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

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