The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-Eight

“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”

~Desmond Tutu

On Tuesday, I looked at the weather for Sunday, decided it was acceptable, and more or less on a lark signed up for the Heartland Marathon, which begins on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River before crossing the Bob Kerry Bridge and running into the cornfields of Iowa and back. Twice. I had been fretting some about the I-35 Challenge and felt that, in the end, running a marathon at a pace that might allow me to finish with something left in the tank was the only way to mentally prepare for such a thing.

Later in the week, I had a meeting with administration at my college, where I shared some big ideas. One of those ideas was, as I put it in the meeting: “The Taliban will fall. This is not a question. The questions are when, to whom, and what will be left when it does. And if by then there is an entire generation of uneducated women, then I fear the nation will not be salvageable at all. What role can we play in this?” It is my hope that the university where I teach may engage in educating Afghan refugees, women specifically. The idea was met with interest, and plan were made to meet again to discuss the idea further.

Sunday morning, I woke feeling rested. Too rested. I looked at my phone: 6:12. My alarm hadn’t gone off and the race began in forty-eight minutes! In a panic I made coffee, kissed my groggy daughter on the forehead, and threw my clothes together. I scarfed a bagel but skipped the peanut butter, failed to poop, and never fully woke up. I made it to the starting line with about eight minutes to spare, never getting a warmup in and worrying the entire time about what I might have forgotten.

Things improved significantly from there. Having run a 4:09 a few months before, 4:45 felt like a safe pace, and while I felt heavy and groggy for a bit, I was able to maintain pace with no difficulty. I met my pacers and we chatted. Every four miles I took one of my electrolyte pills, 500mg of acetaminophen (Tylenol) and 400mg of NSAIDS (ibuprofen). At mile 13 I ate a packet of trail mix, the salt and fruit feeling amazing going down. At mile 20, I ate another, sharing the last of it with my pacer who was lamenting the lack of bananas at the aid stations. Though I carried forty ounces of liquid and the temperatures never exceeded the high sixties or low seventies as I ran, I ran out of liquids three-fourths of the way through the race. My right knee and right foot hurt a bit, but not bad (my right big toenail would, at last, fall off later in the day with a bit of additional prompting from me). Most importantly, I finished not on empty, not cramping, not ready to collapse. I met my wife and kids at the finish line and we had fruit snacks, cookies, and pizza at a nearby picnic table. I had accomplished what I wanted to: I felt confident that next month I’d be able to complete back-to-back marathons.

But. But. I could not overlook one simple fact, and that was that much of my success, my biggest boost of energy, came when I saw my kids in the latter stages of the race. I stopped to hug them. I kissed my wife. Titus and I did our secret handshake. And then they ran with me for a hundred yards or so. I won’t have them for my next race, or at least that’s not the plan. I may need to amend the plan, I realized, looking back on it.

In all, it was a good week, and it went by fast. I spent most of Sunday watching football and resting after my race, and hugging the children who got me through my fourth marathon. The fifth and sixth will be here soon. As ever, thanks for reading.

~Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-Seven

“I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, though intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet earth.”

~Stephen Hawking

As running goes, it was a scheduled off week as far as mileage was concerned, which didn’t keep the big toenail on my right foot from trying to go AWOL, the ligament in my right groin from nagging at me every morning, nor the lingering wound on my left foot from festering in a manner I’m too polite to write about. It did, however, provide some much-needed relief to my joints, and after a restful Saturday I knocked out a half marathon Sunday morning with little difficulty, running mile thirteen at a sub-seven pace just to prove a point to myself. In all, I managed a modest forty-four miles this week, putting me at 126.5 on the month and 1,753.4 on the year, around six hundred miles more than I’ve run in any previous year of my life.

In somewhat related health news, Friday morning I had my cholesterol checked. Two months ago it was so high that my doctor wanted to put me on statins immediately, but instead I visited Bosnia for three weeks, enjoying the delicious but not especially diet-friendly cuisine, before returning home and adjusting my diet with the tremendous support of my wife and unwilling, possibly unwitting support of my children who sometimes but not always can recognize tofu. I’ve cut out a lot of meat, replaced eggs with egg whites, quadrupled my fiber intake mostly through fruits and vegetables, added more garlic to my diet, started taking fish oil and red rice yeast, and demanded of myself an average of twenty eight-ounce cups of water daily. Coupled with my regular exercise routine and some additional lifting, the results have been dramatic. My total cholesterol fell from 303 to 224 over the course of only six weeks, while my LDL (bad) cholesterol fell from 203 to 150. Both are still a bit higher than optimal, I’ll grant, but it’s clear that my new routine is having a positive impact and I’m excited to see the results in another six weeks. Hopefully the progress continues.

And yet. And yet. Health is far from merely a state of mind, farther still from something as simple as a lifestyle. Friday, I attended the ceremony of a dear friend who was retiring from the Airforce. Still a young man, last year he lost his equally young wife—and my wife and I lost another dear friend—to cancer. Sunday, my family and I attended an event known as the 26.2 Step Mini-Marathon in Cancer Survivor’s Park on Pacific Street in Omaha, not far from the Regency neighborhood. It was founded by a friend of mine, the mother of two of my former runners, after her cancer diagnosis. She was an elite athlete and a marathoner before that diagnosis, and soon by no doing of her own found herself in a place where taking twenty-six steps was a noteworthy accomplishment. Whether it is cancer, a bus, or the Taliban, I recognize that our health is not always within our control, and each evening as we share what we are thankful for before dinner, and every morning as I write my gratitude journal, the health of my family and myself are on my mind.

