The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty-One

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

~Robert Emmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you,


The Kandahar Marathon: Week Thirty

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

~Some new friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Kandahar Marathon: Week Twenty-Nine

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

~Me, regarding the Jahorina Trail Run

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

~Paul, who talked me into the Jahorina Trail Run

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Kandahar Marathon: Week Twenty-Eight

“Fewer than there were yesterday, but more than there will be tomorrow.”

~Me, responding to the question of how many Sarajevo Roses there are

The people of Bosnia seem largely to feel forgotten, abandoned, or otherwise unimportant to the rest of the world. The evidence of this is everywhere, but most commonly I find it in conversations. Emir Sulagic said something that really struck me in a public lecture a few days ago: “I look at Ukraine and feel envy; I feel envy at their relevance… yes I look at Ukraine and feel envy, envy that they are white enough to be worthy of intervention. Apparently we were not white enough to be worthy of intervention.” It twisted my stomach in a knot when he said it; I doubt I’ll ever forget that one. And yet, I’m too old, too experienced, and too hardened to the realities of the world to question what he’s saying. The Afghans, like so many before them, have been forgotten it seems, and I don’t wonder why.

After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, there were a lot of “official visits” and journalists, but more importantly, a lot of foreign investment. The Chinese and Indians have pumped billions in their respective currency into the tiny African nation, and the United States, Great Britain, and others aren’t lagging too far behind. This is a good thing; in a general sense Rwanda benefits from the involvement of outside investors, though one can certainly argue that the average Rwandan doesn’t reap nearly enough personal benefit from it. Nevertheless, the streets of Kigali are all pretty much in excellent condition, and sound infrastructure is a benefit to all.  Bosnia, on the other hand, experienced very little support from the outside, and this hasn’t changed much over the years. I’ve attended half a dozen public events commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo in the past week alone, and either the American ambassador isn’t showing up, or else he’s far less conspicuous than any other American ambassador I’ve ever encountered. My money is on the former.

I don’t know exactly to what we should attribute the world’s general neglect of Bosnia, which it bears mention includes refusing the nation admission into the European Union while neighboring belligerent Serbia was admitted back in 2012. I strongly suspect it has something to do with the predominant religion of both nations and, just to head off the skeptics, I suspect just as strongly that the EU has concocted a more palatable and less Islamophobic explanation for people who google this question to uncover. The more time I spend in Sarajevo, the more I love it, and the more indignant I feel about the way this nation has been treated for…well… pretty much forever, but especially for the past thirty years.

So where does that leave Afghanistan? While Bosnia is just over 50% Muslim and, if you combine the Orthodox with the Catholics, over 45% Christian, Afghanistan is, well, run by the Taliban, and as such, entirely Muslim. Will the gross neglect that the world has shown Bosnia carry over to Afghanistan?  Are the Afghans destined to suffer indefinitely the neglect of the developed and powerful nations which could, were they so inclined, help elevate their ancient and glorious society to new heights in much the same manner that other nations have lifted Rwanda? It seems to me that the die is already cast.


Monday morning I met Paul on Vjecnica, a stone pedestrian bridge that crosses the Miljaka between his home and my hotel. I met Monty, his dog, a “working” cocker spaniel (as opposed to a show cocker spaniel, Paul explained). We jogged around the park and down to Ambassador’s Alley. I’d been concerned about running with Paul. The man runs ultras and I doubted I could keep up, but Paul was casual and seemed content to jog along, stopping whenever Monty needed to use the outdoor toilet or got distracted by a bird. As we ran, we chatted about everything from work to politics to the Jahorina trail run we’re running in a couple of weeks. “It’s not too technical, I don’t think,” said Pual, looking doubtfully at my explosive yellow Nimbus 23 road shoes.  What have I gotten myself into? I asked myself yet again. As we returned to Bascarsija, prayers started to come over loud speakers from the minarets and echoed throughout the city. I stopped on Vjecnica and listened for a moment before returning to my hotel for cereal and an espresso.  In all, it was a beautiful morning and a great start to the day.

Running for the rest of the week was my pre-work escape from days spent hunting roses in the sun. Tuesday, I ran five more miles. Wednesday, eleven and a half. On Thursday I got seven miles in. Each day’s run was followed by hours and hours and hours of either following clue, maps, tips, and hunches around Sarajevo looking for Sarajevo Roses, or else documenting what I’d found online, on paper maps, in emails to my student team, and on social media accounts specific to this endeavor (please follow @rosesofsarajevo on Twitter and Instagram).  By Thursday night, I was physically exhausted and also mind-numbed, so I decided to take Friday off.

Friday morning, I rose early and ran through the old city, Bascarsija, before anyone but the bakers and pigeons were awake. Deserted, I could more fully appreciate the beauty of the Ottoman part of town and how it transitions to the Austro-Hungarian part with little warning. I stopped regularly to take photographs, including many of the roses in that part of town. I allowed them to dictate my path to some extent, and after two miles turned around, getting a total of four in before showering and hopping in the car with Adi. We spent the rest of the day in Mostar and Croatia, visiting wineries and relaxing. We got back late that night.

