“If another quake doesn’t kill us, poverty might.”
~A survivor of the earthquake in Afghanistan
I began the week with what would later seem like ambitious goals of returning to form and running forty miles or more. After running Saturday and Sunday of the previous week, I went out Monday and got seven and a half miles in. Tuesday, I went out looking for five or six, but soon realized I was dragging tired legs through a hot and humid afternoon. An ominous pain in the anterior of my left knee was all the reason I needed to abbreviate my run, finishing with two and a half miles and taking Wednesday off completely. Thursday morning, I got up early and got six miles in before my meeting that started at seven. I felt light, I ran light, but I knew I wasn’t fully recovered yet and attempted to reflect that understanding both with my pace and by hyperbolically tightening my gait and lightening my footfalls with a pronounced midfoot strike.
Bosnia was beckoning to me. I spent most of the week in preparations to depart for three weeks of research in Sarajevo. I made list after list, got approved for Global Entry, changed some cash over for Euros, and ordered more Europe-to-US plug adapters. I worked on my presentations for the State Department and the “Why Remember?” conferences, and emailed with my interpreter/driver, Adi, who informed me that I won’t be getting much done on the 8th and 9th as it is Eid. No problem, I told him, secretly wishing he might invite me to join him for the festivities. The reality, of course, is that I’m not Muslim and don’t speak Bosnian, so I’d stand out like a sore thumb even in the most inclusive of environments. I’ll enjoy walking the streets of Bascarsija those days all the same.
There is little news coming out of Afghanistan these days that makes it to me on its own. My push notifications are all about the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade. Ukraine makes a cameo in my feed every now and again. Recent elections here in the states got some play for a day or two. NBA free agency is underway. To get news on Afghanistan, I have to seek it out. This wasn’t the case a year ago, when the US abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban, but clearly we’ve moved on. It’s not difficult to imagine that there could be people in the world—literate people who read or listen to global news—who could have missed the fact that Afghanistan just suffered a horrific earthquake entirely. And yet to log in to Al Jazeera and search for “Afghanistan” reveals countless stories about the devastation being endured there, and how the poorest Afghans in the most rural areas have predictably been the hardest hit.
The Taliban, apparently, have gone so far as to promise not to interfere with aid coming into the country on behalf of the Afghan people. I don’t put much stock in the promises of the Taliban, though I suppose that’s pretty rich coming from an American. How could any foreign nation or person trust the word of the US now? We backed out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Accords, and Afghanistan as well. You’d have to be a fool to put any stock in the word of the Americans. “There’s nothing left,” said one survivor of the earthquake. “If another quake doesn’t kill us, poverty might,” said another. Over a thousand people died. I doom-scrolled through endless photographs; the destruction mother nature unleashed with her 5.9 magnitude earthquake seems to have exceeded anything the American military might be capable of. There was nothing left of houses but rubble, rubble and body bags, an endless loop of horror.
I thought about the assignments I had given my students, asking them to find the beauty in Afghanistan. In response they brought to class the poetry of Rumi, images of stunning mountain views, music, food, dance, and so much more. But on Al Jazeera, nothing but earthquakes—rubble and body bags—for as far as I could bring myself to scroll. Who was right? If we focus only on the terrible, are we not doing a disservice to the nation and its rich history and beautiful culture? Or is discussing poetry during a time of crisis just putting lipstick on a pig? It donned on me that just over a week after the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, effectively wresting control of women’s bodies from their grasp and placing it in the hands of the government, we were about to celebrate our independence from Britain with a bunch of Chinese explosives. How far away am I from being permanently angry, I wondered. Maybe I already am.