Health, of course, is also far more than just the physical. I would often as a school teacher speak to my students about the importance of counseling, referencing my own experiences, and the need for our society to destigmatize mental illness. Somewhat to that end, I spent part of my week writing letters to my elected representatives. Sometimes it feels fruitless, living in a bright red wasteland as it sometimes feels that I do, and yet I know each of my elected representatives in Congress is not beyond seeing the importance of the issue of supporting Afghan refugees. Senator Sasse, for his many faults, was once a University president and at times appears to have a knack for centrism—at least when he thinks it may serve him. (Besides, he isn’t up for reelection anytime soon.) Senator Fisher was once an elementary school teacher (mine) and she and I used to have the occasional coffee when she was still a state senator in Lincoln. She’s far less reasonable than she was back then, and yet I remember our discussions often circling foreign affairs, her often signaling understandings that today in public I fear she would deny. At least when it comes to voting, she may not be entirely beyond the pale on this issue. As for General Don Bacon, he certainly sees the value of Afghanistan militarily, and I have it on good authority that he has worked much behind the scenes to aid Afghans seeking to enter the United States since the American troop withdrawal a little more than a year ago. So I wrote to each of them this week. The issue on my mind was S. 4787, otherwise known as the Afghan Adjustment Act, proposed by Senator Klobuchar. The official synopsis of the bill reads as follows:

“To provide support for nationals of Afghanistan who supported the United States mission in Afghanistan, adequate vetting for parolees from Afghanistan, adjustment of status for certain nationals of Afghanistan, and special immigrant status for at-risk Afghan allies and relatives of certain members of the Armed Forces, and for other purposes.”

If you go on to read the bill, it talks a lot about “aliens” which is a term I’d find mildly humorous if I were able to get past the tremendous offense it cultivates within me (imagine how the “aliens” in question must feel). Here’s a link to the entire bill, if anyone is interested:  https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/4787/text So this week I sent the following letter to Senator Ben Sasse, Senator Deb Fisher, and Representative Don Bacon, on behalf of the so-called aliens:

Good morning,

I hope this message finds you well. I’m writing today as your constituent, based in Omaha, to ask you to support the Afghan Adjustment Act.  Simply put, we made a commitment to the Afghan people, and it is imperative both to the well-being of our Afghan brothers and sisters as well as to America’s standing in the world that we not be seen reneging on our commitments to foreign powers and foreign nationals alike. Not only is this the right thing to do for the Afghan diaspora in America, but it is also the right thing to do for America as a whole; the better adjusted and better supported the displaced find themselves, the more productive to society and less susceptible to negative elements in our society they are sure to be.

Throughout Omaha, Lincoln, and other parts of our state, Afghans who fled the Taliban with little more than what they could wear and whom they could hold on to find themselves struggling to adjust to new surroundings. Being well-traveled, I think perhaps you can relate on some level, and I hope that whatever empathy you’re able to experience is enough to move you toward supporting legislation that will make starting life anew in the United States not easy, no, but in the very least possible.

One of my heroes once urged another man to do what is right, rather than what is easy. Unfortunately, the person receiving the advice failed to take it, and the results were nearly catastrophic. Today I urge you similarly, to support the Afghan Adjustment Act with no regard  for whatever pushback you may experience from extremist factions in your own party. It is never a bad day to be on the right side of history. Those of us who write that history, myself included, indeed are paying close attention.

Respectfully,

Dr. Mark Gudgel

Omaha, Nebraska

I never know if I’m being too “cute” or too “heavy handed” as some have said. Certainly, I’m in no position to threaten any of these people, though I tend to support their opponents at every opportunity. When I was asked to run against Senator Sasse I declined, and sometimes I wonder about that in retrospect. I can’t imagine what I could have said or done that would have unseated an incumbent with $5M plus in his war chest, and of course my brief foray into municipal politics did not end in my being elected. Nevertheless, I am constantly wondering what the world would look like if the people in power concerned themselves more with the lives and livelihoods of their fellow human beings and less with party politics and their desire to get reelected. I dare say it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out. Until next time, my friends.

~Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-Six

“To the ones who’ve left: you’re never truly gone. The candle’s in the window and the kettle’s always on.”

~Ensemble, Come From Away

Running was a side note this week, as was any thought I had of reading up on current goings on in Afghanistan if I’m being honest. I got my fifty-five miles in, culminating Saturday morning in a twenty-miler with my friend Jared in rain-drenched conditions. I’ve learned enough over the years that I didn’t suffer for the decision to run in the rain; Vaseline on my feet prevented blisters, and running without a shirt on prevented the chaffing that is otherwise all-but-guaranteed to accompany three plus hours of running in wet clothing.

Sunday morning, September 11, I woke up a little before four to catch a flight to Chicago. Between e-ticketing and TSA Pre, after my dad dropped me off I was able to arrive at the airport and more or less walk directly to my gate. We boarded the plane en masse, but then the fun started. The flight was delayed, then again, and then again. At one point the odds of taking off seemed so hopeless they actually let us walk off the airplane. I went back to the terminal and got a coffee and a bagel. I read from my book, a work of fiction about teaching, then looked over the slides for my first presentation, then my second, and did some writing on the airplane. I texted my contacts in Chicago to let them know what was going on. And I waited.

In the airport, I ran into Dave, an old acquaintance, and his wife. Years before, I had received a call from Sam, a friend of mine who was, among so many other things, a survivor of the Holocaust. Sam called me one day during my plan period while I was teaching and I took the call. “Mark,” he told me, “I am going to send you the phone number of a man named Dave, and I want you to give him a call.” I said I would, and the next day reached out to Dave, who had been told to expect my call. A week later Dave and I met, for no real reason other than that our mutual friend had suggested we do so. Dave is an educator as well and we spoke for a few hours about our craft, the Holocaust, and other mutual interests. Sam passed away that very night, and Dave and I have stayed in touch off and on ever since. On the airplane, I sat next to him and his wife, who is also a teacher, and chatting with them helped to pass the time.

Sitting on an airplane on September 11 is an experience. Many people were visibly nervous. I’m of the age that I’ll never forget that day, twenty-one years ago. For many years, I took students to New York City and we would visit what was when I began a construction site and later became an amazing museum and memorial. Taking students there was one of the most powerful things I ever did as a teacher. At first, the students I took had memories of the day, some of them vivid, some of them even traumatic. Years later, however, my students were born after the event had occurred, and though they had spent their entire lives living in the aftermath the dots didn’t connect intuitively for them. Visiting the memorial, if anything, became more important as time passed, and as we perfected the experience the day ended on Broadway at a production of Come From Away, a powerful musical about the herculean efforts of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, after dozens of airplanes were grounded in their tiny town that day.

Eventually, I made it to Chicago, caught a cab, and gave two very well-received talks with teachers on Holocaust education and my research in Sarajevo. Afterwards, an interviewer asked me “When you do these teacher-trainings, do you intend to empower and inspire or does it just happen?” I don’t recall precisely how I responded, though I remember being rather moved by the question itself.

