Girma Bedada is one of the estimated 30,000 runners competing in the Philadelphia Marathon and Half Marathon on Sunday.

He'll race among the other elite athletes, and could even break the course record. But there's more than speed that distinguishes Bedada, 35, who has survived torture and persecution in his native Ethiopia.

For him, running has become a way to reclaim some of what was taken from him.

"When I'm running, I want to succeed," Bedada said in a phone interview last week. "I want to heal myself."

In his hometown of Addis Ababa, Bedada was a sports hero. He competed in top-seeded races all over the world, and his prize money helped support his family.

But in 2013, Bedada was detained for 10 days - he never found out exactly why - and tortured by the nation's ruling political coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Bedada fled to the United States and sought refuge in Washington. According to U.S. Census data, more than 164,000 Ethiopians came to this country from 2008 to 2012 for various reasons.

In his new country, he picked up a few part-time jobs and continued to run on the side. Later in 2013, he won the 38th annual Marine Corps Marathon in two hours, 21 minutes, 32 seconds.

But then the running came to a halt.

In early 2014, Bedada got word from his family in Addis Ababa that his sister had committed suicide.

"When Girma fled, authorities harassed his sister so much that she was afraid she was going to be arrested, so she hung herself," said Alan Parra, Bedada's immigration lawyer.

"That's all on me," Bedada said.

He fell into a crippling depression and quit his beloved sport.

"I wanted to die," Bedada said. "I didn't want to eat. I wasn't sleeping. I didn't want to run. There was a lot of pain for me in my life."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are the most common maladies seen in refugees.

Parra referred Bedada to the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International in Washington for treatment. The organization was established by torture survivors to serve other surviving victims and provides legal support, medical referrals, housing, and job training.

Gizachew Emiru, executive director of TASSC, said the group had worked with more than 30 elite runners from Ethiopia.

When TASSC board member Kate Sugarman met Bedada, he was one of the worst cases she had ever seen.

"He could not even make eye contact," said Sugarman, who is a physician. "I thought his vocal cords were damaged because I could barely hear his voice. The only word that he spoke was hopeless."

Sugarman often acts as a referral service for TASSC members, sending survivors to psychologists or physical therapists.

"Some have tangible injuries like back or leg pain from the torture, which makes it hard for them to run again," she said. "Others don't have any free time to train. Every day they're working two jobs."

Sugarman recalled one runner whose Achilles tendon was targeted during beatings throughout his detainment. He wants to get back to running but can't schedule physical therapy sessions due to his long shifts at work.

After working with a psychologist, Bedada's fog of despair began to lift.

"There's this stereotype that African people won't want to go to therapy, but [the psychologist] has survivors lining up around the block for her services," Sugarman said.

Little by little, Bedada began to open up about his detainment. But, still, he would not run.

Sugarman was desperate to get him back to the sport he loved. Finally, in the winter of 2014, Sugarman and another torture survivor persuaded Bedada to sign up for TASSC's fund-raising run.

"I was an intense cheerleader," Sugarman said. "I got the ladies from my local running club to join in. We had team dinners. We had this whole big production just to get him to do a 5K."

In the spring, Bedada completed another 5K, the Rock 'n' Roll D.C. race. Bedada placed fourth overall, and Sugarman thought he would be disappointed with his finish, given his past achievements. Instead, Bedada became determined.

"He said he needed to start training harder and get better shoes," Sugarman said.

Sugarman said Bedada wouldn't be running one step without the help of his psychologist.

"I can see it on his face, when he's warming up for a race, he's just so happy," Sugarman said.

In September, Bedada and Sugarman ran the Parks Half Marathon in Bethesda, Md. But not together.

"He waited an hour and 20 minutes at the finish line for me," Sugarman said.

Seeing so many refugees who also were elite runners, Parra started a club this year so they could continue their profession. Former Ethiopia coach Abebe Gessesse volunteered his time at the Black Lion Athletics Club in Washington.

The group will be in Philadelphia with both Bedada and a 32-year-old countryman who asked to be called Mesfim, rather than his real name, for fear of retribution against his family.

"I'm happy I'm here but I still think about my brother back home," Mesfim said.

His brother, also a runner, is still being held for political reasons in an Ethiopian prison, but his family has no idea which one of more than 100 federal and regional institutions is holding him.

Parra said asylum for both runners was pending.

The Philadelphia Half Marathon course record is 1:02:29, set by Kenyan Valentine Orare in 2006.

Bedada's best marathon time is 2:15, and Mesfim has posted a 2:12 marathon personal record.

Mesfim and Bedada have run for family and for their country, but now they will run for something more.

In an interview, Mesfim referenced Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie, two Ethiopian athletes widely regarded among the greatest distance runners of all time.

"All the time when I run, I'm thinking about those people," Mesfim said. "I want to be like them and represent a country the way they do. I want to be best for whatever country I'm running for."

215-854-2237

@keloshea