July one, a Thursday, I sent a message out on my blog, also on all of my social media channels, appealing for more support. A quick tally told me that I’d run 132 miles in June, far fewer than any previous month in 2022 due to a period of taper before my marathon and a period of recovery afterward. Over the course of the next few days, donations came in at a rate I hadn’t experienced since at least the launch of this project six months earlier. Hundreds of dollars in outright donations were complimented by mileage pledges that took my per-mile rate from $.26/mile to $1.52/mile in about twenty-four hours. I was reenergized by such generosity. On the first, a Friday, I had managed to squeeze in only a quick four miles, but Saturday morning I went out motivated by this new support and ran eight miles, the longest distance I’d run since the marathon. I’m still recovering, and my muscles often feel heavy and fatigued early in a run, but I found that by mile six I felt light again. It makes sense that recovering from a race like the marathon I just ran takes a bit of time, though I remain a terribly impatient person.
Sunday morning I woke up early, made a cup of coffee, and read a book I picked up recently about the history of Chalone, a vineyard and winery in the Santa Cruz AVA of California. In the background, Stan Getz. My friend Brian, whom I have known forever and who paces races with me, the same one who is signed up to run the St. Jude Marathon with me in December, was in town visiting family and so stopped by. We did five miles on the trail at around a nine-minute pace together, chatting the entire way. It was a peaceful and cathartic experience to run and talk with someone with whom I have run and talked for so long now. Brian understands me better than most people and I was eager to get his advice on my recent struggles with mental health.
I’m no better at quieting the cacophony of noise in my head than I was before, and lately I’ve been moodier than usual (which is saying something). I’ve been speaking to close friends—like Brian—as well as medical professionals, and I am formulating a multifaceted plan that includes everything from meditation to medication to begin upon my return from Bosnia in late July. Compounding things significantly was some rather startling news from my doctor that came this week. My cholesterol has always been a bit high, but as an endurance athlete she told me previously that she liked my odds of controlling it. I take supplements with garlic and fish oil in them that are supposed to help as well, and during our visit this week as we were discussing my options after a blood draw, she told me “Yeah, I think we were sold a bill of goods on statins—the risks are insane.” Things like muscle fatigue and diabetes result from the use of statins to control your cholesterol, so I’m just not interested. Besides, I reasoned. I run hundreds of miles. I’m fine.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the next day doc’s message to me was to see the numbers in red. “Your cholesterol has come up quite a bit…guidelines recommend statin use…I would recommend we follow that guideline.” For my doctor to do a 180 like that spooked the hell out of me. I thought about the last six months, the time since my last blood draw. What had changed? No real change to my diet, though I definitely took more garlic supplements. Oh, and I was running about twice as many miles as before. And my cholesterol was “dangerously high?” Why was my body betraying me like this? I’d always said running was how I was going to live long enough to walk my daughter down the aisle. Now I was hearing that it wasn’t enough. I felt defeated, angry, and depressed. After some time, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment three months after I return from Bosnia. In the time between now and then, I’ll see what I can do in altering my lifestyle, things like cutting back on red meat and cheese (both of which I regard as staple foods), and eat more fish, avocados, and olive oil, and maybe run even more if that is possible. Maybe I could get the trend to reverse? If not, well, statins may reduce my cholesterol, but they’ll also fatigue my muscles and slow my running if not kill it completely, and if a synthetic drug is lowering my cholesterol then what incentive would I have to eat healthy? Yep, I thought, I’d better get a grip on this problem on my own. The alternative was, well, pretty darn depressing.
I spent Sunday night sans my usual beer (apparently alcohol, too, can have a negative effect on one’s cholesterol) and instead focused on packing my bag for Bosnia and listening to the sounds of fireworks exploding outside our window. I have too much on my mind right now, to be entirely candid, and it’s wearing my down. Not least is the fact that I’m about to leave my kids at home for most of the month of July while I go do research in Europe, and I know I’m going to miss them desperately. Sometimes, as I am certain your own life has surely informed you, dear reader, the world just feels a bit too heavy. While I sit in the comfort of my home in Omaha, Nebraska, somewhere in rural Afghanistan people are sifting through the wreckage of their homes. And while I worry about my cholesterol, I do so with the knowledge that there are those who worry about their lives for far more immediate reasons, not least living in a nation that is controlled by the Taliban. I went to bed Sunday night thinking about the heavy world, the voices in my head growing ever louder in the darkness, and looking forward almost desperately to the catharsis of my morning run.