“I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition.”

~Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

It is beginning to get light outside earlier in the morning, and this comforting phenomenon has been coupled with a general if erratic increase in temperature. I began formal marathon training Monday, using Bart Yasso’s sixteen-week plan. It’s odd to think that I’ve run two full marathons in the past yet never stuck tight to a real plan. In reading Deana Kastor’s Let Your Mind Run with my cross country team last year, I was inspired to, if I’m willing to let myself be completely honest, try a bit harder when it comes to running. Running has always been kind of a comma-and thing for me, as in, I’m a runner comma and I lift weights every day, or, I’m a cyclist comma and I also enjoy running. Despite the love I purport to have for the sport, I’ve never devoted myself wholly to it, never given much consideration to what might happen if I devoted the four hours a week I spent lifting weights to running, or what could be if I didn’t treat cheese, chicken wings, cheeseburgers, and wine like the four food groups of my life. I’m getting older, sure, but I’m excited to see what I can do if I actually train like a runner, sans the comma-and.

At the Hogeye Marathon in Fayetteville in 2005, at the age of 23, I finished in a time of 4:27:45. Having never run a marathon and having nothing to compare it with, I didn’t have any deep thoughts about my performance. I ran the twenty-six-point-two miles in a pair of really cool-looking really clunky Nikes that, by the end, felt like a vice grip clamping down tighter upon my toes with every painful step. The first six miles of the Hogeye, at least back then, ran you through Fayetteville, up and down some brutally steep hills, before opening up into fourteen miles of gently rolling meadows, then looping back into the brutal hills again. Any runner will tell you that the marathon is a twenty-mile run with a 10K at the end, and that it’s the 10K that gets you. Somewhere in that 10K, running down a steep hill in the increasingly warm sun, my quadriceps cramped, bringing me to my knees. Already penitent, I prayed until I could stand again, and finished the race at a grueling slog of no better than thirteen minutes per mile. The six plus hour car ride back to my home in Lincoln, Nebraska, was miserable, despite my friend Sky, who had run the half that day, doing all the driving.

Despite this prior experience, for some reason I decided to run the Chicago Marathon three years later. I was 27 years old in 2008, and I trained some of the time with a girl named McKenzie, the little sister of Sam who had played basketball for me at a local university where I had been an assistant coach. McKenzie trained harder than I did, and to this day I’m not sure why I didn’t take the training seriously. I think I was too in love with my muscles to stop lifting long enough to truly run, and too enamored with the night life of my late twenties to get enough sleep to train well. In Chicago, I finished the much flatter, yet much hotter course—which had the year before killed at least one person—in a time of 4:33:52. I was unable to run for six months afterward due to the pain in my knees, and when I did get back into running, I focused solely on half marathons, a much more manageable distance for those who are too distracted to train the way they ought.  At that time, with two under my belt, I had no real interest in ever running another marathon.

Then in 2019, I decided that I’d run twenty races in 2020. I was by then a father of two, a husband, and busy, but I had also settled down. There was no nightlife to speak of, and maintaining my bulging pectoral muscles was of far less importance to me by then. I signed up for Grandma’s Marathon, which is drive-able from our home in Omaha, reportedly a great course, and far enough north not to be too hot even in mid-June when the race is run. Of course, not long into 2020, races began to shut down. By the time Grandma’s emailed to say they weren’t going to hold their event in a pandemic, most of the other twenty had as well. I had run just one race, and though I briefly trained for the virtual version of Grandma’s, I realized quickly that if I was going to make a comeback, I didn’t want it to be like that. I still ran a lot in 2020, but no more races.

So here I am, almost fourteen years after my last marathon, and while I’ve run more than fifty half marathons since Chicago in 2008, I’m still part nervous, part giddy, about what lies ahead of me on that twenty-six-point-two mile journey. I took these feelings with me into Monday’s workout. Yasso had me running an “easy” five miles. As it was the last day of the month, I ran an extra point-one to round out a total of 188 miles for February, up eight from January despite having three fewer days to work with and losing several days to a stomach illness. Here’s what my February looked like, day by day:

February 2022 Running Log

February 1: 5 miles in 37:35

February 2: 5K in 25:05

February 3: 7 miles in 56:28

February 4: 13 miles

February 5: 10.5 miles

February 6: 4 miles

February 7: 10K in 53:13

February 8: 10K (no time)

February 9: 10 miles at a 9:20 pace

February 10: 7 miles in the morning, 10K in the afternoon

February 11: 8 miles

February 12: 11.5 miles

February 13: REST

February 14: Sick in bed

February 15: Sick in bed

February 16: 2 miles (still feeling sick, our 9th anniversary)

February 17: 7 miles in 58:23

February 18: 8 miles

February 19: 14 miles

February 20: 11 miles

February 21: 8 miles

February 22: 10K (48:20)

February 23: 6 miles (52:43)

February 24: 7 miles (56:28)

February 25: 5 miles (42:41)

February 26: 11 miles

February 27: REST

February 28: 5.1 miles

March first, a Tuesday, I ran uphill for nearly an hour. As prescribed by Bart Yasso’s training plan, I ran five miles of hills, but using a treadmill that looked like fifty-some minutes at a significant yet steady incline. My body held up well to what was admittedly a much more difficult run than usual. On SportsCenter, I learned that Ja Morant dropped fifty-two points for the Grizzlies last night. That man is a human highlight reel.

