The twentieth mile of a marathon is by many accounts the most difficult, the one people mean when they say, I hit the wall. The body’s glucose levels have plummeted, carbohydrate stores are used up, and some degree of dehydration is inevitable. Your legs get heavy; your lungs feel constricted; the small pains that you began feeling around mile ten — the heel blister, the inner-arm chafe, the aching hip capsule — elevate in pitch and volume until you become little more than a moving cacophony of distress signals. You aren’t yet close enough to the finish line to get excited, and you’re in far too deep to quit.
I called my father from the twentieth mile of my first marathon, in Honolulu. Daddy, I breathed into the phone. Daddy, I don’t think I can run any farther. Three years prior, when I was thirty, I’d started running to have something in common with him, finally, after all the years of sharing little more than blood.
Don’t think, just run, he told me. Calm yourself down and breathe.
Even though I hadn’t shown up for his races, he kept me running mine.
As a boy, Ethiopian long-distance runner Feyisa Lilesa hid in the fields at night when the police swept through his village. He is a member of the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, and to be Oromo in Ethiopia was to be rounded up, arrested, and maybe killed by the dominant but considerably smaller Tigray group. The only way Lilesa saw anyone like him get out was through running. If he were fast enough and worked hard, he could be picked up by one of the national clubs and go to Addis Ababa to train.
Lilesa won his first marathon when he was just nineteen. After he broke the ribbon at the finish line, the race director draped Ethiopia’s flag around his shoulders like a cape. He took a short victory jog with the green-yellow-and-red flag flying behind him. But at home, Oromo people still faced violence and arrest for protesting. His family still had to hide in the fields at night.
When my father first ran the New York City Marathon, I was a teenager. He looked for me on every corner for the last five miles. He ran alone with a swollen Achilles tendon and a 1970s fueling plan: eggs and bacon for breakfast before boarding the ferry to the athletes’ village on Staten Island. He didn’t have a training partner or a coach or even the Internet. He had a couple of books and some hazy college memories of Steve Prefontaine’s Olympic runs. My father had never run such a huge race before. He didn’t understand what an impossibility it would be to find a particular face in the sea of people. He didn’t know I wasn’t there, that I was too consumed with myself to show up.
A dog would chase my father when he was training. I didn’t understand why my father was out late at night and early in the morning, running on back roads, trying to outpace a Doberman pinscher. I had never run a long distance before. I hadn’t yet been chased by a dog. I didn’t understand what it meant to train for half the year, to wake up when you want to sleep, to keep going when you want to quit, to deny yourself foods and cigarettes and nights out: it is a huge investment of hope and intention into something that is quite arbitrary. Why twenty-six and two-tenths of a mile? Why with fifty thousand other people? Why at all?
When he was preparing for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Feyisa Lilesa ran 120 miles per week. To run the Olympic marathon is an honor, but also a sacrifice. An elite marathoner competes only twice a year and supports himself on race prizes. To run in the Olympics, which do not give monetary prizes, is to forgo half a year’s income. In a career that will last only five to eight years for most, runners make the financial sacrifice for personal glory, but also for country. To be an Olympian is to give your time, your talent, and your body to your homeland.
When I started running, I felt for the first time that I knew my father. My whole life he had felt unknowable to me, too controlled and contained to allow for attachment, even though we had been close during my early childhood. As I obsessively and inadvisably increased my mileage, I understood more about the man whose tenacity had always been lore in my family. Mr. Bootstraps. He believed that depression and addiction and disloyalty and fear were all the same thing: weakness. He was weak, I’d heard him say, more times than I could count, of someone who was really just human. If you let the way you felt affect the actions you took, my father dismissed you.
Long-distance running is the dogged refusal to bend to the way you feel. It is the accommodation of pain. If you run long enough, far enough, fast enough, you will carve out a place in yourself where pain can live. Every time you go longer or farther or faster, you expand that place, until there is not much in the world you can’t fit inside it. When I started running, I discovered what my father had really been doing out there on the roads when I was growing up. It wasn’t about athleticism or health, and it was clearly not about pleasure or joy. It was about hollowing out that soul chamber so he could fit all his weakness inside of it.
A marathon, particularly for an elite athlete, is as much a test of decision-making skill as it is of endurance. At Feyisa Lilesa’s level, the ability to run twenty-six and two-tenths of a mile at a pace faster than most athletes can sprint is not in question. It is the gamesmanship of the competition that can threaten to exhaust the runner, not the speed or the distance itself. The mental debate begins as soon as the starting gun goes off and lasts throughout the race: Should I spend the energy to surge forward, is he a stronger finisher than I am, should I drop back and let the man in front bear the wind, should I set pace or match pace, can I afford the time to slow down and snatch a cup of water from a volunteer’s outstretched hand, how much pain can I bear, how much pain can he bear, and on and on and on. Even on the best day every one of Lilesa’s gorgeous, fluid strides represents a complicated series of decisions.
