The Kandahar Marathon: Week Forty-Seven

“You’d rather be ten percent under-trained than one percent over-trained”

                                                            `                                               ~Coach Ryan Salem

I may finally have done it. At the start of the year, I was astonished that no matter how hard I pushed my body it seemed like it was eager to adapt to higher mileage and equally capable of doing so. Most years, I run a little more than a thousand miles. This year I’ve run well over double the usual, and I still have over a month to go. All that being said, it feels as if maybe I’m finally wearing down. I have a new issue with my right hip, and it seems likely its related to the pain in my right knee. My left knee, also, has been registering some complaints, especially on my long runs. While I seem to have the issues with my feet under control, they’ve been replaced with some that seem even more likely to shut me down. Worse still is the general fatigue. Whenever I go out for a run, as I did four times this week, meaning that three times I did not, I start out feeling fresh and strong only to begin to feel heavy part way into it. My body, it seems, needs a break.

The timing is good, I suppose. At Thanksgiving dinner, my friend Brian who, along with his family, joined us for the meal, casually mentioned that we had a marathon in Memphis next weekend. “That’s next week?” I asked. I thought we had two more weeks. How does a person get caught off-guard by the information that they are running a marathon? Sheesh. All that to say I’m into my taper now, further in than I realized, and I get to do a lot more resting this week in preparation for the St. Jude Marathon on Saturday.

Over the weekend, two of my former cross country runners stopped by for coffee. They’re both in college now, running casually and keeping up with classes. They’re both extremely bright, and more importantly, they’re excellent humans. I agreed to run the Lincoln Marathon with one of them next year, and signed up for that over the weekend. It seems to me I’ll need to get some serious, intentional rest in, and maybe devote more time to Peloton, core work, and lifting, if I’m going to be ready to tackle the five marathons on my calendar for next year when it comes time to start training in January.

Out of Afghanistan this week, the news is a mixed bag. On one hand, there are headlines about women pushing back against the Taliban, and the UN denouncing the Taliban’s treatment of women. While the latter is really just symbolic, or seems to be from here, that it remains on their radar is somewhat encouraging. Then there’s the ugly news. The Atlantic reported this week that if Congress doesn’t take action, thousands if not tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who were evacuated to the United States last year when the country fell could be deported. This is significantly complicated by the fact that control of congress just passed from the Democrats to the Republicans and, to make matters worse, there is an internal power struggle in the GOP regarding leadership that will only be exacerbated by the coming presidential primaries. Put another way, I have my doubts that the House of Representatives will take meaningful action on behalf of refugees leading up to a presidential election. If you’ve ever been inclined to write your senator or representative, now might be an excellent time.

This morning, Monday, my kids woke up early and climbed into my lap. True enough, they aren’t real conducive to me getting my work done in the mornings, but the ability to snuggle with them, to study Spanish with them in the mornings, and to spend more time with them in general was much of the impetus for my change in jobs this fall. That is to say: I don’t mind. As I sat here snuggling them, I was reminded of what a friend said to me in Sarajevo this past summer, something to the effect of “You compose yourself with the confident demeanor of a person who knows they have a home to return to.” I don’t recall his exact words, but the concept of what he was saying is something I reflect upon a lot. I have no doubt that he was correct, and I am equally convicted that every person should be able to feel this way. I end today thinking about the parents, in particular the Afghan parents in the United States, whose future remains uncertain. I once thought that running a few thousand miles this year was going to be how I helped them. Now I am beginning to realize it will need to be far more than that. I’m sure that no matter how tired I feel, it’s nothing compared to them.

~Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Forty-Six

“&$*%^%$&)(#$*&^%#.”

                                                            `                                               ~Me

I’ve been too frustrated this week even to write this down, though I feel that if you’re one of my regular readers then the least I can do is to offer you some form of explanation. Here goes.

Heading into this year of running, my great fear was injury. Surely, I thought, doubling my mileage would significantly increase the likelihood of stress fractures, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and all of those other miserable ailments that runners so often get sidelined with. Yet here I am in mid-November, and to be honest the worst thing to have happened is that very minor surgery on my foot, a few missing toenails, the occasional slight muscle pull. Things had gone so much more smoothly than I expected…until this past week.

I don’t know if it’s the weather, which has been frigid enough in Nebraska to force me onto my treadmill most of the time, or if instead it’s something else, but last week I fell apart. My mileage dipped down to nearly non-existent, and the combination of three miles here and seven there added up to a meager twenty-seven for the week, something like half of my usual weekly totals. Then Sunday, it culminated in what felt like a disaster.

I woke up at seven or so and did some writing, intending to go out for a double-digit jog. By ten in the morning, however, I was so fatigued that I could barely drag myself to bed and, once I did, I slept for three more hours. My body seems to be rebelling. I don’t have a fever, a cough, or a runny nose. What I have is muscles that are refusing to cooperate. It feels a bit like trying to get a stubborn horse to stand up. Good luck with that.