Saturday, I ran through Ambassador’s Alley, then up to the old train track. I ran through the first tunnel, then the second. At the third, where I normally turn around, I tried my luck. It was a bright day and while there was still a pitch-black nucleus to the tunnel, running slow and light I managed to get through the blinding darkness without turning an ankle or falling into a hole. On the other side, the ruins of an old train station, an abandoned house, and incredible views. Also, massive rocks under foot. I turned around at seven-and-a-half, aiming for a total of fifteen on the day. Around mile thirteen, I encountered an ambulance, a badly injured biker, and some Canadian tourists trying to help. I stuck around and offered what I could before suggesting the Canadians eat at Inat Kuca and heading back to my hotel. Sunday, my feet were sore from the large rocks under my road shoes. I ran seven easy miles down Wilsonova, which is closed to automobiles on the weekends, and ended the week with 54.5 miles of running, my best since I began to taper for Grandma’s more than a month ago. At long last, I felt strong again.


Sunday, after my run, Adi and I again went to work. The day was typical of this kind of work. We spent several hours wandering in areas where roses were said to be, finding nothing. Then we went to another place on a hunch, found one, then another, then another and another. How many roses are there? Wikipedia says around 200. Many people I meet in Sarajevo say about half that. As for me, after two weeks of scouring, and of finding places that people were sure there were Sarajevo Roses only to discover new pavement and people who didn’t want to talk about it, my guess is there might be fifty left if we’re lucky, and some of them are in such bad shape that if you didn’t know exactly what you were looking for you’d guess that you were looking at a small paint spill, and not the location of a massacre.

I’m here in Sarajevo researching the Sarajevo Roses because memory is important. Because primary sources and evidence are important. Because the victims of the Siege of Sarajevo, not unlike the victims of the Taliban in Afghanistan, are important. Inshallah, I will never find myself wandering the streets of Kabul, searching out the telltale signs of the massacres that take place there.

I’ll end by saying that one reason I was able to run so many miles this week was that I’m finally beginning to feel recovered from my marathon last month. Another, equally if not more important reason, however, is that I’m inspired by the support I’ve received from donors. For every mile I run, we donate $1.52 to help Afghan refugees resettle in Omaha. That’s $82.84 this week, and if I have my way it will be as much or more the next. Thank you for your support of me as I run the Kandahar Marathon, and even more importantly, your support of those Afghans who have made it to Nebraska and are resettling in Omaha, Lincoln, and elsewhere as we speak. Thank you from Sarajevo. Thank you from the world.


The Kandahar Marathon: Week Twenty-Seven

“Why Remember?”

(The name of the conference I attended this week in Sarajevo and Srebrenica)

I landed in Sarajevo a bit bedraggled from the journey. I’d slept some, though not well, on the leg between Chicago and Vienna, then took my coffee and worked on some writing in the airport in Austria before boarding an Austrian Airlines flight into Bosnia. After being seated, I removed Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn on the Frontline of Politics and War by Kenneth Morrison, whom I had had the pleasure of meeting when we both presented at a conference in Royal Wootton Bassett several years ago, frommy bag and began reading.

“Good book?” asked the man to my left.

“So far,” I responded, indicating that I was in the front material. “I’m heading to a conference that’s being held at this hotel over the next few days. Figured I should read it.”

“I think I’m heading to the same conference.”

Craig Larkin was born in Belfast, and now works at Kings College in London where it has more than once occurred to me to pursue a second doctoral degree. We chatted the entire flight and upon landing I asked Adi, my friend and also my interpreter, to drop Craig at his hotel before taking me to get a sim card.

Earlier in the week, I’d spent time gradually packing, hanging out with friends, grilling food, and spending as much time with my wife and kids as I was able. I ran five miles on Monday, July 4, and four more miles early on a sweltering hot Tuesday morning, then having breakfast with the family one last time before they dropped me off at the airport. By the time I got to my hotel the following afternoon I was exhausted, but this wasn’t my first rodeo and I knew better than to succumb to the desire to take a nap. Instead, I texted Sonja before lacing up my running shoes and setting out into the hot Bosnian afternoon. I ran just three miles down the banks of the Miljacka River, which was complicated less by fatigue and more by the fact that Sarajevo is a bustling capital city, and also a place where it’s perfectly acceptable to park a car on the sidewalk.

The next two days, I woke early, went for a run, then spent the rest of the day attending the “Why Remember?” conference—a rhetorical question, of course—at the Hotel Holiday, what was once the Holiday Inn. The hotel’s history puts it on par with the Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali. Towering over Sarajevo’s deadly Sniper Alley, it was a place where international journalists headquartered themselves during the Siege of Sarajevo. Built for the 1984 Olympics, the penthouse that was once occupied by the Olympic commissioner later became a temporary headquarters for Radovan Karadzic, the murderous general who led the Siege of Sarajevo, and it was from that window that some of the earliest shots of the siege were fired. Kenneth, the author of the book I was reading, gave us a fascinating talk about it, and I was honored that he remembered me after so many years.

