A seat next to Feyisa Lilesa en route to Chicago Marathon

By Matt Fitzgerald

(Final Surge) – When I sat down this morning [October 5, 2017] in what I thought was Seat 17A on the small plane that would take me and Aaron Braun from Flagstaff to Phoenix, I noticed that Feyisa Lilesa, Ethiopian political exile and silver medalist in the 2016 Olympic Marathon, was seated in the same row as me, on the opposite side of the aisle. Moments later, another passenger informed me that I had in fact taken her seat (17D) and I realized that I was supposed to be sitting right next to Feyisa, a runner I have long admired.

He got up so I could shimmy over to the window. After we’d both buckled up, I introduced myself.

“Are you going to Chicago?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Are you running the marathon?”

“Yes,” I repeated.

Feyisa then asked if I lived in Flagstaff and I explained my situation. He showed no recognition of the name Northern Arizona Elite.

“White people all look the same to me,” he volunteered. “I go to the supermarket and somebody says, ‘Hi, Feyisa,’ and I think, ‘Who are you?’”

I laughed. Having travelled in Africa, I know that political correctness does not exist there the same way it does here.

“Who did you work with?” Feyisa asked.

After a moment’s confusion, I realized that by “work” he meant “train,” and I reiterated that I had trained with NAZ Elite.

“I worked with Abdi,” he said. “When you come back to Flagstaff you should work with us and you will improve.”

“Well, I DID improve,” I said, feeling defensive of my coach and teammates.

“What is your strategy?” Feyisa asked.

“Well, I’m an old man, not a real professional,” I hedged. “My goal is to run between 2:37 and 2:39.”

Feyisa has run 2:04. He showed no further interest in my running.

The plane took off and our conversation turned to Ethiopian food, culture, and politics, steered in that direction by my mention of Futsum Zeinaselassie, who was born in Eritrea, which fought a long war with Ethiopia. Feyisa is proud of his people but despises his country’s current government—something I knew already from the headlines he generated with the crossed-arms gesture he made when crossing the finish line in Rio.

“Ethiopians are very generous,” he said. “We will give you our last piece of bread if you are hungry. But if I go back there, the government will kill me.”

I asked Feyisa how many times he had run Chicago. He said this will be his fourth time.

“But this time, no pacers,” he said. “When I ran 2:04 in 2012, we had pacers. This time I must sleep.” He made a pillow of his hands and rested a cheek against it. “Five K, 10K, sleep.”

I took “sleep” to mean be patient and accept a slow early pace.

I told Feyisa that his epic battle with Sammy Wanjiru in the 2010 Chicago Marathon was one of the greatest races I’d ever seen.

“Ah, Wanjiru,” he said with a regretful shake of the head. “He was crazy!”

The flight from Flagstaff to Phoenix takes just 23 minutes. We were already descending when I pulled up the Chicago weather forecast on my phone and showed it to Feyisa.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“For me it’s no problem,” he said, curling his lips. “It’s the same for everyone. You have to be prepared.”

He put a finger to his temple to indicate that he meant mentally prepared.

“You said white people all look the same to you,” I said to Feyisa later as we walked up the JetWay together. “Will you know me if I see you on the start line Sunday?”

“I will know you now,” he said.

Read more at Matt’s blog:

LIVE STREAM the 2017 Chicago Marathon:

Also to watch: The great Tirunesh Dibaba.



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OPride Staff

Collaborative stories written or reported by OPride staff and contributors.

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