Week Five

“The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other…but to be with each other.”

~Chris McDougall, Born to Run

I slept badly again—apparently its my new Sunday night tradition. This time, however, it was fueled not by the adrenaline of an unlikely Kansas City win but instead by the anguish of an equally unlikely Chiefs loss. After going up twenty-one to three in the first quarter and holding a significant lead at halftime, we managed to lose the game. It hurt, but I had friends over, and we drowned our collective sorrow in smoked chicken legs, chocolate chip cookies, and red wine. At the urging of one friend, I opened a bottle of sparkling wine with a kitchen knife, a party trick that distracted me momentarily from the anguish of defeat.  My stomach and I tossed and turned all night, waking up every hour or so, and come five in the morning I was groggy and out of it. I stuck out a rough three-point-eight miles on the treadmill, which got me to exactly a hundred and eighty for the month of January. It’s the most miles I’ve ever run in a single month, and the result is $813.00 raised to support the Refugee Empowerment Center. I feel great about that, and hope that I can maintain the momentum for the next eleven months.

In January, I averaged just under six miles a day. Here’s what it looked like:

January 1: 10 (brutal) miles in sub-zero temps on mountain roads (race #1—virtual)

January 2: 2 miles of recovery.

January 3: 5K (3.1 miles) in 30:40

January 4: 5.5 miles

January 5: 5K in 28:46

January 6: 2 miles

January 7: 5 miles in 42:59

January 8: 1 mile

January 9: Rest

January 10: 10K (6.2 miles) in 53:18 (race #2—virtual)

January 11: 5 miles in 37:41 in the morning, 5.5 more miles at night

January 12: 5 miles in 37:40

January 13: 10K in 50:03 in the morning, 5.5 more miles at night

January 14: 10 miles in 1:35:00

January 15: 7 miles in 57:06

January 16: Rest

January 17: 16 miles (race #3—virtual)

January 18: 5 miles in 42:33

January 19: 5 miles

January 20: 7 miles in 55:48

January 21: 9 miles

January 22: 10 miles

January 23: Rest

January 24: 8 miles in 1:04:00

January 25: 5 miles in 39:17

January 26: 5K in 22:13

January 27: 3 miles in the morning, 5 more in the afternoon

January 28: 10K in 50:14

January 29: 12 miles

January 30: Rest

January 31: 3.8 miles to finish with 180 for January

In addition to running, I rode 81.3 miles on the Peloton, did an hour and thirteen minutes of core, and lifted a bit. I also watched what I ate, and these things combined have me feeling pretty good…even as the cookies and chicken continue to settle in my stomach from last night.

Monday night, Sonja and I noticed a car in the drive next door. We walked over and met the folks from Lutheran Family Services who were helping set up the house for the incoming family. They had gallons of milk, at least ten pounds of tomatoes and carrots, bags and bags of flour, and more. I helped them haul the food inside, and asked what they knew about the family. “They’ll be coming from a camp,” the man told me in slightly accented English (I had heard him speaking Pashto to his colleague earlier, though his English was flawless and had an almost Midwestern twang to it at times). “Where?” I asked, and was startled by his answer. “Brazil, perhaps,” he said, “But it’s hard to know. Just know that they’re currently living in a tent and that they’re going to love it here,” he said. 

Added to my morning routine of writing a daily gratitude journal while I down a shot of espresso, working out, and dressing myself is now the somehow cathartic ritual of driving past the little park a few blocks east of our home and dropping off another live mouse. They’re always reluctant to leave the livetrap, but once they do bound in such a way that you never see indoors. They leap the length of their bodies eightfold, and it becomes clear to me as a runner just how unimpressive the human body is from a physical standpoint. I often belabor this with my runners. “Every fish looks at you and thinks ‘oh sweetie, stop,’” I tell them. “Every three-legged dog can outrun the fastest sprinter in a hundred-yard dash. Every goat can outclimb you. We can’t fly. We’ve no fangs and no claws, and our muscles are inferior to those of any other animal of comparable size.” My cross country runners get a kick out of this little “TED Talk” and I give it quite often. “The only advantages we have,” I remind them, “are the ability to run long distance, and, of course, the thinky-thinky parts in our heads.” I usually conclude by saying something to the effect of “Know your strengths and leverage them.”  The swimmers on my cross country team don’t think I’m funny, but I don’t intend to be. Ever seen a fish in the water?

The first day of February, I resolved to add more lifting to my routine, but I still managed to get five miles in on Tuesday morning in addition to core exercises—vital to being a runner—and also some biking.  Wednesday was similar, but I only managed a 5K and, as I examined my week, realized that while a 5K is a great workout in most contexts, increments of 3.1 miles don’t add up very fast. Wednesday and Thursday were set aside in five classes out of the six I teach for Socratic Seminar (I’m not doing a focused unit on Afghanistan in World Religions as I make a concerted effort to make sure that each unit on the five religions we study is allotted precisely a three-week period). Yet again, and almost predictably, my students impressed me with their insights during our discussions. My second block seniors launched into passionate, lengthy conversations about Afghanistan, the Taliban, America’s role there, and always tied their ideas back to their books. It was brilliant, and I wish that every person who has ever questioned “kids these days” could have been a fly on that wall—though such a wall would surely become a disgusting swarm, as doubters of youth are ubiquitous, in particular among those who are jealous of them, I’ve found. One of my students who aspires to be a teacher punctuated the seminar beautifully by saying “I feel like if more people sat down and talked about books like this, a lot more people would read,” a remark that was met with enthusiastic agreement by her peers. She’s so right, of course, and I was so thankful that she said it. Books are a common experience; to read the same book as another person is akin to taking a vacation with them—you will have that shared experience to discuss together for the rest of your lives.