In Rio de Janeiro in 2016 Lilesa had another decision to make, one that had nothing to do with athleticism or strategy. There was no free speech in Ethiopia at that time. There was no right to protest. Dissent was not tolerated. When the Oromo people protested the expansion of Addis Ababa into neighboring Oromo villages and ancestral farmlands, the government began killing hundreds of them and arresting thousands more. The X gesture — hands above the head, crossed as if handcuffed — became the symbol of Oromo protest.
Two hours, nine minutes, fifty-four seconds into his race, Lilesa soared over the finish line with his wrists crossed above his head in violation of both the Olympic Charter and the moratorium on political speech in his country. In Addis Ababa, where streets are named after champion distance runners, the state broadcaster refused to air his silver-medal finish. For him, going home again would be a long and troubled process.
In my mind, my father and I were always going to run a race together. As I imagined it, we’d pass each other energy gels and fall into an easy, even pace, exchanging meaningful glances that would cure each of us of the desire to slow down or quit. I could hear myself call out our split times for each section of the race, see him nod once in response. But we both dislike running with other people and have run together only a few times.
My father and I both imagine and idealize a relationship we’ve had only glimpses of: an easy closeness where we are able to see and respect each other, where we are willing to bend in the ways that would allow us to get along. I adore my dad — I will tell anyone who asks — and I have never questioned his love for me, even as we accumulate long stretches of estrangement and are unable to talk without arguing. We often feel judged and misunderstood by each other, so when we find a point of connection, we hold on to it.
In 2016 we followed the Ethiopian, Kenyan, and Eritrean marathon runners like superfans or gamblers. We knew who was running which race, who was injured, who looked strong. The way we talked about them exposed our adoration of each other. They were our secret language. No one else in our family runs.
At the start line of his Olympic race in Rio de Janeiro, Feyisa Lilesa knew that if he went through with his symbolic act at the finish, he might never again have an opportunity for an international audience. He held to the decision he had made for himself and his children and his country, knowing it might mean he could never go home for fear of retribution.
Six weeks later, on the day of the Oromo’s Irreechaa thanksgiving festival, Lilesa hid in a hotel in Rio while Tigray security forces killed seven hundred Oromo. Lilesa read about it online and waited to find out if his wife and children were safe.
Why run? The only real answer is: Because you told yourself you would. Because that’s how you learn who you are — by telling yourself things and seeing if you can will them into being true.
In Honolulu, Feyisa Lilesa does not wear green, yellow, or red, the colors of Ethiopia. He has not raced or been home in the nearly four months since Rio, the day the humidity hit 90 percent, the day he made his fateful choice. He squares his feet just behind the rubber starting mat on Ala Moana Boulevard. He has Nikes now, as many pairs as he needs, but it wasn’t so many years ago that he raced without them, his heels worn smooth from red-dirt roads.
The paper cups of water are stacked four high on plastic folding tables that bend under their weight. It is not yet five in the morning. My father and I have woken up in the middle of the night to serve as marathon volunteers, handing water to the runners, and we take our jobs very seriously. We are both injured from too much running. I have fractured my heel, and he has strained his Achilles tendon. So we both feel some version of the ache to be running. Our water station is well lit, but two hundred feet to the left or right the street is still dark. The volunteer coordinator has prepared us for the onslaught of people who will rush to our station, knocking into us, threatening to topple the table. We will hear the runners before we see them. We must be ready to obey the coordinator’s order to Hold the line!
Well before that thundering crush of thousands of moderately prepared hobby runners, there begins something that is less a sound and more a feeling: a small, crackling earthquake made of a pack of men. They’re coming, I whisper to my father, and he smiles at me, peering into the darkness, stretching his arm out with a paper cup of water in his hand. I do the same, though we still can’t see them.
My father checks his watch, and we crane our necks to the left, toward where the runners will come from. Suddenly, as if they have always been there, they stream toward us, neon singlets bleeding color into the black dark. They are gliding, flying — there is not enough poetry in the English language to describe the pack of magnificent bodies fast approaching. We know the faces of our favorites — Lawrence Cherono, Evans Chebet, Deribe Robi, Feyisa Lilesa. Our water station is the first, just two miles into the race. The runners have not made any big decisions yet.
The men run in a loose pack. As they pass us, they are so close we could touch them. Cherono grabs the water from my hand and tosses it over his head. Lilesa, glowing in his yellow-and-orange-striped singlet, hasn’t even broken a sweat. I watch him take my father’s water, and I know without seeing my father’s face that his expression matches mine.
As the rest of the pack speeds past, I fight back tears. My father turns to face me, and I see that he is choked up, too. We will probably go our whole lives without ever again being so close to such greatness.