Thursday evening I was at a museum with other attendees, and Paul, one of the conference organizers and someone whose work I deeply admire, said casually, “You know there’s a trail race before you leave.”  Paul is one of those mad ultra-runners. Two weeks ago he knocked out a hundred mile race, yet despite being old enough to have photographed the Siege of Sarajevo and having gray hair he’s as spry and energetic a man as I’ve ever met. I eyed him incredulously. “There’s a 27K option,” he said, perhaps somewhat coaxingly. I did some rough math in my head before responding “Sounds good.”

“You’re doing the Jahorina Trail Run?!” asked Josephine in a voice that clearly stated “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into.” Josephine, who presented on my panel with two incredible students from Jajce, a town in the Federation of Bosnia where student-activists had succeeded in desegregating their school, ran at Johns Hopkins before joining a professional running club in Germany while she did her Master’s. She and I had discussed writing a paper together, and in speaking to her I learned that she had just run a half marathon in about fifteen minutes less than it takes me. Her incredulity about the trail run had me worried.

“Er…” I stammered.

“Only the 27K,” chimed in Paul. 

What have I gotten myself into? I wondered.

Friday, after a late night with the other conference attendees at a restaurant that offered wonderful food, excellent Bosnian wine, and fantastic views of the city, I found myself wide awake at a quarter until four in the morning. Unwilling to waste the opportunity, I read for a short bit, then went for a run of five and a half miles through Bascarsija (bass-char-see-uh with the emphasis primarily upon the second syllable), Sarajevo’s old city, to the Hotel Holiday. On the way I stopped to photograph several Sarajevo Roses, the primary artifacts which are my true reason for being in Bosnia this summer.

Friday was spent at Srebrenica, the place where 8,372 Bosnian men and boys were murdered horribly in 1995. I saw Hassan, now an old friend whose book I used in my class on 20th Century Genocide, and met Emir, the director of the Srebrenica Memorial. Both men are survivors of the genocide that took place there. It is powerful to be in that place, and also difficult. Sometimes I wonder how I chose the field of genocide studies. Other times I feel as if it chose me. I spent the day learning, taking in everything that was said. I was reminded of when I first entered the field of Holocaust education, how I took copious notes anytime someone spoke and found every last detail to be of the greatest interest. The level of denial, the extent to which many work to deny the genocide that occurred here, is staggering. Mass graves were moved, relocated to try to hide them. The Dutch would seemingly prefer to forget it ever happened. The Serbs actually state that it never happened. As Paul and I drove back to Sarajevo that night, he pointed to what appeared to be a brand new building. It was actually a very old building, he explained, but it looks new because it was the site of a massacre, and recently the owner of the property had filled in the bullet holds and whitewashed it—literally whitewashed it—to cover up the blood stains. Such things are not uncommon here, and it punctuated for me the importance of the research I am here to do, documenting the existence of a unique primary sources before time, politics, or prejudice sees to their disappearance.

That evening, back in Sarajevo, we went to the opening of an exhibit by two photographers who are documenting the war in Ukraine. I saw several images I recognized from reading the New York Times, CNN, and the Napa Valley Register—my three daily newspapers. The event was held in an old theater, the Red Cross building in Sarajevo, which was burned out during the Siege. It was a fitting space for such an event. After that, dinner. We were walking through the old town, Bascarsija under strings of festive lights. A man approached me, asking for money. Sarajevo is not immune to the general position of indifference that every other city in the world to which I have traveled harbors toward their downtrodden. The one I live in currently is among the worst by far. Most people seem to ignore the poor; I suppose they make us uncomfortable, make us feel things we’d rather not such as guilt or pity. Or perhaps they remind us that it is good fortune and circumstance, rather than merit as we so like to tell ourselves, that divides us.

I have always struggled with the poor. I help, when I can, when it is convenient, but it is a rare occasion that I actually turn my car around to return to someone and offer them help. I make no judgements about what people spend their money on, and I don’t assume everyone who needs help to be an addict. For me, the primary problem is how ubiquitous the needy are, coupled with the realities that many of them are exploited. By that I mean to say that I think many of them gather money only later to have it robbed of them. I know this to be true through some of the conversations I’ve had over the years with people asking for money. Imperfect though it seems, I typically try to give them something when I have it, though admittedly not always.

That night, on the way to an after party, when the man approached me asking for money, I was hesitant at first. I was distracted and did not immediately engage with him. “Please,” he said simply, and I turned to look him in the eyes. Of course. I pulled a coin from my pocket, realized it was small, and pulled a second one out. Whether it was two Bosnian Marks or five I don’t recall, but I gave it to him and he seemed quite pleased. He held out a packet of wet wipes and a package of tissues, small travel-size types of things. “Take?” he asked. “Oh no, I’m fine,” I told him. Perhaps he could use them himself, or maybe he could sell them. Either way I didn’t need them. “Please,” he said again, with the same subtle urgency in his voice, and at last I realized that if I accepted, then he hadn’t begged me for money, but instead we had simply had a business transaction. This seemed to matter to him, and I think maybe I understand that. Nobody wants to beg for money, of course, no matter what the privileged elites who were born with silver spoons in their mouths may grumble to the contrary.