That night, I met up with a former student, Angel, for dinner before heading back to my hotel to finish the book I was reading, The Unteachables by Gordon Korman (I recommend it), then hit the pillow hard. As I drifted off to sleep, my mind was on the past twenty-one years, and how the entirety of my adult life has been lived in a post-9/11 era, defined in many ways by fear and prejudice. I know that if things are going to improve, it will be teachers—as always—who lead the way, and the ones I had the pleasure of working with at the museum offered me hope that they’re up to the task. As ever, thank you for reading and supporting me in the Kandahar Marathon.

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-Five

“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.

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-Four

“I’m actually the picture of everything the Taliban don’t want women to be.”

~Nadia Nadim

Predictably, the frequent mentions of Afghanistan in the news died down after the anniversary of the disastrous American troop withdrawal passed. In fact, between the New York Times, CNN, the Napa Valley Register, and NPR, I don’t think I caught a single story on Afghanistan this past week. It’s possible I just missed them, but it seems more likely that, short of anniversaries and events that directly impact the United States, Afghanistan just isn’t going to be a part of our regular conscious narrative any longer. And try though I might, I don’t think I’ve done much to effectively change that.

Searching for news, of course, I found it. Flooding killed at least a hundred people in Afghanistan this week. I read an interview with an Afghan-born footballer named Nadia Nadim who lamented the treatment of women in the country as a “hopeless situation” and, of course, I think she’s right. Nadim, her mother and sisters, fled Afghanistan after the Taliban murdered her father. They went to Denmark, where Nadim took up soccer, which she continues to play professionally both in the United States and Denmark when she’s not performing reconstructive surgery. A remarkable woman, Nadim for me epitomizes my thoughts on Afghanistan: what can people become if you let them? What happens if we remove the obstacles and create space for people to thrive?

Free of a repressive, murderous regime, Nadim became amazing in ways that I think we often consider people to be amazing. But one needn’t be a professional athlete or medical doctor to have a worthwhile life, of course. It feels to me as if Afghanistan today is that barren patch of dry earth in your yard, the one the grass seeds sit atop, never really taking root, until eventually they’re blown away. In fertile soil, people often grow into amazing things, but the soil of Afghanistan today is parched and drained of nutrients, and Nadim’s use of the word “hopeless” feels all to apt. What’s the best-case scenario? That ISIL prevails in removing the Taliban? That seems both unlikely and like a lateral move. All I can think to do is to try to do more to support those Afghans who made it out of the country as they establish new lives for themselves in America, but even that feels impotent at times. Until I have a better idea, however, I’ll continue to run and raise money for the Refugee Empowerment Center here in Omaha.

This past week, I got my miles in, and began training for the back-to-back marathons I plan to run in October, the first in Kansas City on Saturday, October 15, the second in Des Moines on Sunday, the 16th. As the date approaches, I’m not sure what the appeal of the grueling task ever was to me, but I’m committed to it and so I train. Monday I got in six miles, and Tuesday ten and a half. Wednesday, five and a half, and Thursday the same distance but in the form of a tempo run on my treadmill. Friday was twelve, and Saturday twenty-two and a half, for a total of sixty-two miles on the week.

A year ago, the idea of a forty-mile week was a little intimidating, and now I regularly run fifty or sixty without much trouble. I am cognizant of the time it takes, but thankful for the health benefits. I used to weigh around 190lbs and was around 16% body fat, and yesterday I was 168 and 9%. I’m thinner than I’d like to be, the result of giving the time I once used to lift weights over to my running, but on the whole I’m healthier than perhaps I’ve ever been. If I had to have a mid-life crisis, I suppose I’m glad it was marathon training.

The article on Nadia Nadim mentioned that the women’s football team in Afghanistan was evacuated to Australia following the fall of the government, and that they are able to continue to train there. The article about her linked to another, and then another. I read several, then followed her on Twitter, and hope that she may become another means by which I can learn more about Afghanistan. The more I read and hear about women in Afghanistan, the more I fear for their future, and the more helpless I feel about education in that nation. I devote much of my time advocating for education in the United States, and yet compared to Afghanistan our teacher shortages, lack of funding, and constant attacks by extremists seem like pretty minor obstacles to overcome. How to return education to women in Afghanistan I do not know, but what I am growing increasingly certain of is that educating women is the only hope for a bright future in Afghanistan.

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-Three

“Since the Taliban takeover, a financial crisis has rendered a significant amount of the Afghan population unable to access a sufficient amount of water, food, shelter, and health care services. Women and girls are suffering under repressive policies that ban them from secondary and higher education, force them out of employment, and subject them to strict regulations on what they can wear, where they can go, and how they can act. The basic rights of Afghan citizens have become severely constrained. Journalism is in peril, with the Taliban censoring opposing or critical media and persecuting journalists.”

~Congressman Don Bacon of Nebraska

The news this week finally featured Afghanistan, and quite frequently in fact, which isn’t at all surprising on the anniversary of the troop withdrawal that is ultimately what sucked me into this issue so deeply, causing me to order and read every book I could get my hands on about Afghanistan, ultimately selecting ten to teach in small groups in my many classes and, beyond that, to run the Kandahar Marathon.

On Monday my congressman, a retired general named Don Bacon, emailed with the subject line “Afghanistan Aftermath” and lambasted President Biden for the withdrawal. He fairly pointed out that it was President Trump who initiated the act, and President Biden who acted upon it. He isn’t wrong, oversimplified though this version of events may seem. Congressman Bacon has been known to be helpful to Afghans seeking to flee the Taliban, and I respect him for that. He also pointed out that the United Nations Development Program predicts universal poverty for the nation, and soon. It was difficult to read and, while I disagree with him 90% of the time, I was glad he took the time to address the issue, perhaps one of the few we see eye to eye on.

Not long after, on the 18th, Kabul made a these-days-rare appearance in CNN’s daily briefing. I’ve copied it below:

5
Kabul   An explosion erupted inside a mosque during evening prayers on Wednesday in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 21 people and injuring 33 others. The explosion, which injured several children, took place in the north of the capital, according to health care organization Emergency. Officials do not yet know who was responsible or the motivation behind the blast. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed there were dead and wounded civilians but did not say how many. He tweeted that the Taliban government “strongly condemns” the explosion, and vowed the perpetrators of “such crimes will be caught and punished for their heinous deeds.”