Monday morning, after nine hours of fitful slumber, I got on the treadmill and forced four miles out at a feeble pace. Not terrible, but far from the marathon training I’m used to doing. My hope is that perhaps this week I’ll get back into a rhythm. Should my muscles persist with this tired-horse routine, I have my doubts about my ability to finish out the year. I’ll know more next week after further field testing. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone. I’m thankful for your support.

~Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Forty-Five

“Afghan supreme leader orders full implementation of Sharia law.”

                                                            `                                               ~The Guardian 11/14/22

Afghanistan was, at long last, in the news again this week, but only kind of, and mostly for the wrong reasons. After failing to produce a “red wave” in the midterm elections, Republicans have reportedly set the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of their agenda for the presidential race. Fair enough, and though I hope nobody will forget that it was Trumpster Fire who set all of that in motion, Biden certainly shares blame for how poorly it was executed. Regardless, wouldn’t it be nice if the people of Afghanistan could be something other than a pawn in our tiresome political games? Sigh.

Other ways that the Afghans appeared in the news this week, and these you had to look for: the Taliban have barred Afghan women from gyms. Also, a report came out detailing that the US Military is responsible for the deaths of 64 children in Afghanistan during our occupation. Oh, and remember the Russians? The Afghans do, too. In fact, there are a significant number of Afghans who still speak Russian, and there’s some overlap between those and the people the US trained and armed, and reportedly they’re being recruited by Putin to fight in Ukraine. So, in summary, the Taliban gonna Taliban because they value women’s rights about as much as the US Supreme Court, America doesn’t kill as many children abroad as we do at home but, hey, closer than you’d think, and in some grotesque nod to the failed Soviet era, that mediocre KGB agent-turned-demagogue has launched his latest iteration of operation human shield with the unwitting help of the Americans. You really can’t make this stuff up. 

As if all that weren’t enough, Monday morning in the US, Monday evening in Afghanistan, riffing off of the whole banning-women-from-gyms (and also public bath houses and, well, society at large) thing, the Taliban went ahead and ordered the full implementation of Sharia law. After skimming several articles all of which appear to have the same sources, the gist of it seems to be that the major change isn’t in the law but in the implementation and enforcement of punishments—yeah, those punishments, the ones we used to read about and cringe. Apparently, having thrust the country into horrific poverty as winter sets in and returning women to third-class citizenship wasn’t enough for the Talibs, and they’re now going to begin public amputations and stoning people to death on soccer fields again. It’s 2022, but the whole world seems to have missed the memo. Everything is backwards. We’re living in the dark ages again, but this time we have the internet.

So, when people ask me “how do you run so much” it’s not really that weird that I think “how can you not?” right? It’s the therapy I can afford, and how can you keep up with the news in this world and not need therapy? Still, I’ve never been one of those “ignorance is bliss” folks. I envy them sometimes, but in the end I suppose I’d rather be depressed than stupid.

This week I ran about as much as the last, and I’ve now run thirteen days straight, the entire month of November so far. I never been a “streaker” but I’m thinking about trying to at least run to the end of the month and see how that goes. Most days this week were 5-7 miles and some core work, though on Sunday I got in 18.5, one mile for every degree Fahrenheit it was outside when I began. In all this week I ran 52 miles and felt pretty good, save for a minor nagging pain in my right knee. My big toes are each uniquely aware of the absence of nails atop them, though both respond to their nakedness in their own ways and neither slows me down much. If anything, I enjoyed bundling up to run Sunday morning, and no part of me got unbearably cold. A win of sorts.

When I started this project, this Kandahar Marathon, it seemed like, well, a marathon. Fifty-two weeks. A few went by. Then a few more. Then months passed followed by seasons until suddenly today I looked and realized that winter is upon us and there are only seven weeks left in the year. This year may not have changed much in the grand scheme of things, but it has changed me significantly. Sometime earlier this month I crossed the two-thousand-mile mark for the first time in my life, and I’m still going strong. Have my efforts made a difference for others? It’s hard to say. I know there are Afghan people in Omaha who have benefited from my efforts and the support of those who have joined me in this endeavor. Having said that, I have to admit that sometimes it all just feels more than a little overwhelming. It must be time to go for a run again.

Until next week,

Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Forty-Four

“Climate is what we expect. Weather is what we get.”

~Mark Twain

Last week, I gave a talk on sustainability and regenerative viticultural practices in the Napa Valley. A lot of what I shared in my talk, and much of what I’m writing about in my book at the moment which is due out next year, is about climate change. A week ago, our kids were trick-or-treating in seventy-degree temperatures I remember that when I was young, I often trick-or-treated in the snow (walking uphill all the time, of course) and preferred a ninja costume because of the face mask that would help keep me warm. Climate change won’t be the end of me, but as a parent—and a human—I can’t help but be deeply concerned by it. As I wrap up my book on the Napa Valley, fire, drought, erratic temperatures, new highs and so much more are making the industry harder and hard to maintain. I’m glad I get to do some work in this area, to bring attention to the issues, but I wish that there was more that I could do.