I walked into my hotel room and set the package of Fresh Junior Wet Wipes on my desk, then texted my wife. A few minutes later a Facetime call came in and my little girl, Zooey, was telling me about her day. Not long after, Titus joined the conversation. It was so great to see their faces. Finally around midnight I got to sleep.

Saturday morning, Eid. Adi had invited me to services, but I had been struggling to keep my eyes open for two days and when he told me it was “very early” I thanked him and told him I’d take a rain check.  I awoke at 10:25 and hurried downstairs in the hope of finding some remnants of the hotel’s complimentary breakfast remaining. I grabbed a plate and gathered up some apple baclava, strawberry yogurt, a croissant, a few pickles, and a fresh peach and took them back to my room. I worked most of the morning, then attended Amra’s book talk at the BuyBook bookstore in the afternoon. Amra, like her husband Paul, was a correspondent during the war. They met that way, and married in 1995, well before the Siege of Sarajevo had ended. She worked for Reuters during the war. A brilliant writer and thinker, I’ve been reading her book, Sarajevo: The Longest Siege, and have found it to be thoughtful, enlightening, and accessible. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is seeking to learn more about the Siege of Sarajevo (so I recommend it to everyone). After the talk, I got a quick five miles in on a trail Paul told me about, the Alley of Ambassadors, which runs along the river through deep canyons and is flanked for miles by plaques bearing the names of ambassadors to Bosnia and Herzegovina, each with a tree planted above it in honor of their service. I wonder if one day I might be so fortunate as to…

That evening, I attended the opening of an exhibition of photography from Srebrenica. Much of it I hadn’t seen. There were also some incredible posters from the siege, mostly American iconography remade to represent the Siege during the war. “I want YOU to save Sarajevo,” declares Uncle Sam, his finger pointed into your heart. The more I learn about what occurred in Bosnia, what still occurs in Bosnia, the more convinced I become that I am destined to devote much of my energy and career to this place, to the people who live here, for years and years to come.

Sunday morning I awoke before my alarm, did some writing, then struck out for a long run. Paul had told me at dinner the night before that if I continued on the trail past the Alley of Ambassadors, then took a right over a beautiful stone bridge and ran, in essence, straight up the mountain for about a mile, I’d be on the old train track. I followed his instructions and soon found myself at dizzying heights, surrounded by amazing views of the valley below when the trees and overgrowth did not obscure my line of sight. I made it through the first two train tunnels before arriving at a third in which I could see no light breaking through on the other side. Perhaps I’m too old to be scared of the dark, or perhaps I’m wise enough not to fall into a hole and turn an ankle running in pitch blackness when I know Paul has headlamps I can borrow if I really want to forge my way through. I returned to the hotel, a fairly easy run given that it was almost entirely downhill, having run twelve and a half miles on the day—my longest run since finishing Grandma’s Marathon now three weeks ago. With that, I had logged a total of just over forty-one miles on the week, which at my current rate of pledges means that this week—with your support—I raised just over $62 to help support refugees. It is a modest contribution, perhaps, but it is one I’m pleased to make. To all who are supporting me: Thank you.

Back at the hotel, in lieu of Gatorade I sucked down several glasses of apple juice, then allowed myself some eggs and sausage—cholesterol be damned—as a reward for my efforts. I’ve been in Bosnia nearly a week now, and while I miss my wife and children a great deal I can’t help but feel fortunate that I’m able to do the work I’m doing here. We should all be so fortunate as to feel as if our work is important, and the time I’ve spent this week with war correspondents, journalists, photographers, and many more has only served to further galvanize this belief. As ever, thanks for following along on the journey, and if you don’t already please consider pledging me by the mile for the rest of 2022 in support of Afghan refugees resettling in Nebraska.



The Kandahar Marathon: Week Twenty-Six

“If another quake doesn’t kill us, poverty might.”

~A survivor of the earthquake in Afghanistan

I began the week with what would later seem like ambitious goals of returning to form and running forty miles or more. After running Saturday and Sunday of the previous week, I went out Monday and got seven and a half miles in. Tuesday, I went out looking for five or six, but soon realized I was dragging tired legs through a hot and humid afternoon. An ominous pain in the anterior of my left knee was all the reason I needed to abbreviate my run, finishing with two and a half miles and taking Wednesday off completely. Thursday morning, I got up early and got six miles in before my meeting that started at seven. I felt light, I ran light, but I knew I wasn’t fully recovered yet and attempted to reflect that understanding both with my pace and by hyperbolically tightening my gait and lightening my footfalls with a pronounced midfoot strike.