More bad news. Also this week, one of my Twitter followers, a fellow educator, reached out. She’s been helping a family of Afghans to acclimate to Omaha, and Omaha Public Schools was refusing to accept an affidavit from the father verifying his son’s age and, thereby, eligibility to begin school.  I was sort of shocked, though little can truly shock me anymore. “Gee, sorry, when my family and I were fleeing for our lives we failed to snag the childrens’ birth certificates—my bad!” isn’t something anyone should ever be compelled to say, and certainly not in their third or fourth language. I was thankful that Sarah was advocating for the family, and together we kicked around ideas. I sent her some contacts and reached out to my school board member. We got the runaround a lot, but on Friday she got back to me with a short message:

“Sounds like they will accept the affidavit and he’ll start kindergarten at _______. I’m going over to [their house] this weekend to have him sign a new one with the actual birthday.”

Some good news at last. In a sea of destruction and turmoil, the little victories seem to count so much more.

Also on Friday, I did an interview with a podcast producer, reflecting on the election in which I ran and lost in 2021. I didn’t say as much on air, but I think often about why I ran and what I wanted to accomplish if I became an elected official. To have the ability to “make a call” as they say and fix a person’s problem like this, to have the platform and the power to improve the lives of those who have fled Afghanistan, those fleeing Ukraine now, and so many others—well it didn’t come to be, and while I am deeply disappointed in our own municipality’s fumbled response to the arrival of thousands of Afghan refugees in the past year, what I can do about it is limited to that of an individual civilian—far from nothing, yet it sometimes feels just as far from what I had hoped I might be able to do.

I took the running easy this week: five miles Monday, seven Tuesday, ten Wednesday, seven again on Thursday, and eight on Friday, for a total of thirty-seven on the week. I took Saturday and Sunday off, rather than fitting in a long run. I’ve decided not to run Sioux Falls next weekend, and will begin an eight-week training program on Monday that will run up until I run Kansas City and Des Moines on back-to-back days in October, two marathons in thirty hours. I didn’t like running so little this week, as I often think of my miles in terms of money raised to help those in need, but my left foot has been giving me hell, bleeding and itching and losing skin, and my knees are starting to complain; the reality is that if I want to make it to the end of the year still running, the extra day of rest probably wasn’t optional.

As I wrap this up, I want to ask you not to forget Afghanistan and not to forget the people who live there or who managed to escape. No doubt you’ve seen something in the news this week similar to what I described reading earlier. Maybe you know someone who you can check in on, an Afghan who might need help or even just a friendly face. Of course, as I write these words, I think of those I need to contact myself, and they are many. We all have our part to play, of course. As always, thanks for joining me on the journey.

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-Two

“Mawwiage is whot bwings us too-gethah too-day!”

~The Impressive Clergyman, played by Peter Cook, in The Princess Bride

All week long, it seemed, my runs were abbreviated by the need to prepare for my new job. Monday, I got eight miles in and a bit of core before heading to campus. Tuesday, I could manage only five. Wednesday again was eight, and Thursday just north of six. Friday, six more miles came earlier than usual, before I headed to the State of the College address from the school’s President. The things I was doing all week were important, and I knew that, and yet the sensation of having to shorten runs to fit in other things was oddly and uncomfortably reminiscent of times past—back to school, graduate school, campaigning, and other especially busy points in my life. I suppose this is one of those. Nevertheless, after a summer full of runs that were as long and free as I could want them to be, the busy week cramped my style.

After Friday’s meetings, the family left for Grand Island where we swam in the pool and enjoyed the hot tub all evening. Saturday morning I rested from running, judging the wine at the Nebraska State Fair, before the family piled back into the car and drove to Lincoln for the wedding of a former student. It is about that event that I would like to spend most of my time in this post.

The man I watched get married yesterday was twice the age of the boy I had known as a freshman in high school so many years ago, and yet his ready smile and kind demeanor seemed not to have changed a bit. He was taller, more stout, a man instead of a boy, and yet every bit as kind, charming, and humorous as I remembered him being. It seemed—as one might hope it would—that he was very fortunate to be marrying the woman he did. I met her for the first time yesterday, and immediately it was clear that she was intelligent, cultured, outgoing, and most of all, kind. My five-year-old daughter was convinced, for obvious reasons, that this was a princess, and immediately became bashful. In turn, the princess asked her questions, took her hand, and later in the evening gave her a special piece of cake. It had occurred to me to attend the wedding by myself at one point, and that would have been an immense mistake. It turned out to be the highlight of the weekend, if not far more, for my entire family.

Also, between the wedding and reception, I ran into many former students who were classmates of the groom. Somehow, I believe I made time to catch up with most of them, though none quite as thoroughly as I might have liked. At one point, the husband of someone I once taught, approached our table at the reception and said “You have an extremely well-behaved son,” and proceeded to explain that he had seen Titus, who just this weekend began going into public bathrooms without an escort, attempting to wipe up some soap he had spilled near the sink. “Most people would just have left it,” the man told us, and I felt a pride in my son that perhaps was swelling in a new and powerful way. I told my son this, thanking the man, and later texting his wife to thank them again.

Another former student showed me pictures of his daughter. Another couple of former students were married and I got to meet their child. Yet another married a former colleague of mine, and he and I talked “shop” as he is now a special education teacher at, of all places, the middle school where I coached basketball when I was nineteen years old. Every former student I spoke to gave me the feeling of being five years old and opening yet another gift on Christmas morning. Each was rich and filled with promise, beautiful, and incredibly interesting. Had my children not desperately needed a good night’s sleep, I may have stayed at the reception all night.

This morning, Sunday, I rose and made a cup of coffee as I laced up my electric green Gel Cumulus and filled my hip bottles with water and Gatorade, two each. Over the course of twenty-and-a-half miles, bringing my weekly total to fifty-four, I reflected much on the previous night, and on the role I’ve been so fortunate to play in the lives of young people for so many years. It donned on me that I may never again be so involved in the life of a teenager that, over a decade later, they will invite me to their wedding, and the thought saddened me. Teachers are, well, teachers are everything, and I’ve been so proud to be one for so long now that part of me fears that my identity may become unstable should I look in the mirror and not see one looking back at me. I’ve had this same fear about running, you might recall, but unlike running which will, inevitably, be taken from me at some point by time, the classroom I gave up willingly, and come what may I will always have to square with the fact that this new absence is a choice that I made willingly.