I still check the weather in Kandahar from time to time on my phone. This time of year, their temperatures are pretty similar to those we experience in the American Midwest. In fact, this week, the weather in the part of Afghanistan is remarkably consistent, ranging from the low forties to the high sixties almost every day, with daily sunshine and no precipitation predicted. It’s not as erratic as the weather here in Nebraska, and I wonder sometimes how that reality impacts those who move here. It must seem very deceptive to those who are used to seemingly more predictable weather to live in a place where it can be seventy degrees and sunny on afternoon and seven degrees and snowing the next morning. It’s hard to plan for, as if the lives of those who move to Nebraska from Afghanistan—or any other nation—weren’t complicated enough.

Cindy reached out to tell me that the new Afghan Community Center is opening in Omaha soon. They need volunteers. I’m trying to figure out how, with a full teaching load and publishing deadlines looming among so many other obligations, I can find more time in the day to fit that in. I used to make more time in the day by waking up earlier and earlier every morning, until at one point I was waking up at 3:45AM each day. That was no good for anyone, and the older I get the more rest I require. If you happen to live in or near Omaha and want to volunteer at the new Afghan Community Center, here’s the link to their Facebook page:  https://facebook.com/events/s/afghan-culture-night/2423669814453783/

As running goes, I ended up taking Monday off this week, the last day of October and my third day of rest in a row. In the month of October, I ended up running a modest 136.5 miles, my second-lowest monthly total of the year, despite having run back-to-back marathons. In fact, more than despite that, it was because of it. Between the taper leading up to those races and the rest required to recover from them, it’s a miracle I was able to run as much as I did. This past week, beginning Tuesday the first, I got back into a steadier routine, running daily and feeling my body get used to the demands of it again.

Friday the family and I headed down to Kansas City and stayed with some friends. Saturday morning, I paced the Longview Half Marathon. It was a wicked thirty-something degrees that morning, and because it was the day before daylight savings, it was pitch black when we arrived at the lake with almost no lights to be found anywhere. Not only was it cold, the wind was brutal, amplifying the effects of the temperature. When the rain turned to sleet as I was pinning on my bib, I bristled and put on another layer of clothing. When the sleet turned to enormous, wet snowflakes at the starting line, I chuckled wryly. It was going to be a rough one. I paced the two-hour group and we went out at an easy pace, knowing we’d make up the time when the group go warmed up. I was the lead pacer, and my group was amazing. The two-hour group is often popular as that’s a common time goal for many. I had a score of runners around me for most of the race, including many who were running their first half marathon ever. At mile eleven, most broke free of me and sped up. I finished in 1:59:58 unofficially, with a group of five, and I was honored to find many from my group had waited at the finish to thank me. We swapped a few hugs, I congratulated them, grabbed a couple slices of pizza and headed to my car to join my family for the Husker game.

Sunday morning, my friend Brian and I drove to Lawrence to run the Kansas Half Marathon. I was pacing the 2:05 group this time, but I took the trail role. We had a solid pack through mile six or seven, but then they spaced out. For much of the latter part of the race, I had a small group of four or five, and by mile ten I was with a lone runner, Sarah, who was fighting hard to hold our pace and doing an amazing job of it. Sarah finished her first half marathon ever, and Brian and I sat with some of my fellow pacers, eating a banana and chatting before we headed back. Brian had broken free of our pack earlier to do his own thing, which I totally get. He and I are running the St. Jude Marathon in less than a month, and more than anything he needs to feel strong and confident. We both do.

So far this year, I’ve raised a little over $3,400.  Thank you to those who support my efforts to raise money for Afghans resettling here in Nebraska. The week ahead is packed with meetings, but I’m going to do what I can to pack it with miles as well. If you’d like to make a donation to join me in supporting Afghans in Nebraska, below is the link. Thank you, and have a great week. https://www.fanangel.com/donate/2315

~Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Forty-Three

“When your legs get tired, run with your heart.”

~Unknown

I was interviewed after the I-35 Challenge by Coach Eladio Valdez of Runner’s Edge in Kansas City, as was Becki Culler—I can share her interview with you if you’d like, but I’m only including mine below for now. I was glad Coach reached out. I’m not sure I’d have taken the time to reflect so thoroughly upon the experience had he not asked me the questions that he did. Below is the interview he sent out in his “Runners Edge Ramblings” newsletter last week.

Ordinary People Achieving Extra-Ordinary Things 

Why did you decide to take on this challenge of running 2 marathons in 2 states in 2 days?