Bosnia was beckoning to me. I spent most of the week in preparations to depart for three weeks of research in Sarajevo. I made list after list, got approved for Global Entry, changed some cash over for Euros, and ordered more Europe-to-US plug adapters. I worked on my presentations for the State Department and the “Why Remember?” conferences, and emailed with my interpreter/driver, Adi, who informed me that I won’t be getting much done on the 8th and 9th as it is Eid. No problem, I told him, secretly wishing he might invite me to join him for the festivities. The reality, of course, is that I’m not Muslim and don’t speak Bosnian, so I’d stand out like a sore thumb even in the most inclusive of environments. I’ll enjoy walking the streets of Bascarsija those days all the same.

There is little news coming out of Afghanistan these days that makes it to me on its own. My push notifications are all about the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade. Ukraine makes a cameo in my feed every now and again. Recent elections here in the states got some play for a day or two. NBA free agency is underway. To get news on Afghanistan, I have to seek it out. This wasn’t the case a year ago, when the US abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban, but clearly we’ve moved on. It’s not difficult to imagine that there could be people in the world—literate people who read or listen to global news—who could have missed the fact that Afghanistan just suffered a horrific earthquake entirely. And yet to log in to Al Jazeera and search for “Afghanistan” reveals countless stories about the devastation being endured there, and how the poorest Afghans in the most rural areas have predictably been the hardest hit.

The Taliban, apparently, have gone so far as to promise not to interfere with aid coming into the country on behalf of the Afghan people. I don’t put much stock in the promises of the Taliban, though I suppose that’s pretty rich coming from an American. How could any foreign nation or person trust the word of the US now? We backed out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Accords, and Afghanistan as well. You’d have to be a fool to put any stock in the word of the Americans. “There’s nothing left,” said one survivor of the earthquake. “If another quake doesn’t kill us, poverty might,” said another. Over a thousand people died. I doom-scrolled through endless photographs; the destruction mother nature unleashed with her 5.9 magnitude earthquake seems to have exceeded anything the American military might be capable of. There was nothing left of houses but rubble, rubble and body bags, an endless loop of horror.

I thought about the assignments I had given my students, asking them to find the beauty in Afghanistan. In response they brought to class the poetry of Rumi, images of stunning mountain views, music, food, dance, and so much more. But on Al Jazeera, nothing but earthquakes—rubble and body bags—for as far as I could bring myself to scroll. Who was right? If we focus only on the terrible, are we not doing a disservice to the nation and its rich history and beautiful culture? Or is discussing poetry during a time of crisis just putting lipstick on a pig? It donned on me that just over a week after the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, effectively wresting control of women’s bodies from their grasp and placing it in the hands of the government, we were about to celebrate our independence from Britain with a bunch of Chinese explosives. How far away am I from being permanently angry, I wondered. Maybe I already am.


July one, a Thursday, I sent a message out on my blog, also on all of my social media channels, appealing for more support. A quick tally told me that I’d run 132 miles in June, far fewer than any previous month in 2022 due to a period of taper before my marathon and a period of recovery afterward. Over the course of the next few days, donations came in at a rate I hadn’t experienced since at least the launch of this project six months earlier. Hundreds of dollars in outright donations were complimented by mileage pledges that took my per-mile rate from $.26/mile to $1.52/mile in about twenty-four hours. I was reenergized by such generosity. On the first, a Friday, I had managed to squeeze in only a quick four miles, but Saturday morning I went out motivated by this new support and ran eight miles, the longest distance I’d run since the marathon. I’m still recovering, and my muscles often feel heavy and fatigued early in a run, but I found that by mile six I felt light again. It makes sense that recovering from a race like the marathon I just ran takes a bit of time, though I remain a terribly impatient person.

Sunday morning I woke up early, made a cup of coffee, and read a book I picked up recently about the history of Chalone, a vineyard and winery in the Santa Cruz AVA of California. In the background, Stan Getz. My friend Brian, whom I have known forever and who paces races with me, the same one who is signed up to run the St. Jude Marathon with me in December, was in town visiting family and so stopped by. We did five miles on the trail at around a nine-minute pace together, chatting the entire way. It was a peaceful and cathartic experience to run and talk with someone with whom I have run and talked for so long now. Brian understands me better than most people and I was eager to get his advice on my recent struggles with mental health.