Recently, I’ve begun writing a series of essays, featuring great teachers. It seems silly to me that teachers get a week of appreciation when they give lifetimes of dedication and service to society, so I’m titling my endeavor “Teacher Appreciation Always” and have arranged to publish various types of essays highlighting amazing teachers in The Voice, We Are Teachers, and potentially elsewhere. If you’re reading this and you were one of my teachers, thank you. The same goes, of course, if you were one of my students. And if you are reading this and you are neither then I would ask that perhaps you consider reaching out to a teacher and thanking them for, among other things of course, the very fact that you can read at all. Thank you for reading, and for supporting me as I run the Kandahar Marathon to help resettle Afghan refugees here in Nebraska. If you don’t already, consider supporting my efforts by clicking the “donate” button below. I hope to see you on the trails.

Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-One

“Gratitude is fertilizer for the mind, spreading connections and improving its function in nearly every realm of experience.”

~Robert Emmons

I’m going to keep this week’s post as brief as possible. Yes, I ran. I ran a lot. I ran sixty-five-and-a-half miles, culminating with twenty-two miles Sunday morning in temps that started in the high seventies and mercifully remained in the low eighties until I had finished. Every run this week has a story, and I have a torn rotator cuff (I think) which is causing me tremendous pain, relentlessly, whether I’m running at the moment or not. But this week I want to focus on something different, and that is how grateful I am for the support of those who have joined me in this cause. It is not lost on me that in some sense, what I’m doing in running the Kandahar Marathon is small in the grand scheme of things, yet I believe firmly that we all have a contribution to make and I recognize that I could not make mine without the support of so many others. Thank you.

Each day when I wake up, I do a number of things. I take some supplements to help with my cholesterol. I drink coffee. I log my previous day in a diary. I write and reply to any urgent-seeming email. I hug my children, who are usually awake around that time. I empty the dishwasher. I run. Mornings are my most productive time. But one thing I do each day has become so habitual that I barely even notice it, and yet the evidence is everywhere in my life, and that is that I keep a gratitude journal This act, known to some as “Hunting the good stuff” and to others as “three good things” is something I began when I was asked to teach a graduate course in positive psychology at Nebraska Wesleyan University many years ago, and I rarely miss a day. Not only that, but I’ve shared it with countless classes over the years since, and my family and I often begin meals by sharing aloud things that we are thankful for.

Gratitude may not be magic, but it isn’t far from. One finding from a study Bob Emmons conducted years ago says a lot to that effect. I’ll let Bob tell you:

“In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events” (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

It seems that taking the time to consider the good things in life, rather than dwelling upon the bad as we are, in fact, genetically predisposed to do as a survival mechanism dating back to the time when humans were far more vulnerable, is not only good for the soul but good for the heart and the rest of the body as well. And so, in that vein, I wanted to be sure to thank you yet again for supporting me as I’ve undertaken running more miles than ever before for the cause of supporting Afghan refugees relocating to Nebraska.

While I was in Bosnia a few weeks ago I picked up a bunch of postcards and I wrote them to you, my supporters. Many have reported receiving them, but many more were not mailed because I didn’t have your mailing address. Please, if you haven’t already, send it to me so that I may drop your postcard in the mail as soon as possible. Next week, I’ll return to thoughts on running and Afghanistan, I have no doubt, but for today I wanted to be sure to tell you yet again how much I appreciate you and your support.

Thank you,

Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty

“Without you all, we wouldn’t feel the true feeling of home that we were wishing for.”

~Some new friends

I absolutely love Bosnia, as I love Rwanda, as I love England, and as I expect I would love Afghanistan if given the opportunity, and yet being back in Omaha, Nebraska, with my wife and children after three weeks away was something truly special. A lesser-known track on Billy Joel’s Piano Man album—the cassette for which I wore out thrice in my Sony Walkman before reaching junior high school at which point I got a Discman and, of course, the CD version—articulates this point pretty well in the simple phrase “You’re my home.” My family is my home, and however rooted I may be in the great state of Nebraska, the geographical location of my home is more or less inconsequential. The people are all that matters.

Sonja, Titus, and Zooey picked me up at the airport Monday evening. I’d woken up in Sarajevo twenty-some hours before to hop the short flight to Vienna (a city Billy Joel also wrote a song about), then the long one from Austria to O’Hare before being delayed, predictably, in Chicago. By the time I arrived in Omaha, I was exhausted and sleepy, but the enthusiasm of my children for my presence was enough to inspire me to stay awake. We got home and I doled out the presents I’d picked up for them along the way. Pieces of tin beautifully smithed in Sarajevo, stuffed animals made by local artisans, books, polished crystals, and more. Monday was the first day in the month of July in which I did not get a run in, opting instead to get some much-needed shuteye soon after the children went to bed.

As running goes, it was a productive week, just as it was a productive month, and while that’s not to be the focus of this post I’ll mention briefly that with the forty-four miles I got in this past week, culminating with fifteen on Saturday morning, my total for July comes to 231.4, my second highest mileage tally of the year to date, and another $351.73 to help Afghan refugees resettle in Omaha thanks to the generous support of many.

The most remarkable thing to occur this week, however, had nothing at all to do with running. On Wednesday night, the family for whom my students, their families, my new friend Cindy, and I had helped set up a home invited us over for dinner. I was honored, and took Sonja and my children, of course. While I am intentionally ambiguous in referring to the family—it is not my place to identify refugees in any setting, as by definition a refugee has fled from violence—I will say that the family is as large as it is beautiful, and as beautiful as it is large. They were incredibly warm and welcoming, and explained casually that the Afghan tradition involves feeding people into a near-comatose state. I had three or four helpings of the best Kabuli Pulao I’ve ever had, while my five and nearly-seven-year-olds found themselves presented with so much cake and ice cream that the next day Zooey informed me she would not be needing any dessert for a while. Several of my students and their families who had helped so much with the set up also arrived, and it was fantastic to share this sacred time with them.