I think I used to run marathons in part because of the uncertainty–I was never entirely certain when the gun went off that I would finish. Over time, as I’ve become a stronger runner, that uncertainty faded. One thing about the I-35 Challenge that was appealing in a way was that I was genuinely unsure of whether or not my body and my brain could pull it off. So often you wake up the day after a marathon stiff, achy, bleeding. To know that despite how I felt, eighteen hours after finishing KC I had to run Des Moines required some pretty serious mental gymnastics. I liked the idea of being tested like that. 

There were other reasons, too. I talked my good friend Scott into it. He’s an ultra runner, as is his girlfriend Tiffany, and it was fun to do it with them. I also got to check two states off of my fifty-state list in one weekend, plus I get to say that I ran as many marathons last weekend as I did in my twenties. The so-called humble brags write themselves after finishing two marathons in thirty hours.

What adjustments did you make to your regular marathon training to prepare for this? 

That was tricky. We all know you don’t train for a marathon by running marathons, right? But how do you train for something so ludicrous as two in two days? One thing that felt important to me was to finish a marathon with something left in the tank, to prove to myself that I could, so at the last minute I signed up for the Heartland Marathon in Omaha and locked on to the 4:45 pacer for the entire race. I ran a 4:09 at Grandma’s in June, but finished with terrible cramps and almost to the point of collapse despite terrific weather and a great course. When I crossed the finish line at Heartland, at a significantly slower pace, I felt great. I hugged my kids, ate pizza with them, then went home and we played catch. Having that finish behind me gave me confidence. 

Another thing I worked hard on was my diet and, more specifically, in-race fueling. I love that people provide food on the course, but you can’t count on that. In Born to Run, I read that Jurek carries pita and hummus–real food instead of processed gu–when he runs, so I started carrying simple trail mix with me. Salty nuts, sugary dried fruit, a bit of chocolate. It’s perfect. I carry four of them, and eat one about every six miles. I rarely eat the fourth. After cramping so badly at Grandma’s, I’ve also started popping salt and potassium every four miles during the race, along with a few hundred mg of ibuprofen. You have to be careful with that stuff, but it seems to work for me and I limit the excess to race days. 

I also cut a bit of weight, sort of as a natural consequence of high-mileage training. I’m an Asics, guy, so the other thing I did was made sure that two different pairs of shoes, one pair of Gel Nimbus Lite 3’s and one pair of Gel Cumulus, were broken in and ready for each day. I had my kit and my fuel down to a science. That helped give me confidence going into this thing.

What was your gameplan going into this for how you intended to run the first marathon and the second marathon the next day? How about what you planned to do in between the marathons? Were you able to stick to the plan or did you have to adjust it? If so, in what way(s)?

Pacers were key–I knew that going into it. I also know, as a pacer myself, that they aren’t all created equally. Part of my issue at Grandma’s was that there was no 3:55 pacer, and that was my goal. A smarter, more discerning me would have gone with the 4:00 group. Instead, I went with the 3:50. He was erratic and too fast out of the gate and by mile sixteen I couldn’t hang on to him. By mile twenty-one, the 4:00 pacer was passing me. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

In KC, we had Sarav, easily one of the best marathon pacers out there. We walked aid stations and hills. He chatted us up the entire time, encouraged us. Tiffany ran ahead, but Scott and I found it easy to hang on with him. In Des Moines, we gave ourselves permission to slow down. There was no 5:00 pacer so we started with 5:05 but quickly caught up to the 4:50 and held on to her. Using pacers to control tempo, for encouragement, to be reminded to walk aid stations–even for a very experienced runner who paces a lot of races, I found it invaluable. I’d never endeavor to do something like the I-35 Challenge, or even a marathon, without using pacers.

In between races, we fueled and rested. The three-hour drive wasn’t my favorite part of the experience, but it’s unavoidable. We got to Des Moines and immediately ate. We found some soup and salad, but fueling on the road can be challenging. Part of the fun of running races in other cities is seeing the city and going out to eat, but the availability of your usual foods is unreliable. In retrospect, I’d suggest packing a cooler to anyone with religious eating habits. Then we went to the hotel, turned on the Husker game, and did our usual. I soaked in the shower for a while. Scott has some leg compression sleeves we shared. My massage gun died so I rubbed my quads and hamstrings out by hand, flossed a little on the edge of the hotel desk, and wolfed down several bagels and a sandwich. I turned the game off before it was over and got as much sleep as possible. There was no perfect way to prepare to do something like this, but we did everything we could.

Share about your double marathon challenge experience.

After the KC race, I was pretty sure my left big toenail had given up the ghost, but instead it was just swollen and bleeding from all sides, oozing pus (sorry), and generally a painful mess. Every step pushed the loosened nail back into the quick and sent a stabbing pain into my foot. The KC race had been easy, thanks largely to good company and a great pacer, and minus the issue with my toenail, I felt pretty great. Scott had cramped in KC, but on the whole we felt good at the finish. Someone handed me a cold Bud Light around mile twenty-one and frankly, it was amazing. The carbs were great in that moment. I drank the entire thing in about a quarter mile (I also won a beer-mile earlier this year) and then FaceTimed my children since they weren’t at the race. By the time we finished I was tired, sure, but felt pretty good. I do think that the idea that we had finished a marathon and we were only half way done for the weekend was sort of an unpleasant notion, but we put it out of our minds. I did anyway.