I’m no better at quieting the cacophony of noise in my head than I was before, and lately I’ve been moodier than usual (which is saying something).  I’ve been speaking to close friends—like Brian—as well as medical professionals, and I am formulating a multifaceted plan that includes everything from meditation to medication to begin upon my return from Bosnia in late July. Compounding things significantly was some rather startling news from my doctor that came this week. My cholesterol has always been a bit high, but as an endurance athlete she told me previously that she liked my odds of controlling it. I take supplements with garlic and fish oil in them that are supposed to help as well, and during our visit this week as we were discussing my options after a blood draw, she told me “Yeah, I think we were sold a bill of goods on statins—the risks are insane.” Things like muscle fatigue and diabetes result from the use of statins to control your cholesterol, so I’m just not interested. Besides, I reasoned. I run hundreds of miles. I’m fine.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the next day doc’s message to me was to see the numbers in red. “Your cholesterol has come up quite a bit…guidelines recommend statin use…I would recommend we follow that guideline.” For my doctor to do a 180 like that spooked the hell out of me. I thought about the last six months, the time since my last blood draw. What had changed? No real change to my diet, though I definitely took more garlic supplements. Oh, and I was running about twice as many miles as before. And my cholesterol was “dangerously high?” Why was my body betraying me like this?  I’d always said running was how I was going to live long enough to walk my daughter down the aisle. Now I was hearing that it wasn’t enough. I felt defeated, angry, and depressed. After some time, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment three months after I return from Bosnia. In the time between now and then, I’ll see what I can do in altering my lifestyle, things like cutting back on red meat and cheese (both of which I regard as staple foods), and eat more fish, avocados, and olive oil, and maybe run even more if that is possible. Maybe I could get the trend to reverse? If not, well, statins may reduce my cholesterol, but they’ll also fatigue my muscles and slow my running if not kill it completely, and if a synthetic drug is lowering my cholesterol then what incentive would I have to eat healthy? Yep, I thought, I’d better get a grip on this problem on my own. The alternative was, well, pretty darn depressing.

I spent Sunday night sans my usual beer (apparently alcohol, too, can have a negative effect on one’s cholesterol) and instead focused on packing my bag for Bosnia and listening to the sounds of fireworks exploding outside our window. I have too much on my mind right now, to be entirely candid, and it’s wearing my down. Not least is the fact that I’m about to leave my kids at home for most of the month of July while I go do research in Europe, and I know I’m going to miss them desperately. Sometimes, as I am certain your own life has surely informed you, dear reader, the world just feels a bit too heavy. While I sit in the comfort of my home in Omaha, Nebraska, somewhere in rural Afghanistan people are sifting through the wreckage of their homes. And while I worry about my cholesterol, I do so with the knowledge that there are those who worry about their lives for far more immediate reasons, not least living in a nation that is controlled by the Taliban.  I went to bed Sunday night thinking about the heavy world, the voices in my head growing ever louder in the darkness, and looking forward almost desperately to the catharsis of my morning run.

Please Help!

Dear friends,

I’m struck by the fact that, as of today, 2022 is already half way over. So much has happened already this year. I left the high school classroom, Sonja and I celebrated our ninth year of marriage, I have a new book coming out, and in just a few days I leave for three weeks of research and presenting at a conference in Sarajevo. And yet I could easily argue that the most significant thing to happen in my life this year has happened almost every single day.

As so many of you know, this year I’ve been running the Kandahar Marathon, and in so doing raising money to help Afghan refugees resettle here in Nebraska. Already I’ve run more than eleven hundred miles, and raised more than three thousand dollars. While both numbers seem big on paper, I’m reaching out today to ask if you can help me do even better in the second half of the year.

Presently, I’m pledged to earn $0.26/mile for every mile I run. If you can join the effort by chipping in a penny, nickel, dime, or dollar for every mile I run in the second half of 2022, then together we’ll raise thousands more dollars and help scores or even hundreds more Afghan refugees turn Nebraska into their new home.

All of the money I raise goes directly to the Refugee Empowerment Center, and all of it is earmarked to support the Afghan community. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to visit and sign up to receive my weekly Kandahar Marathon blog posts. On behalf of myself and all of those we’re able to help together, thank you.

Yours in solidarity,

Here is the direct link to my FanAngel campaign. Thank you!

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Twenty-Five

“It is difficult to train for a marathon, but it is even more difficult to not be able to train for a marathon.”

~Aaron Douglas Trimble

The first half of the week was spent in Minnesota, where we retreated south to Minneapolis after spending the previous four days between Danbury and Duluth.  We went to dinner each night, catching up with people we hadn’t seen in years: an old colleague of mine from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a bridesmaid from our wedding, a friend of mine from high school and his wife. We hadn’t seen any of these people in many years, and it made us wonder why we do not more regularly frequent Minneapolis.

I wasn’t struggling not to run at first, the knowledge that my legs required rest planted firmly front of mind. We walked around a lot, touring the Mall of America, Fort Snelling, Minnehaha State Park, and other such places all with our small son and daughter in tow. When I was a child, I gauged how much my parents loved me on any particular vacation by whether or not the hotel had a pool, so naturally I ensured that ours did. Titus and Zooey don’t swim yet, but they had floaties on and I got in with them. We had a great time together, and despite not running my leg muscles were getting plenty of opportunities not to atrophy.

The news from Afghanistan this past week wasn’t good. In the aftermath of a horrible earthquake, there were gave concerns as to whether or not the Taliban would even allow aid organizations in to assist, and whether those that remain would be effective under the regime. This, of course, was news buried deep within the greater cacophony of noise coming from the media. Even Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine was drowned out by the news that the United States Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade which, for anyone unfamiliar, had until this past week protected abortion rights for women. The news of the week was hard to keep up with and made my head spin.  I knew that as much as I needed rest, I needed running even more.