Thursday morning, I squeezed in seven miles on the treadmill at an 8-minute pace. I attempted to watch The Office, perhaps my favorite show of all time, but I found it was difficult to enjoy on the treadmill and soon flipped over to SportsCenter. As I was leaving the house, a colleague called me from the side of the road with a flat tire, asking for a ride. It was no trouble to pick him up. It was, in fact, another gift.

That night, after a few after school meetings which were both genuinely enjoyable, I could barely keep my eyes open. I got home just in time to help put the kids to bed, read some of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to Titus—the part where Umbridge is taken by the centaurs—and then spoke briefly to Sonja before crashing a little after 8:30 myself. I awoke next day before my 5am alarm, observed that the weather was a balmy seven degrees but that windchill dropped it well into the negatives, and bundled up in layers upon layers upon layers. I hadn’t gotten a good long run in for a few days, and I struck out around Hanscom Park, one of my preferred ways to lengthen a trail run by a few miles. Then I dropped down onto the trail and headed out on my usual route.

As I neared the bakery, or what I have always assumed is a bakery because it emits powerful aromas of blueberry pie filling, I was struck by another familiar yet less desirable smell, and it was strong enough to put me on high alert. The scent of skunk is one I grew up with; the furry little devils live all across the Midwest and they’re cute and harmless so long as you don’t get on their bad side. Running at them, however, is a great way to wind up on their bad side, the tail end as it were. As I trotted along under the overpass I put my head on a swivel—one of those remarkable things that makes humans superior long distance runners to nearly every other creature. Panning my head left to right, it didn’t take long to detect a movement in the dark, and skunks do us the favor of wearing a rather unmistakable pattern. Unfortunately, the culprit was a baby, and growing up on the plains I learned that baby skunks, much like baby rattlesnakes, are by far more dangerous than their more mature relatives as they’re less inclined to show any sort of self-restraint. I ascertained that the intensity of the smell was likely the result of this overzealous youngster, who moved off the trail and eyeballed me as I trotted past, but made no move to take a shot. Soon, the stink was behind me, and by the time I got home I’d run a little better than thirteen miles.  I had a half marathon and a bagel for breakfast, plus I got to see a skunk—not a bad start to the day.

Later in the morning, however, I noticed a blister on my right foot, tucked into my high arch. The coloration was concerning. In a past life I was a personal trainer. Blood blisters are red. Others are mostly the color of the person’s skin, stretched taut. This one was multi-colored, not unlike the color of the sauce my wife likes on her French fries, a sickening mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup, which frankly disgusts me. I took a small blade to the side of the blister and the color of what came out was what I expected. I was able to drain it and pat the skin back down; it should heal quickly. That said, between that blister of unknown origin (I almost never get blisters) and a rather alarming amount of—please forgive me—what I can only describe as rotten skin and pus between the fourth and fifth metatarsals on my left foot, tucked up into the hammer shape on my fifth, I can’t pretend I’m not concerned.

Saturday I went out for a long jog at an easy pace, and covered ten and a half miles, putting me at over thirty-eight on the week, thirty of those in the past three days. This, I realized, wasn’t conducive to my plans to run a 5K Sunday morning, what I would normally take as a day of rest, but I feel more compelled now than ever to get my miles in, never missing a chance to run if I can help it. Sunday came, and I read in my chair, had a cup of coffee, then another, then a bowel movement and a bagel—my usual pre-race routine. At the start line of the little 5K, themed around the Super Bowl and hosted by a local running store, I warmed up in thirty degrees and sunlight. “Just a jog,” I kept reminding myself. “It’s just a jog today, a recovery run.” But something about pinning on a bib wouldn’t allow me to think, or run, that way, and at “Go!” the chirp of my Garmin set me off at a 6:30 pace that I knew I could never sustain.

I finished the first mile of my first 5K in nearly two years in 6:54, which is usually an “uh oh” for me because I know I can’t last at that pace. I was in seventh place overall, I thought, after a mile, and thought a lot about Deena Kastor’s book, the equalizer runs I put my runners through during the year. “Fight them off,” I told myself. “Don’t get caught.” I was breathing hard, nearly panting, but kept turning my legs over. Shortly before the 1.55 turnaround point, I heard “Mark Gudgel!” from a runner in a purple singlet upon which was a picture of a kitten in a space helmet. I’m not unused to being recognized, but had no idea who the man was.

I finished mile two in 7:18, slower than mile one but not bad, and wondered if I could will myself to do one more. I kept turning them over, and while the runners in front of me, visible on the long straight trail, never seemed to get closer, neither did I hear footfalls behind me. At one point I glanced back and saw a few runners maybe fifty yards back. “Fight them off, fight them off,” I told myself, willing my feet to pound as hard as my lungs. At mile three I could see the finish, and my Garmin chirped 7:17. No looking back now. I crossed the line in seventh place and turned around, my pursuers now barely visible. I hadn’t meant to race, but we were born to run, and racing other people felt amazing. I ended up getting second in my age group, which came with a medal. My time of 22:11, unofficially, was one of the best I’ve run since high school.

At the finish, I identified my identifier as my freshman year roommate, Ryan. A great guy, we don’t see enough of each other, and we stood catching our breath and catching up for quite a while after the race. As more and more cosmic kittens crossed the finish line, Feroz came up and said hello as well. Once in politics in Afghanistan, Feroz is an inspiration to me and always has been. He asked if I was still running the Kandahar Marathon, and I proudly told him yes I was.

The short month of February will have passed before I know it; today is already the sixth. I have no illusions about matching last month’s total of 180 miles this month, though I managed 42.6 this first week and, despite minor setbacks with my feet, I feel healthy and strong. Tomorrow promises another morning run and another day of teaching and learning about Afghanistan with my students, and honestly, I can’t wait.

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