Washington, DC - When long-distance runners are in their stride, thoughts weave from pace and distance, to discomfort and the environment.
For Feyisa Lilesa, the Oromo marathoner who won a silver medal for Ethiopia at the Rio Olympics, his thoughts go to friends and family dying and disappearing in anti-government protests.
Lilesa grew up running 7km to school and back in his home state of Oromia, the protest epicentre, and it is hard for him to forget where he came from.
That is why he used his Olympic debut to protest against his government, joining the ranks of athletes like Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave a black power salute on the podium of the 1968 Summer Games.
"Even when I practised, personally my legs were running but my mind was also racing, preoccupied by the suffering all around me," he told Al Jazeera's The Stream on Monday in Washington, DC, where he is contemplating whether he can ever return to Ethiopia.
"All this has been on my mind for a very, very long time."
Oromo youth tired of being Ethiopia's largest ethnic group yet treated like second-class citizens, have been protesting for nearly a year.
‘Ethiopian police killed hundreds of protesters’
They began when the government floated a plan to expand the capital into land worked by Oromo farmers, then continued after security forces used live bullets to tamp down the unrest.
Lilesa says his wife's brother went missing in one of the protests, and his friend died in a suspicious fire at a prison where opposition figures were held.
On track for the Olympics, the 26-year-old knew he could not show support in the streets, but he could bring the Oromo cause to an even bigger stage.
"As soon as I was selected for the Rio Olympic team, I decided if I won and got a good result, I wanted to use that opportunity to raise awareness and the voice of my people."
Lilesa says that he did not share his plans with his family because he did not want to worry them. They would have to find out when the rest of the world did.
He is now in Washington where he kicked off a media blitz on Monday wearing a slim black suit with white piping, his hair in a medium-length afro.
He is telling the press that he is not seeking asylum, that he will spend the next few months training out West where the altitude is higher, while he figures out what is best for him and his family.
In a sit-down interview with Al Jazeera, he relied on a translator to express the grief he feels being separated from his wife, five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.
"Every time I call my wife, they want to know when I'm coming. They ask me, 'What are you up to, when are you coming home?' This makes me emotional inside, so even when I call on Skype, I have to fight back tears."
The Oromo, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, allege systematic persecution [Wolfgang Kumm/ EPA]
His children have a better life than he did growing up because of the comforts that being an elite runner in Ethiopia brings.
The irony, he says, is that growing up poor, working on a farm, living far from school, is what grooms the best runners.
"The kind of living environment that leads people into running is not the kind of comfortable living they have right now."
But the environment still is not what Lilesa wants for his son and daughter, or any other Oromo child growing up in Ethiopia.
He looks to the US, an ally of Ethiopia, as a better example of what his country could be.
"I heard Obama making a statement when there were children being killed in America by gun violence and he cried on the national TV. That’s the kind of government you have. But on the other side in Ethiopia, we have a government that is killing its own people, children as young as nine years old," Lilesa said.
"The freedoms Americans enjoy here, and the kind of government they have, that's what the American government should be pushing Ethiopia to do."
US President Obama got flak last year when he praised Ethiopia for its "democratically elected" government after the ruling party won 100 percent of parliamentary seats.
Ethiopia's largest ethnic group 'marginalised'
Even Getachew Reda, the Ethiopian minister, told Al Jazeera’s The Stream he is "not particularly proud" of that statistic.
Reda considers his government a work in progress and insists "some officials will have to be removed for having failed their people".
The assurance does not impress Lilesa, who says that he does not trust Reda or anyone else in the Ethiopian government.
What it would take to bring him home, he says, is real change.
"I want the superiority of one ethnic group to end. If everyone does not have equal power, their different political, religious views respected, in the future, there will not be sustainable peace in the country."
With a temporary US visa, and an unknown future, little seems sustainable for the runner right now.
But he is an endurance athlete, familiar with the long game.
His hero, after all, is Oromo marathon runner Abebe Bikila, who won the gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics while running bare foot.
Lilesa says that he does not consider himself a hero, but he understands why some people call him that.
"They carry around a deep wound, and when a doctor touches a wound, it makes you feel better. I sort of rubbed their wounds."
Inside Story - What is triggering Ethiopia's unrest?
A runner has become the latest Ethiopian athlete to stage a political protest in Rio, after he crossed the finish line in a 1500m event at the Paralympics.
Tamiru Demisse, who was competing in the final of the T13 race for visually impaired runners, crossed his arms above his head as he crossed the line in second place, taking silver behind Algeria’s Abdellatif Baka.
The crossed-arms symbol is in reference to the political persecution of the Oromo ethnic group by the government back home, and echoed a similar gesture made by Feyisa Lilesa at the end of the marathon event in the Olympics.
Unlike Feyisa, who was reminded by officials that the International Olympic Committee frowns upon political gestures at the Games, Tamiru also repeated the gesture during the ceremony to receive his medal.
Last month, Feyisa explained that he he conducted his protest in response to the killing of the Oromo people, saying the government was “killing our people”.
He has now travelled to the US, after a crowd-funding campaign to support him and his family raised its target of $150,000. He said if he returned to Ethiopia “they will kill me… or if not kill me, they will put me in prison”.
Sunday evening’s T13 1500m race was also remarkable for the fact that the top three runners, Algeria’s Baka, Tamiru and Kenya’s Henry Kirwa, all ran faster times than the 3:50:00 that won gold for the US’s Matthew Centrowitz Jr in the Olympic 1500m race.
The conflict between the government and the Oromo, the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia, flared up last year over land and political rights.
Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 500 people have been killed since the government began a brutal crackdown on political protests. The government disputes that figure.
Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa (silver) crosses the finish line of the Men's Marathon athletics event during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro on August 21, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNISADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty ImagesAn Ethiopian Olympian marathon runner who said he wanted to seek asylum after making a symbolic protest against his country’s repressive regime during the Olympics, has arrived in the US.
Feyisa Lilesa claimed silver in the marathon event in Rio last month and crossed the line with his arms crossed over his head in a solidarity with Oromo activists, who are staging protests in Ethiopia. The 26-year-old later repeated the gesture during the race’s medal ceremony and at a press conference, saying he was afraid to go back to his homeland.
On Friday the BBC reported that he had arrived in the US. The Ethiopian government has been accused by Amnesty International and other rights groups of brutally cracking down on dissent and Lilesa failed to return to the country last month, despite assurances from the country’s Information Minister Getachew Red that he had nothing to fear and would be welcomed home as a hero.
However when Ethiopian sports officials congratulated the team, but made no mention of Lilesa’s silver medal achievement – one of only eight medals won by the country’s team.
Speaking after the race, Feyisa said: “If not kill me, the will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country”.
His family later said the runner wanted to claim asylum in the US and a crowdfunding campaign, which has raised £113,000, was set up to pay his legal fees and support his family in Ethiopia.
The runner is from Oromia – home to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo people – where in November 2015 more than 400 people were killed by security forces.
The clashes came amid complaints over social and political marginalisation by the 35 million-strong Oromo community, Human Rights Watch reported.
A spokesperson for the Ethiopian embassy in London, which has reportedly been targeted by Oromo protesters in recent days. told i that the claimed death toll was “inaccurate” .
In recent weeks violence has spread to the Amhara region amid increasing instability, and locals have been shaving their heads as a sign of solidarity with jailed opposition leaders.