Saturday, at long last, I went down to the trail to test out my legs. They were creaky, rusty, a bit dense feeling especially in the thickness of my lower quads, but also eager to move again. I got five miles in and then forced myself to stop. Sunday, after writing for a few hours, I went out and ran six more for a total of eleven miles this past week, my lowest mileage count for any week in the last four or five years of running, I would guess.  It felt good to be back on the trails, though I know my body well enough to realize that it was warning me against going too hard too quickly. And yet…

I found this week to be perhaps the most difficult one so far. Last week, I reflected on the cacophony of noise that comes not from the media but from within, and how strenuous exercise like running seems to be the only thing that can quiet it. Without the act of running to aid me, the noise soon grew to be unbearably loud. As I watched the news and doom-scrolled on social media, I struggled to find a healthy outlet to turn to in the absence of my sport. This coming week, I’ve no doubt I’ll be running a great deal more again, and equally no doubt that, judging by the state of affairs in the world around me, I’ll have a great deal of need to do so.

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Twenty-Four

“After being diagnosed with mixed-type ADHD earlier this year and prescribed Adderall I began taking it right after Boston…and for the first time, I felt like I was able to get the quiet, functioning brain in my day-to-day life that I could previously only achieve with intense physical activity.”

~Molly Seidel, June 8, 2022

Molly Seidel is easily one of the best follows anywhere on social media in my opinion, an opinion that I’ll share with anyone who might listen. A talented runner who blew my mind and everyone else’s in the last Olympic marathon, she’s also deeply humorous and almost religiously candid about her life and her struggles.  What she posted after dropping out of the NYC Marathon due to injury last November was so insightful that I sent it to my entire cross country team to read.  Fast forward, Molly posted on her Instagram last week about having to miss another race, this time because her therapist recently put her on a medication for her mental health that is banned by WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and she was unwilling to sacrifice her own health or demean the sport by competing on a banned substance. It was a brave and open post, a bold statement, and hopefully another step in the right direction toward destigmatizing mental illness. I read her post with interest, admiring Molly yet again for her courage and strength, ironically failing to see in that moment what it might have to do specifically with me.

It was race week, and I hadn’t had a marathon race week in fourteen years. I woke up Monday morning with “Shivers” by Ed Sheeran playing in my head.  During half marathon race weeks, I cut back on caffeine, watch my diet, taper for a few days. This week was week two of my taper, or three depending on how you look at it. I wasn’t denying myself caffeine, preferring instead to stay regular and knowing the role coffee can play in that. I was, however, obsessing over tiny details that normally would easily have escaped my notice. Sunday night, while reading Hal Higdon’s Marathon book, I grabbed my phone and quickly spent $18 on a pace band for my race and overnight shipping, just in case they ran out of them by the time I reached the expo. I packed early, on Monday, and debated at length what shoes to wear in the race. My Metaspeed Edges weren’t broken in enough yet. My Nimbus Lite 3’s were an option, but they, like my Gel Cumulus this past week, had given the anterior toes on my right foot some grief, even on shorter runs. Where did this leave me? I found my pair of Nimbus Tokyo’s, possibly my favorite shoes ever, which I had raced and PR’d in this past April at the Omahalf. They’re a bit overly broken in for my liking, but they aren’t worn completely out, I know they fit like a glove at this point. I finally decided to pack my Tokyo’s, Lite 3’s, and Nimbus, so I could decide later. Then I realized I hadn’t created a four-hour playlist for the marathon. Then I realized it was possible my old Bluetooth-enabled earbuds wouldn’t last four hours on the old battery, but then I realized if I ordered new ones I’d be relying upon unfamiliar technology for something far too important during a race. Then I triple-checked to see that my lucky socks were clean. Then I realized we were out of sunscreen. Then I questioned which running hat—the one with the cotton in the headband or the lighter one without—was serving me better.  Then I… then I… then I…

The previous Saturday night, Sonja and I had attended a concert by the River City Mixed Chorus. Two of our best friends are the conductor and the manager (they both have better titles than that, but I’m way out of my depth in talking about choral music) and we make it a point to try to attend the concerts, which are always so terrific and uplifting. Saturday night’s was titled “Love Out Loud” and it was beautiful, heavy on the Sondheim for good reason, and contained videos of people who love one another and a message that left me marveling at the beauty that is the spectrum of human existence. We all have a place here in the world, we all belong, and oh how I wish that this were a more universal understanding amongst humanity.

It wasn’t until we were walking out of the Holland Center that I got run over by the epiphany bus. “Do you follow Molly Seidel on social media?” I asked Sonja. “Who?” she responded. I explained who she was—it was easy because we had watched the NYC Marathon together that past year—and her latest post. Sonja appeared to be only politely interested. Then something occurred to me.

“I just realized,” I told her, “that I am never not thinking.” There was silence, as this set in on both of us. Then, as the ideas continued to coagulate in my mind, I went on. “The voices in my head, they never stop. There is never silence.” I paused. I was afraid to ask the question, but I knew I had to. “Is that how it is for you?” I was suddenly and somehow for the first time cognizant of the fact that I had only the inside of my own mind as a frame of reference. 