Our hosts were gracious, the conversations were warm, the food rich and delicious, and I couldn’t help but notice that they truly had turned the house into a home. I know they’d give us all credit for that simply because we provided some furniture and household items, but for me it was the smell of Afghan cooking, the personal trinkets, and the children underfoot that had turned the house into a home. It was, as I had observed upon my return to my own family, a matter of people more so than place, and the fact that so many months later the “Welcome Home” banner that we had made for their arrival still hung in the dining room caused my eyes to water—or perhaps it was just a bit of spicy food.  I was proud of my students, their families, my friends, and yes, even of myself. We had done something good, and I was reminded yet again that it is strikingly easy to do something good, provided that is what you are seeking to do.

After a while we had to leave; I had a meet-and-greet of sorts with my doctoral students scheduled for later in the evening, though as excited as I was to meet them it was difficult for me to bring myself to leave the home of this wonderful family.  As we walked out, one of the men, a doctor from Afghanistan who we are hoping can somehow find a way to get his medical credentials honored here in America, handed me a card. I thanked him, shook his hand again, and looked down at his beautiful little girl who was the same age as my daughter. Today, America thrives while Afghanistan writhes in pain, though anyone who has bothered much with history knows that it is only a matter of time before those tables will be turned. For now, however, America is a safe place, safer than Afghanistan at least, and I am so pleased to be able to play a small part in helping wonderful people like this family and so many more make their home here in the same place that I make mine. If you are one of those supporting my efforts in the Kandahar Marathon, you are doing this as well, and I thank you.

The card the family gave me was personal, rather lengthy, and I would never share it in its entirety as it would feel like betraying a trust, though I will say that it contained the quote with which this post began and ended with what I have thought to be one of the most beautiful words I know in any language: Tashakur. I first encountered this word in the novels of Khaled Hosseini, and I enjoy the sound of it so much that sometimes I use it myself, inserting it into my own sentences as if doing so might somehow, someday, transform this word into a cognate. It means simply “Thanks” and yet, in every setting in which I have seen it used, it carries a sort of inherent sincerity that the English version does not. Tashakur, wrote the families. Tashakur, they said as we departed. Welcome home, I replied.

Tashakur,

Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Twenty-Nine

“If I die doing a trail run in Bosnia my wife will kill me.”

~Me, regarding the Jahorina Trail Run

“Don’t tell her about the bears, wolves, wild boar, and of course, landmines.”

~Paul, who talked me into the Jahorina Trail Run

My final week in Sarajevo was spent working frantically to do all of the work that still needed to be done, visiting various museums, memorials, and scholars, seemingly constantly in meetings, traveling around parts of town I’d never visited in search of still more Sarajevo Roses, and missing Sonja and the kids. As always, running served me well as a means of distraction and an outlet for any pent-up energy. Monday morning I ran eight miles down Ambassador’s Alley and up the mountain to the old train tracks before spending most of the rest of the day in the archives of the ICTY, the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia.  I met Ismena, a survivor of the Siege who was extremely helpful and very interested in our work. Each new rose or memorial we found this week added hours of work to my plate, but also put us one step closer to piecing the whole thing together. I let my morning runs and my evening meals be my relaxation time. Otherwise, I worked.

Tuesday morning I took the emotions of missing my family out on the pavement, the hills, and later on the trails. I didn’t mean to run twelve miles Tuesday, I just couldn’t seem to stop myself. By the end, I was moving faster than I have in a long time, and I finished by running up the steep hill near my hotel to the applause of several onlookers yelling “Bravo! Bravo!”  It was funny and also slightly embarrassing.

With a race on the schedule for Sunday, I had intended to taper slightly this week, but Wednesday morning my need for cardio-therapy took precedent over the rational need to taper my miles, and I ended up running a half marathon. Thursday morning, Paul picked me up by Inat Kuca and drove us to the top of Trebevic, where the bobsled run was built for the 1984 Olympics. Paul told me there are some rumblings about a joint Olympic bid between Bosnia and Italy for the future, and I can’t help but think about what a boost that would be for this amazing city. I know that hosting the Olympics is expensive, but I also think that if people saw Sarajevo as I see it, an incredible city with almost unrivaled history, they couldn’t help but to visit, and tourism brings money. Each day that passes, I’m eager to go home and see my family, yet already I can’t help but to start making plans to come back. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring my family, or maybe at least one of the kids, with me next summer. (Titus would handle it fine, though the idea of Zooey terrorizing an entire room full of academics while I attempt to give a presentation is hilarious to me.)

From the top of Trebovic, Paul and I took a quick jog through the forest with his dog, Monte, before turning around and finding our way to the bobsled trail. The entirety of my experience with bobsleds can be summed up by Cool Runnings, though the path looked more or less as I expected it to look. Almost forty years after the Olympics were held in Sarajevo, it remains solid and intact, covered in moss and colorful graffiti which, in all honesty, only adds to the aesthetic. The bottom is smooth but not slick, scattered with pine needles, and the whole thing is, as you might expect, steep.

Paul and I flew down the bobsled run, sometimes moving slightly up on the sloped embankments, and I loved every second of it. At the bottom we stopped, caught our breath for a second, and then turned around and ran back up it. What’s the opposite of flying? Whatever it is, that’s how we moved. Paul is more than fifteen years my senior, but he’s a stud ultra-runner and uber cyclist who I suspect could destroy me at any distance of my choosing. Patiently, he never got too far ahead of me, and once stopped to take a photograph of me running up the track. Once at the top of the run, we kept running up the mountain, then went down a rocky dirt path to practice for Jahorina, a course that promised to be tricky at best especially for someone like me with very limited experience trail running. By the end of the day, I’d run six and a half miles, and while that was my shortest distance in quite some time, I was more tired than any run in the past few weeks had made me. I got back to the hotel, ate breakfast, did some work documenting roses we’d found the day before, Facetimed with the kids, then took a short nap.

~*~

All week long, as I worked in Sarajevo, news from or related to Afghanistan was on my mind. Not long ago, I was lamenting the fact that it wasn’t in the news, and that when I sought it out it was death and destruction, this time from the earthquake instead of the Taliban. This week, however, was a combination of things that, even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t get off my mind.