In Des Moines, I woke up with my toe in so much pain that for a while I doubted whether or not I’d be able to run at all. Then I stubbed it on the bed while I was getting ready and invented some new swear words because the old ones felt entirely insufficient in that moment. I told myself I’d give it my best shot, drop down to the half or drop out if I needed to. The weather was perfect. The course in Des Moines is excellent, not only scenic but for the most part pretty flat, and amazingly well-supported. I think I was handed four bananas on the race and I ate them all pretty greedily. No Bud Light, unfortunately. It was probably not until mile fifteen that I became somewhat confident that I’d finish. We had a solid pace group that included Scott, Tiffany, and myself, as well as several other runners and Ashley, who had paced KC the day before and was now pacing us. That group made it work, despite our collective exhaustion. 

By the end I was entirely beat, but I also felt absolutely incredible. I had done something that I genuinely had no idea whether or not I could accomplish at all. I told my graduate students a few days later that it was probably the first time since writing my dissertation that I had done anything like that. I think I’m still processing it–and still paying for it with my toe–but it’s an amazing feeling.

Are you glad you took on this challenge? Why or why not?

Absolutely. If you’ve never run more than a 10K, your first half is a mind-blowing thing, right? I knew that I could run a marathon. I had no idea if my body and brain were equal to the task of running two of them back-to-back. Knowing I can gives me a feeling of strength and a confidence I didn’t have before in my ability to run. I don’t see me transitioning to ultras, but I no longer have much doubt that I can finish the fifty-state challenge. I joked to Scott and Tiffany that we should do it again next year–but I’m not sure that’s a joke. I’d do it again if I’m healthy and injury-free next fall. 

What advice would you share for someone who wants to take on a double marathon challenge?

Bart Yasso commented on my tweet about the I-35 Challenge with an important reminder to me: “The most important thing to pack is the reason why you are running the I-35 Challenge. You were born to run this race(s).” Remembering, first, that we are indeed born to run, that running long distances is the one things humans excel at physically, was huge. Remembering my own personal reasons for taking this on was equally valuable. I was grateful to the legend for his timely advice. 

I really feel like running a marathon in advance was a benefit, and having a routine in terms of fuel and supplements was the difference between this and those races that have punished me. The most important thing, I think, was not setting ambitious time goals. As a pacer, so often people will join my group and, when we start talking, tell me they “barely trained” or that they’re hoping to PR by twenty minutes. I think it’s natural, if also sort of stupid, for runners to be ambitious and to have big goals. That being said, most of those “I’m going to PR by an hour!” people fall off by the halfway point and wind up getting passed by pacers they could have stayed with if they set more reasonable goals for themselves to begin with. So, my advice to anyone running the I-35 Challenge or anything akin to it would be this:

1. Make finishing the goal. Don’t worry about time. In regard to time, go out at a pace that’s almost boring. By mile fifty, I promise you won’t be bored.

2. Taper. Do not fail to taper. 

3. Get your fuel down to a science. Use a marathon as preparation and practice in advance and see if you can finish one with as much as possible left in the tank. 

4. Stay at a race hotel, within walking distance of the starting line.

5. Use pacers. 

6. Pack your reason why and remember that you were born to run.

That’s how I ended the interview. Reminding everyone, most of all myself, that we were built for this.  In the weeks that had followed my back-to-back marathons, I’d been an odd combination of sedentary and active. I rested that week only to run a half marathon the weekend after, and the following week, this past week, I found I had little left to give. The hips, quads, and hamstrings were sore and achy. My calves were twitchy. Everything felt heavy. After a half on Sunday, I rested Monday. Tuesday, I went out to run five which quickly became walking two. Wednesday, I went out for seven but barely completed five. After a rest Thursday, I managed seven slow miles Friday, but finished feeling as tired as if I’d just run twice that distance. Reluctantly, I took Saturday and Sunday, the days usually reserved for long runs, off. I knew I was pacing back-to-back halves down in Kansas the following weekend, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my ability to help others the way my pacers had helped me.

I’ve never been very good with moderation, and the thing is that it usually catches up with me. The worst part of having to take time off to rest is knowing that every mile I don’t run is a few bucks that I don’t raise to help people, and that’s hard to take. That said, if my legs fail to freshen up soon, it could cost me a lot more mileage in the long run, and as I wrap up writing this on Sunday afternoon, I’m considering taking Monday off as well in the hopes that I can finish November and December this year as strong as I started. Time will tell.

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Forty-Two

“Whoa! And I feel good, I knew that I would, now
I feel good, I knew that I would.”

