTRK, Longhorn Network, ESPN3.
Oromo protests erupted last year for a variety of reasons and many people were killed or jailed, including a number of Lilesa's relatives and friends.
"I go to the prisons and I see them," he said. "There's torture. It's very bad."
And during long runs he said he witnessed firsthand what had happened to many Oromo. So, despite the possible consequences, he doesn't regret making a statement when he was given the platform to do so with his breakthrough runner-up finish in one of the most prestigious marathons.
"While I was doing the training, going through the countryside, my daily observation was of the slaughter that was committed," he said, again speaking through an interpreter. "My feet were running, but my mind was not synchronized. When I went to Rio, I was physically fit and I was determined to do very good because I wanted to convey a message. The world (didn't know) what was happening in my country. I was determined to tell the world."
For the moment, his parents, brother and sister, and his wife and two young children seem to be safe - his celebrity helps protect them, Lilesa's former agent, Hussein Makke said, suggesting hopefully that he is "too big for them to do anything bad" - but this is an inordinately difficult time in his life, a time that should have been given over to celebration and grand plans for the future.
He doesn't turn 27 until next month. The prime years for a marathoner are out there in front of him. Instead …
"I worry always," Lilesa said. "You do not know from one day to the next. Today, it's OK (for his wife and children). But tomorrow it might change. You do not know."
Some days he's so consumed by his concerns that he doesn't feel like training, but then he tells himself he must push even harder because his voice and actions will only have power if he remains successful as an athlete.
Lilesa said he was grateful to the United States for giving him an emergency visa to move to Arizona and train, saying, "This is a peaceful country," and he said efforts are under way to attempt to allow his family to join in northern Arizona. But he admits the groundswell of anti-immigration fervor stoked during the recent election of Donald Trump has become a concern.
"If it had been well and good in Ethiopia, I would have chosen to go (home)," Lilesa said. "Now, if there are any changes in policies (in the U.S.), I can go to Europe instead. But, by my being here, I bring benefit to the country. I help in being an asset, not a liability. The new government, I hope, does not (see me) as a ferocious animal. If that is not the case, then I will go somewhere else and be an asset."
'I miss my family'
Lilesa won the Aramco Half for the first time in 2011, finishing in a fairly mundane 61:54, but a year later he erased Ryan Hall's Houston record with a time of 59:22. (Hall's 59:43 here in 2007 remains the fastest time ever by an American.) Lilesa owns a personal best of 2:06:56 in the marathon, which he posted last year in Tokyo. He ran a 2:09:54 in Rio, crossing behind only Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who's considered the world's best marathoner.
American Galen Rupp, who was supposed to be in the Aramco field with Lilesa on Sunday before pulling out with a foot injury, took the bronze medal in Rio.
Lilesa had made the decision to cross his arms as a sign of protest if he finished near the front of the race. He didn't tell his family of the plan in advance because he knew it would likely frightened them. He insists he has no regrets, although the defiant act has, it would appear, left him stranded in a strange land. But at least Flagstaff has a similar elevation and climate to where he's from in Ethiopia. It's good for his training, if less so for his state of mind.
"I miss my family," he said. "I miss (Ethiopian) food. I miss the culture. But this is forced on me. It's not my decision."