The first was a recent post by Khaled Hosseini. At the start of the pandemic, he had done an episode of “Teacher TV” with me, and when I ran for office he had generously donated to my campaign. Lately, however, my messages have gone unanswered. I wasn’t at all offended by this, but I had worried about him some. So when he posted to Twitter that his daughter had come out as transgender and that he had never been prouder of her, I was first relieved to know that he was well, and second deeply touched by the message. I won’t try to describe it; I suggest you seek it out for yourself. Yet the fact that, even in the United States, a nation I regard as rather bigoted in a general sense, in particular toward the trans community, his daughter was not only able to come out and be who she is, but also that her father—of my generation—was fiercely proud of her moved me. I would never wish any difficulty, any struggle, upon my own children, yet I find inspiration in those parents who unfailingly support their children throughout their struggles. I know one day that my children will have struggles of their own, and I hope only to be an immovable rock of support in their lives when they do. Having that modeled for me is something I truly value.

The second bit of news related to Afghanistan arrived via Malala, herself Pakistani, sharing a piece from NPR about girls—and teachers—in Afghanistan who, because the Taliban forbids it, are secretly holding classes in the shadows of society. “Girls should not have to learn in secret,” declared Malala, and I couldn’t agree more. The article explained that some members of the Taliban leadership were ok with girls in school, but the more vocal and influential had prevented it from happening. It seems that no matter where you look, from Afghanistan to the United States of America, women’s rights are being trampled. After what felt like generations of progress and societal evolution, are women any better off in the world today than they were when my grandmother was born in a sod house around the time of the Titanic? It would seem perhaps not.

~*~

Friday I woke up early, and took advantage of it by first running into Bascarsija, the old city, when I knew it would be nearly empty. The bakers were delivering bread in the Ottoman section, and by the time I reached the Austro-Hungarian quarter a few first-shifters were having their first cigarette and espresso of the day, but otherwise it was just the pigeons and I most of the time. After I’d zig-zagged the old city, I ran back out and dropped down into Ambassador’s Alley, crossed the goat bridge, scaled the mountain, and ran until the pavement ended. By the time I returned to the hotel, I was out of breath and had run eleven miles, bringing my total for the week to 50.6. The rest of the day was spent in productive meetings, eating at a three-hundred-year-old restaurant, and shopping for still more presents for my family.

Saturday morning, I had set my alarm for 8:00AM, reasoning that it was my last opportunity to sleep in for at least the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, I awoke as I typically do a few hours earlier, made coffee, and put on my running shoes. I was stiff, tired, and it’s not as if it hadn’t donned on me that I haven’t taken a day off running since sometime in late June. I chose a flat route along the Miljacka River, entertaining myself by zig-zagging back and forth across the countless bridges that span the shallow waters below.

I ran only two-and-a-half miles before turning around on the street named after Madison, the one that shuts down to cars on nights and weekends, and was on my way back on the northern bank of the river when I observed a mason placing a plaque on the stone wall that separates the sidewalk from the steep drop into the Miljacka. I stopped to observe him. The plaque read, first in Bosnian and then in English:

“From this place on 28 June 1914 Nedeljko Cabrinovic failed to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia.”

I was stunned. I recalled that there had been a failed attempt on the Archduke’s life prior to the successful one by Gavrilo Princip, yet somehow I had failed to wonder more about that. And then, as if I had at long last thought to ask the question, it was answered for me. Best of all, simply by chance I had decided upon the route that morning, the only route in the world, that would enable me to witness the unceremonious addition of this important historical marker, 108 years and one month after the fact. It is truly remarkable what we runners often get to experience, things which those bound to cars and other means of transportation are condemned to miss. As ever, I am thankful to be a runner.

~*~

Sunday, my last day in Sarajevo, and at last the Jahorina Trail Run was upon us. When I had signed up three weeks earlier it had been on a lark; Paul asked if I wanted to run 27K, I figured that was about a half marathon and said why not. Others had raised their eyebrows, a few had raised objections, but if we’re being candid I’ve always been a little too comfortable with my own abilities. Only in the days leading up to the race did the elevation, the climb, the rocky terrain, and the notorious hazards come to occupy my thoughts. A broken leg or serious snake bite could keep me from boarding the flight that would get me home to my wife and children the next day.

Standing at our meeting point that morning, waiting for Paul, I let my mind run wild. I had of course noticed the “Wild Boar Crossing” signs all over the place between Sarajevo and the Dalmatian Coast. In my mind, I was just trying to “When in Rome” the whole thing—nobody else seemed concerned about  razorbacks, so why should I be? But my early-morning mind wouldn’t let it go. Those f*ckers are mean, and they get huge, like really huge, like cow-sized. They’re essentially evil cows with tusks, and they’re faster and more nimble than any human I’ve ever met. If a boar wants you dead, you’re dead. The good news is that it would probably rather maim you than kill you. Only being able to eat through a straw would probably be good for my cholesterol, I thought to myself. About that time, Paul texted to tell me I was waiting in the wrong place. I shoved the wild evil cow-pigs from my head and jogged to meet him.

I’m going to fast-forward to the race now, which was a ton of fun, all things considered. We started off in a pack, about a hundred of us, with a startling number of people wearing the brightly colored shirt that was part of the swag package. We jogged down the cement in front of the hotel, then onto a rough track. Paul was near the front, and I was somewhere in the middle of the pack. I soon saw his reasoning for going out fast. Twice in the first mile, bottlenecks forced the herd to a near-standstill, once going up a hill, and another time at the only place where the creek was jump-able. My first mile saw times as low as 7:40, as high as 13:30, and averaged around ten minutes. The course was around eighteen miles, so I hoped I might run it in around three hours. Boy was I wrong.

As much as I’d like to relive the entire race with you, I’ll instead just share a highlight reel. Spoiler: I didn’t see a single warthog.  After five miles I was on pace for three hours, and found that I was passing a lot of people who seemed to struggle more with the ascents then I did. At mile five, I stopped at the aid station, the first of four, and had half a banana, a small handful of gummy bears, and a cup of coke. Then I took off into the forest and almost immediately realized that the path was getting steeper by the step. First my run was a jog, then my jog was a walk. Then I was pushing on my quadriceps with my hands to move upward, and not long after that I was using my hands to grasp the path, scaling the hill on all fours. There were four or five other runners—now crawlers—around me, the better-prepared among us using sticks to help them climb. Every time we’d crest a place in the trail, which by now was more or less unmarked, where we couldn’t see what came next, we’d look up to find that what came next was more mountain to climb. It kept getting steeper, the trail unmarked, and I realized that one bad slip would send a person sprawling downward. It crossed my mind that, were that to be me, my only hope was to have the wherewithal to yell “Aaaaaaas youuuuu wiiiiiiiiiish” as I rolled to my doom, and to hope someone might film it.  In the end, the entirety of mile six was an ascent so brutal that it mocked the Manitou Incline for having stairs. It took me around forty minutes to cover that mile, and at the top I helped myself to more coke, some cheese, another banana, and of course more water.