~ From “I got you” by James Brown

A tree fell on our house Sunday evening. We were driving away—Sonja and I and two of our best friends in the backseat, and I saw it in the rearview. The hundred-year-old silver maple in our yard split in the center and collapsed into our house. It took out the eaves, much of the front porch. It destroyed our tacky concrete birdbath, the one I’d only just gotten around to repairing this past summer. We went back to inspect the damage. The tree was hollowed out. The family of raccoons I knew to inhabit it were nowhere to be found. The damage to the house looked expensive, but when I went back inside, despite all of the visible damage to the roof, I could find no evidence that it had penetrated the house.

The week had already been a lot to handle without this new development. Sonja was struggling a bit with work. Friends of mine, too, had issues that I had taken an interest in and was trying to help. I ran very little, a few miles here and there, and spent a bit of time on the Peloton too. My left big toenail was, well, in the name of discretion, more than nagging. I called a few doctors who were booked for several weeks out, then at last one who wasn’t but who greeted me kindly yet with an air of incredulity.

“I specialize in wounds,” he told me.

“My guess is that when you see my foot this will count,” I replied.

“Can it wait until Wednesday?” he asked.

I considered. It was wait forty-some hours, or wait a few weeks. “Absolutely.”

“See you Wednesday,” he told me.

Wednesday came and I put on flip-flops and located his office in North Omaha without much difficulty. The parking lot was far from full. A nurse greeted me, led me into a sterile room, laid a blanket under my foot and propped it up in the typical electric recliner of hospitals.

The doctor was pulling on blue elastic gloves as he walked in. He stepped over to my inclined foot, glanced at it briefly, and said “Oh yeah, that counts.”  We chuckled. The nurse rubbed some orange liquid on the surface, he put three painful shots into the base of my toe and soon it was numb. He broke out what looked a lot like fencing pliers and, well, I looked away. When I looked back, he had my nail and some additional flesh in his the pincers of his torture device. My toe had a small canyon in it, and he assured me that what I was looking at was not bone. He prescribed me an antibiotic. “Can I run a race this weekend?” I asked. “If you want to,” he responded casually, as if to say I wouldn’t, but you do you. “See me in a week to make sure it doesn’t infect,” he concluded.

Sunday morning, one week after completing two full marathons in two days, I rose and drove to Lincoln to run the Goodlife Halfsy, a race I run almost every year. I allowed myself a relaxed pace of around 8:35’s and chatted with other runners, slowing slightly at the end in response to nagging aches to finish in around 1:52-something. My toe felt fine, more or less. My body felt as if it was telling me something. I knew I was overdoing it with all these races and decided I take next week a little easy. I hurried home to see my wife and children.

On the drive home, the co-founder of the Malala Fund, a Paki Stanford grad, was being interviewed. She’d helped Malala start her non-profit, but had since gone on to do for-profit work and found a cookware company or something equally uninteresting. Soon I was listening to music.

I spent a lot of time this past week thinking about people, and why they do what they do. In the end, I always circle back to something a financial adviser friend once told me when I was questioning the savings practices of another couple I knew. “People only do what makes them happy,” he said matter-of-factly. And he’s right. I’ve sought since that time for a counter example, but there isn’t one. The selfish are as such for themselves, sure enough, but the selfless are the same way. People donate money to charity because it makes them feel good. They sacrifice because it makes them feel good. If what we do doesn’t make us feel good, or some variations of good such as noble, kind, or something else, we’ll soon stop doing it. Prove me wrong.

It is through that lens that I look at my running. Does this make me feel good—racing, losing toenails, being sick to my stomach, finishing, feeling accomplished, being around people I like? Yes, yes it does. And my teaching? Also yes. What about writing? Once again, yes. Either it makes me feel good to do the thing, or it makes me feel good to later receive the acknowledgement I knew was likely to come as a result. Either way, my friend’s point from so long ago stands. I cannot think of something I do that does not in one way or another make me feel good.

The darkness sets early these days. It isn’t good for running, nor for inspecting tree damage. I suppose what limited daytime I have tomorrow, outside of the two meetings that are scheduled, will be devoted to doing those things, and hopefully both will make me feel good. I suspect they will in their own way. In addition, rest after running two full marathons and a half in eight days is called for, and I’ll see to it that my runs are easy and truncated for a spell. Whatever you’re up to, including following along with this journey I’m on, I hope it makes you feel good.

Sincerely,

Mark

The Kandahar Marathon: Weeks Forty and Forty-One

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

~Eleanor Roosevelt

It was Monday morning, during my run, when I realized that I had failed to write a post for the previous week about my running. The oversight wasn’t intentional. I was on a work trip in California and was keeping such crazy hours that only those things at the very top of my to-do list were being addressed. I met the most pressing deadlines, but I missed runs, missed meals, and didn’t have much time to write for pleasure. When I did run, it was a quick three miles here, a 10K there. I was in San Jose the day of the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon, but didn’t run it for want of time and better planning.