Wednesday morning I awoke to 39 degrees and decided it was time to run outside. Yasso’s plan called for four easy miles, but the perfect morning wouldn’t let me stop at that, and I ended up running three miles down the trail and three back for a total of six before hopping on the bike to cool down with a protein shake. Thursday was colder, so I opted to do my race-pace run on the treadmill. I ran six miles at an 8:57 pace, my hope being to run twenty-six-point-two of those come June, which would give me an overall time of right around 3:55. I’m banking on there being a 3:55 pacer there and making that time me “A” goal. Sub-4:00 will then be my “B” goal and my “C” will be to PR, which would be anything under the 4:27:45 that I ran seventeen years ago in Arkansas. I normally counsel my runners to set more attainable C goals than a PR, but the way I’m training and feeling right now I feel good about these goals. Should I hit a significant snag in the next sixteen weeks, of course, then I may have to adjust them.

In my senior English classes, all four of them, we’re doing a simple little assignment that I called “Find Something Beautiful.” I’ve paid quite a bit of lip service, and my students have joined in, to the idea that Afghanistan is not simply the land of the Taliban, not only a war zone, not just some devastated desert far away, but rather a place of beautiful culture and important history. It’s one thing to know this in principle, of course, but another to truly get it. To help my students (and myself) to truly get it, I put together this assignment. I asked students to locate something they personally think is beautiful in Afghanistan. Then they put an image of that thing on a Power Point slide, caption it, provide a link to their source, and send it to me so I can project it for the class.

The first thing that I was grateful for was the level of buy-in. Sure, it’s not a difficult assignment, but that alone doesn’t get some students to do their work. And yet most of my students did this assignment and, more than that, spoke enthusiastically to their classmates when the time came about what they chose and why.

Among the many slides, there was the beauty of several forms of traditional Afghan dress and mouthwatering plates of Mantu, Bolani, and kababs. There was the great Blue Mosque in Mazari Sharif, the sheer natural beauty of Band-e Amir National Park, ancient oil paintings, pottery, and the stunning peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains as they stand towering over the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Every student found something uniquely beautiful and articulated how they selected what they did with ease and confidence. It was about the best use of a class period that I could imagine.

Friday morning was…weird. It was supposed to be a rest day, but normally I rest on Sundays. I got up and rode the stationary bike for a bit, then lifted weights and did core. It didn’t feel very productive without running, but instead of resting Sunday there were ten miles waiting for me. I’ll get used to this new schedule, I told myself. I used to run every other day, as my knees hurt and I wanted to conserve them. Now that I feel good, I’d rather run every day; taking a day off is difficult and feels unproductive, even though I know I need the recovery time if I’m going to have any chance of making it through the entire year.

Saturday I was slated for an easy five miles. It was raining hard and around fifty degrees when I went out, but I didn’t want to wait as the temperatures promised to drop and I wanted to be done in time to spend the afternoon with my family. I tore holes in a trash bag and stuck my head through the top one, my arms out the sides. The bag kept me dry and warm and while I may have looked a bit silly I felt great and ended up running eight miles just because I didn’t want to stop. The rain was heavy the entire time. Near the end, I passed a runner who was clearly soaked to the bone. “That bag is brilliant,” she remarked, the envy easily identifiable in her voice.

Sunday was cold. The increase in temperature that I noted at the start of the week was but a cruel joke that Nebraska plays on its residents each year, though the sunlight coming earlier in the morning is enjoyable and far more reliable than the temperatures. I bundled the kids up and took them to our favorite little café for doughnuts, then returned home and bundled up still further. The sun was deceptive. The real temp was in the low to mid 20’s, and the breeze probably dropped it another ten degrees. Still, I felt good, felt strong, and felt a sense of urgency knowing that next Saturday morning I’m leaving the country and will most likely struggle to get serious miles in on my vacation. I let that fact move me a bit on Sunday morning, and finished with a half marathon under my belt.

Through the first two months of 2022, I’ve raised a little over $1,000 to help the Refugee Empowerment Center relocate Afghans to Nebraska. The limited success of February—despite running even more miles in the second month of the year than I did in the first—reminds me that progress is slow, but that patience can be deadly. Whether we’re talking about children starving in Afghanistan right now under the failed leadership of Taliban warlords, or instead of the Ukranians who are fighting valiantly to slay Goliath with little more than moral support from their supposed western allies, I am more convinced than ever that the time to act is now, but that the path toward meaningful action is often winding and obscured. The valiant requests for support by President Zelensky have not gone unnoticed, but they have seemingly by and large gone unrewarded. How long can Ukraine last? Is it destined to be the next Afghanistan, abandoned by its allies, the victim of those who would counsel patience in a time of crisis? I am reminded of something a former American diplomat once said of Rwanda: “The United States does not have friends. The United States has interests.”  Thoughts like this often make it difficult for me to sleep at night.

At the rate I’m going, I’ll run an awful lot of miles in 2022, thousands in fact, and raise around $6,000 to help Afghans in Nebraska. Maybe that is significant, but it’s far short of my goal, and in the grand spectrum of all that is going on in the world right now, it makes me feel feeble and somehow impotent. I’m unsure of how to be more effective, but I feel strongly I must be. If you’re reading this, please consider sharing what I’m doing with people you know, consider running with me to raise money or, if you prefer, donating to the cause. I’ll provide the link again below. The people who need our help don’t need it eventually. They need it now. Thanks as ever for your support, in whatever form you may provide it.

Mark

You can start running the Kandahar Marathon, or help out with a donation, here:  https://www.fanangel.com/campaigns/2315/story

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