In a few places, I glanced over and edge to notice that the fall would likely kill a person. In one instance, I had actually slipped and started to fall before I realized that this was, in fact, such a place. I flailed my arms wildly, so much so that my shoulder popped, but it gave me the momentum I needed to get my center of gravity back over my feet. I gripped a nearby tree and pulled myself to safety. “OK?” asked a voice behind me. “Just fine!” I lied.

Mile nine was an epiphany. Surrounded by incredible mountains, being fed well, and with relatively good weather, I was running—engaging in what I think of as my most regular form of therapy. I was doing something I loved, surrounded by incredible natural beauty, and when my watch chirped at me that I’d run nine miles, more than half the race, it donned on me that possibly for the first time in my life I was running a race in which the finish line was not the immediate goal. I don’t run 27K’s (who does?). I had no course PR to consider. I didn’t care how fast I ran this race, and frankly, I didn’t want it to be over. I pondered this. Could I, at the age of forty-one, only now be discovering my love of trail running?

Mile ten erased the thought, at least in part. The descent was dramatic, long, and technical, and as I ran down, speeding up with every step, I completely lost control. This has never, in decades, in thousands of miles, happened to me before, but I felt like a car with no brakes and it scared the daylights out of me. With large, jagged rocks underfoot, lining the single track, and deep tracks and tall berms, all covered in large stones, I had no means of slowing down and I was losing my balance. I came upon another runner, moving at a more sensible speed, his back to me. “AHHHHHHHHHHH!” I yelled, kind of at him. He turned around, then leapt out of the way. I stared at the path below me, attempting to avoid anything that might send me tumbling, afraid that if I did fall the damage could be pretty severe. Broken bones seemed almost inevitable. At last I spotted a grassy hill and ran up it slightly, hoping gravity might chip in. By the time I regained control and slowed down enough that I felt comfortable glancing down at my Garmin, I had slowed to a 5:40 pace. I was surely running a sub-five mile for the first time in my life, but I didn’t even get to see it. I slowed more and more until I was able to find a place to stop. My toes had been jamming relentlessly into the front of my shoes with every step, and I could feel my right big toenail bleeding into my sock. As I caught my breath, Kenan, the runner I had nearly creamed, came upon me. “OK?” he asked. “Fine,” I lied again. Telling the same lie over and over seems to get easier, especially when it’s just one word long.  “Sorry about that,” I added. I offered him some gummy bears and we walked together for a bit.

The truth was that I wasn’t fine at all, of course. I had jammed my right leg hard into the hillside when slowing down, and my knee was swelling fast. I had two 200’s of ibuprofen and two 500’s of acetamenophin in my pockeet. I took them all with water and hoped I’d be able to finish the race. Kenan and I ran together for a bit, talking about his two-year-old and enjoying the views. I thought about my family.

From the final aid station, I figured we only had a few more miles to go. (It bears mention that I had calculated the actual conversion of KM to miles without pausing to consider that running a course like this in a straight line is damn near impossible, so we had a bit farther to go than I thought.) After the final aid station, the only really interesting thing to note is that whoever planned out the course was clearly trying to DNF as many people as possible in the final 5K. We climbed and climbed and climbed, and though it was never as bad as mile six, it was brutal on tired legs. Then the descent. Even had my knee not hurt, and even if I hadn’t scared the hell out of myself running wildly out of control downhill earlier in the day, these hills were insane. I remembered Paul on our training run Thursday, where we practiced the technical downhills, suggesting in his English accent that I think of myself as “pretty prancing pony” on these stony slopes. Whatever might have remained of my fragile masculinity was eaten by the pony as I did my best not to take a tumble on the long, mean downhill that seemed never to want to end. “You ok?” asked an enormous, muscular man as he trotted past me. “Fine!” I lied. “You’re limping. You should walk,” he called back. Dude, just believe my lie.

I crossed the finish line of the Jahorina Midi Trail Ultra in just under four-and-a-half hours, about twenty minutes more than it took me to run Grandma’s Marathon, which is nearly ten miles longer, a month ago. I was greeted by Paul, who got ninth place and came in around 3:50:00. He congratulated me, told me I had finished in the top third, and after a selfie we went and piled plates with all kinds of wonderful food: meats, vegetables, rice, beans, and then pounded it. I had seconds. I felt amazing, though exhausted. The Jahorina Trail Run was easily the most challenging race I’ve ever run, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. All told, I’ve run just more than a hundred and fifty-five miles since arriving in Bosnia three weeks ago, seventy-four of those this week. But today’s nineteen, including a short warmup and cool down, were the most fun by far.

I’ve had an amazing time in Bosnia. I wasn’t here to run, of course, and if you’re not already I hope you’ll check out the work I’ve been doing with some former students and colleagues on the Sarajevo Roses on Twitter and Instagram, both at @rosesofsarajevo. SarajevoRoses.net will be the eventual home of the project, but we have a ways to go on that. In a few short hours, I’ll wake up from an abbreviated sleep, get in the car to the airport, and board a flight to Vienna, then to Chicago, and finally to Omaha. I can’t wait to see my family again. And yet Sarajevo has left an impression upon me, as has the nation of Bosnia and the people who live here. I think that if more people knew what I know, if they saw what I’ve seen and had the experiences I have had, the population of this city would soon double. Bosnia is an incredible nation, with rich history and some of the most stunning mountains and rivers I’ve ever seen. The food, the art, the dance, the music, the culture of this place is just remarkable. Indeed, it has problems, and in a sense those problems are what brought me here, and also what brings me back. But I’ll keep coming back, without a doubt, and I’ll continue to encourage others to join me. As always, thank you for reading, and for supporting my efforts in running The Kandahar Marathon. Ciao from beautiful Sarajevo!

~Mark