Being so busy, even with work that I genuinely enjoy, was stressful. Each day I got in the car and drove from one interview to the next, collecting information and taking pictures. I was “on assignment” for both of the magazines based in California that I write for, and I was conducting interviews for a book I have due out next year. It was work that I enjoyed, much the way that I enjoy teaching, and in that vein as enjoyable as it was it also had the ability—like teaching—to wear me out. All told, the entire time I was in California, in addition to my diet being less than ideal, I also consumed less water than normal and ran far fewer miles, only around twenty-five the entire nine-day period I was in wine country.

I knew I’d get away with it, though, and in fact it was probably ideal in the sense that I had the I-35 Challenge looming on the horizon. My friend Scott and I had texted back and forth a bit during the week. We both claimed we were ready. We both knew that we were lying. How can you be ready for something like running two marathons in two days? It’s like being ready to ride a bull. You can be willing to do it and see what happens, but you’re not in control of the situation. Physically, mentally, I was as prepared as I could be, but to say that I was ready would have been a stretch.

Tuesday morning I received a text message from a winemaker I was supposed to interview on Wednesday. He didn’t have harvest in yet and had to cancel. I understood. I also missed my children desperately, and I knew they missed me, too. So when the winemaker cancelled, I cancelled my other appointments and booked a last-minute ticket home early. It cost an arm and a leg, but knowing I’d see my kids sooner made the cost unimportant (there’s a lot of privilege in that statement, I know).  I got home Tuesday night at midnight, grabbed a Lyft, and was in my own bed asleep when Zooey came in the next morning, expecting to find grandma and grandpa there. It was amazing. We hugged and snuggled for what felt like an eternity, joined shortly thereafter by her brother. It was great to be home.

I spent the rest of the week taking care of the kids, and wishing they were with me when they were at school. At night, I’d make dinner and we’d watch movies or play games, then read books when it was time for bed. Titus and I have started Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I remain conflicted on the topic of Harry Potter. They are my favorite books, and I cannot understand why their author has taken a completely indefensible, backwards position, and continued to double down on it. Many great books have been written by problematic authors, certainly, but this one continues to feel somehow personal.

Friday night, I drove down to Kansas City and went straight to the race expo where I met my friend Scott and his girlfriend, Tiffany. Scott and I have been friends since we were in graduate school, back when I used to try to talk him into running half marathons with me. He never would, back then, but today he views marathons as short courses and devotes the time he’s not working as a firefighter to running ultras with Tiffany. The three of us had agreed long ago to run the I35 Challenge, back-to-back marathons on the same weekend, and at last it had arrived. After the expo, we grabbed a bite to eat and crashed early.

Saturday morning, the Kansas City Marathon was a spectacle. A tight chute was erected in front of the massive, iconic shuttlecocks that rest on the lawn of the Nelson Atkins Art Museum. Tiffany went ahead, and Scott and I locked on to the 4:50 pace group and one of the best pacers I’d ever had. We ran our 11:03 miles, walking up hills and speeding up going down, chatting about life and catching up for nearly five hours. My new nutrition regiment, including trail mix packets every six miles and sodium capsules every four, was working well for me. At mile 21, someone handed me a can of Bud Light and I gratefully downed it. At mile 23, I Facetimed with Sonja and talked to the kids for a bit. By 26.2, we were tired, but fine. My left big toenail throbbed a bit, but not bad. I ate the barbecue sandwiches and braced myself for the three-hour drive to Des Moines.

We arrived in Des Moines and went straight to the expo, then to dinner. I grabbed a salad and soup and went back to the hotel to shower and turn the Husker game on. We were all a little sore, and my left toenail, instead of falling off as I had hoped, seemed to have sealed itself overtop of a balloon. It was swelling underneath but hanging on tight. At the base of the nail, it pushed into the quick, making each step with my left foot painful. I began to harbor doubts about my ability to run a second marathon the next morning.


Sunday came quickly. I woke up, began to prepare, and promptly stubbed my toe. It hurt like crazy, but the nail hung on for dear life. I attempted to keep the toe elevated inside my Gel Cumulus, but it only sort of worked. I decided I’d give it a shot, but gave myself permission to drop to the half or drop out of the race if needed. 50,000 steps of sharp pain would be too much.

Scott and Tiffany were sore as well, but we all encouraged one another over a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. The Des Moines race begins downtown and is beautiful. The weather was a near-perfect forty degrees with little to no wind. We started with the 5:05 pace group, but quickly found we wanted to move faster and caught the 4:50 by mile five. For a brief while, we left that pacer too, but she soon caught us and we agree to lock onto her if we could. The Kansas City race was a good one, but the Des Moines may be special. The course is beautiful and the crowd support was the best I’ve seen outside of major races like Chicago and New York. There were so many aid stations that walking them seemed impractical, yet we did, and over the course of the race I consumed at least three bananas handed to me by spectators. Pain in my hamstrings distracted me from the pain in my toe, until the pain in my knees usurped my attention. Later, my right calf threatened to cramp with every step. At mile fifteen, shortly after running through Drake Stadium, I at last felt confident that I would at least finish the race. By mile 24, I was facetiming my kids again. Tiffany ran ahead at mile 25, and Scott and I finished together for a second straight day.

