“No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”

~Catherine McAuley

It rained hard around five o’clock Monday morning, never mind the previous night’s weather report, and so I resigned myself begrudgingly to the treadmill. Six miles at an 8:34 pace felt like speed work after all the long, slow distance runs I’d been using to condition myself for the upcoming back-to-back marathon stunt I’m hoping to pull off next month. I reached out to Coach Valdez in Kansas City. He’s an experienced runner and a great coach; he heads the pace team that I’ve been part of for the past decade or so, and I thought he might have some insight into fueling for running 52.4 miles in 30 hours with a long car ride in between. He did, and he also asked to feature me in his newsletter, with the caveat that we’d make the decision about that if and when I managed to finish the event. I agreed, noting that the person featured most recently had just completed Badwater, a race for the certifiably insane which has, no joke, melted sneakers and hospitalized professional runners. Sure coach, I’ll be the next fool you write about, assuming I survive.

Tuesday, sans the pounding rain, I snuck in seven more outside. Wednesday another seven, then I drove my car to the shop and ran the 1.5 home. Later that night, I ran 1.5 back, grabbed my car, and drove to school to pick up the kids, totalling ten. Thursday was four miles of speed work on the treadmill, with ESPN in the background. Friday was eight more, an easy run on the trail, followed by a rest Saturday and fifteen on Sunday. By the end of the week I weighted 167lbs, thirty-one fewer than I did less than a year ago, and it made me wonder: does everyone know about running? The question is rhetorical, of course, yet I’m astonished by people who say they want to lose weight but won’t try running. I realize that at a certain point, if one weighs too much, walking will have to come first, and lots of it, but it can. I ran into a guy on the trail last weekend who is down more than a hundred pounds, from the mid three-hundreds to the very low two-hundreds. He started walking, then when he’d lost weight, began running. It has to be coupled with a decent diet, of course, and I think that throws a lot of people off: many of us, myself included, have started running high mileage so we can “eat what I want” and, sure, you can get away with that, but it’s counterproductive as hell.

I think back to what my friend Ryan, a collegiate track and cross country coach, told my runners at a team clinic years ago: being willing is more important than being able Most of us, and I know not all of us, but most of us are able to run. (Wheelchair racers amaze me, by the way.) The rub, of course, is that most of us, those who are able, aren’t willing to do so.  It takes time. It takes energy. It can hurt. You get sweaty. If you dig into the literature, or create the experience for yourself, you’ll quickly find that the health benefits of running are ridiculous, far more so than any other form of athleticism (sorry cyclists) and far more so than diet alone. Heck, my knees used to kill me when I was running, and now I realize why; thirty less pounds per step times hundreds of thousands of steps every single month is a lot less wear and tear on the ol’ joints. Running forces me to drink more water, which has incredible health benefits not least reducing my risk of cancer, lowering my cholesterol, and so on. It also inspires me to eat better, clears my mind, gives me time to meditate, and allows me to consume far more than my share of the fresh air in the world.  In short, running is life-giving, and I wish that everyone who was able was doing it.

Circling back to the difference between willing and able, I’m reminded of what inspired me to call this the Kandahar Marathon to begin with. Those in Kandahar, also Kabul and so many other cities in Afghanistan, can’t do what I’m doing. Imagine a woman dressed in a sports bra and brightly-colored running shorts trotting past the very same thugs who are depriving her of an education. Dear god. So, for various reasons, many people are not able to run, just as so many are presently unable to go to school. My guess is that many if not most would be willing to do so if the obstacles were removed, which brings me to my next idea.

This year I accepted a professorship, and I now teach in a doctoral program at a university that was established by the Sisters of Mercy, an order of nuns who I joking-not-jokingly refer to as the women who make Jesuits look conservative. The order was founded by Catherine McAueley in Ireland a few centuries ago, when the nation was in upheaval and the idea of properly educating women was even more scandalous than it is today. Sister McAuley wasn’t one to shy away from scandal, from what I’ve read of her, and of course I admire her for that and other reasons. But she wasn’t just a one-off badass nun. Sister McAuley founded an order of likeminded hard-nosed warrior nuns who to this day fight for what’s right in the world and push back ferociously against what is not.

The Sisters of Mercy are intelligent, progressive, and unafraid to stir the pot, and while the graduate program in which I teach is mixed-gender, our undergrads are all women, the mission of the college being largely to ensure that women continue to have the opportunity to become educated. Frankly, it’s an honor to work there, and it has me thinking: in 2022, after a pandemic that forced education at all levels to reconsider our format, to explore virtual options, to offer more online than ever before, what could we do to help educate the women of Afghanistan? I learned Friday night, from a friend who teaches at a Jesuit institution, about a program where they go into refugee and displaced persons camps and offer higher learning and degrees. He seemed to believe that I might be able to piggy-back off of their amazing work, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

If the women of Afghanistan, whether they are presently in Afghanistan, or instead are in the United States, or are waiting to get visas in crowded camps around the globe, do not become educated, then I dare say there’s no hope for the future of Afghanistan at all. The education of women, which is a relatively new concept in most nations that, despite that fact, seem to consider themselves civilized, has been the nearest thing to salvation that the world has experienced. Most of the world’s problems can pretty easily be traced back to the failures of men who unilaterally made the decisions for most of recorded human history, and even as I write this I realize—as I suspect you may as well—that gender was never binary and that the world is beginning to realize that fact. The introduction of women and other genders into education, the labor force, politics, and more, is arguably the most important, most revolutionary thing to have occurred in history, but the work is far from done.

For Afghanistan to have any hope of ever flourishing as an autonomous nation again, they’ll need educated women. I’ve no doubt the Taliban will fall in time, but whether or not there’s enough left of the nation to rebuild may depend upon whether or not there are enough Afghan women who possess the education necessary to rebuild it. Those women right now constitute a diaspora that spans four continents, possibly five, and many of the women I hope to reach are right here in Omaha.  If we can meet them where they’re at, help to ensure that this generation of women from Afghanistan do not go without education, then perhaps when the reign of the murderous thugs is at an end, there can be hope for the nation to rebuild.

And now my head is swimming with thoughts about how to make this happen.

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