At the finish line I saw Jared, a friend I’ve done some training with. He and his wife congratulated me. He’d run a 3:50-something and felt great about it—as he should. We snapped a picture and I set out in search of food and drink. My big toe pulsed in such a way that I was sure the nail had detached. Looking down, I saw that I had bled through the top of my shoe. There was so much blood that at first I assumed it was dirt, but upon closer inspection it was a crimson hue even on a sea of Asics “gecko” green. When I got to my car, however, I discovered that the nail remained attached. Blood and other substances were all over, but the nail wouldn’t budge. I fear it may require surgery. Time will tell.

I think my biggest take-away from the weekend was that, unlike running a single marathon, which experience and training tell me I can do, I genuinely had no idea if I could do this or not. I ran as many marathons this past weekend as I did in the time between birth and the age of forty-one, and have now run twice as many marathons in 2022 as I did in my twenties. I’ve run a total of six marathons in my life now, with a seventh coming up in December. To have run two of them in the space of only around thirty hours made me feel, if not invincible, certainly stronger than I knew I was. I suspect that there ae many things a person can do, dependent largely upon who they are and what they enjoy, to make themselves feel this way. My hope for all people is simply that they find that thing and come to feel about themselves as I did after finishing two marathons in two days.

The drive home from Des Moines went quickly. I spent it talking to friends on the phone and eating bagels. When I got home, the kids were drawing with chalk in the driveway and ran up to greet me. I spent the rest of the day eating everything I could get my hands on and watching the Chiefs game with my kids, later She-Hulk. We snuggled on the couch and I reflected on how fortunate I was to have my family. In all, it had been a heck of a weekend. I went to bed exhausted, smiling from ear to ear.

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-Nine

DEAR FRIENDS:

AS I ENTER THE FOURTH QUARTER OF A YEAR DEFINED LARGELY BY REDEFINING MYSELF AS A RUNNER, I WANT TO SAY THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTINUED SUPPORT. I ALSO ASK THAT YOU CONSIDER SPONSORING ME FOR THE REMAINING THREE MONTHS OF 2022. FROM NOW THROUGH DECEMBER 31, I HOPE TO RUN THREE MORE MARATHONS, AS MANY MORE HALFS, AND RACK UP ANOTHER 600 MILES. WILL YOU PLEASE JOIN ME? IF YOU PLEDGE ME A PENNY, A NICKEL, OR WHATEVER YOU CAN SPARE BY THE MILE, I’LL DO THE RUNNING WHILE YOU PROVIDE THE MOTIVATION, AND TOGETHER WE’LL RAISE AS MUCH MONEY AS POSSIBLE TO HELP SUPPORT AFGHAN REFUGEES RESETTLING IN NEBRASKA. AS ALWAYS, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT.

YOUR FRIEND,

MARK

“No marathon gets easier later. The halfway point only marks the end of the beginning.”

~Joe Henderson

I took Monday off after running the Heartland Marathon. I thought about getting some miles in to test the idea that I really was capable of pounding pavement again the day after a full, but instead opted to err on the side of caution and allow my body an extra day to recover. Tuesday I ran an easy seven miles and felt fine doing it. Wednesday I got ten more in, but felt not only heavy, but also achy and fatigued. I took Thursday off, and ran five at an easy pace on the treadmill Friday, wrapping up September with 201 miles and around 1,830 on the year—on pace for an average of more than 200 per month if I can keep it up during the final quarter. That’s a big if.

Later Friday morning, I took my sick son to my office because I had to get some work done, and then he tagged along with me to the grocery store where I got a Covid booster and a flu shot. We then attended a cross country meet where the team I used to coach was competing. We met one of my former runners and students there, a young lady who used to babysit my kids, and the three of us took in the races. North’s runners did well and it brough me a great deal of joy to cheer them on. Before the third of four races had ended, my son complained of being tired and I took him home to rest. Poor kid.

Saturday, the first of October, I went out for eleven miles. At the six-mile mark where I turned around, my watch showed 5.9, but when I was halfway back it read 6.0. Damn it. My Garmin is so old that the rubber watchband is rubbed completely smooth, but it has always been reliable… until now. Note to self: start saving money. Those darn GPS watches are expensive. Maybe I’ll get one with a better heartrate monitor this time.

I woke up Sunday morning feeling sick, and wondering if it was a hangover from one of my shots or, instead, if I had caught what my son has been carrying around all week. Monday morning I would board a flight for San Francisco to do research for my new book for the next two weeks, so Sunday was my last chance to hang out with the family for quite some time. And upon that realization, I stopped writing and set out to take advantage of the day with my family.

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