“How many voices?” asked Sonja. “You mean like an inner-narrative?” I was pleased that she at least seemed to be taking me seriously.

“Yes,” I told her. “There’s no argument with myself, but I debate a lot, and I obsess over things.” I remembered watching Spiderman with our family recently and hoped what I was saying wasn’t conjuring images of the Green Goblin for my wife.

All the ride home we continued to talk about this. It had not occurred to me until then that during one of my favorite songs from The Greatest Showman I had begun a grocery list in my head. During songs from Dear Evan Hansen I was thinking about my upcoming marathon. During RENT I was packing for Sarajevo.  I realized for the first time that over the ten years Sonja and I had been together, every time I had asked her “What are you thinking about?” and she’d respond with “Nothing” I had taken offense, felt as if she was blowing me off. I had not realized that it was possible not to be thinking about something. The inside of my head is noisy and distracting from the moment I wake up in the morning until the moment I fall asleep, and for the first time in my forty-one years of life I realized that this was not a universal experience that I was sharing with the other eight billion souls in the world. The realization was part terrifying, part liberating, and entirely curious to me.

Most of all, I was unsure of what to do with this information. I had a meeting scheduled with my therapist for before we left for Minnesota, but I shared with Molly Seidel some pretty significant trepidation about taking medication. Whatever might be going on in my head, whatever label they might give me, I’m a high-functioning one who is a loving father and writes books and does my job well and raises money for charity and does meaningful work within my community, and the idea of becoming addicted to medication that could take any or all of that away from me is frankly horrifying.


Monday afternoon it was over a hundred degrees outside when I met a former student for a run. Richard inspires me. I remember after districts his freshman year when dejectedly he stared at the ground, saying to me “I got last.” Four years later, as a freshman in college, he sent me a picture of himself holding up his team’s massive national championship trophy. The kid is not only one of the nicest people I know, but he’s a stud runner to boot. These days, he’s back in town, running for a local university and preparing to become a teacher. I had warned him I was running a short distance at a slow pace, and he had agreed to join me anyway. As we ran, we talked about his upcoming college season, the teaching profession which I just left and he is about to enter, our old team, and more. After our run, five miles at 9:06 in nearly a hundred degrees and chewable humidity, we had a Gatorade in the comfort of my air-conditioned living room. Catching up with him was one of the more satisfying experiences I’ve had in a long time, and I left it feeling, well, good.

An email from Coach Valdez, who heads up one of the pace teams I’m on, informed me that same day that Brian and I would indeed be pacing together this fall: 2:00 pace at the Longview Half Marathon, and 2:05 at the Lawrence the next day. I reached out to Brian, confirmed, and then registered for the St. Jude Marathon in Memphis this December. Only a few hours later, Scott texted me. “I’m in bro” was all he wrote, and I registered for the I-35 Challenge—the KC Marathon followed less than 24 hours later by the Des Moines Marathon—the next morning. Scott’s an ultra-runner and I honestly didn’t think he’d say yes.  Zealotry, thy name is Mark.

A tightness in my calves and a mild ache in my hips, neither severe nor characteristic, plagued me slightly the rest of the week. The bottom of my right foot was ginger. These minor ailments seemed magnified in the looming presence of the marathon I was about to run. I shook them off, pushed them from my noisy, cluttered mind as best I was able, and focused on hydrating, nutrition, and packing my things. I switched to decaf, swore off wine, and began counting my cups of water each day. 6 on Monday, 11 Tuesday, and so on. I religiously consumed bananas, doubled my intake of glucosamine chondroitin, and upped my carb intake by adding some rice to most meals. If this sounds extreme, well, everything is relative. I know people who count their grams of intake, carbs, fats, and protein, down to a single gram. Regarded properly, I’m just eating more Indian food than usual.

Tuesday Titus was home watching cartoons in Spanish when suddenly I heard him yell in pain. I ran downstairs to find that he had stuck both arms into his pants where they had gotten stuck tight, binding him to himself in a makeshift straitjacket. This would have been hilarious were he not clearly in agony. I slipped his pants off but the pain didn’t subside. After a while, I went out for my short run, four miles, only to get a text from Sonja saying he was still hurting and needed to see the doctor. She was busy with work so I cancelled my meetings that afternoon and took him in. Our family practitioner sent us to the ER.

As we pulled up to the ER, I recalled that the last time I’d been there was on an ambulance ride with one of my runners years ago. I thought of her as my own daughter. When she collapsed in track practice, we called an ambulance right away. She had been fine, recovered quickly. I allowed these healing thoughts to become a part of my inner monologue as I lead my precious son into this difficult space. The doctor at the ER, like our practitioner, thought it wasn’t nursemaid’s elbow, which Titus has had before, but when the x-rays didn’t tell us anything the doctor at the ER finally wrenched on his arm and, after a scream, he was… fine. Unfortunately the process of elimination to get to nursemaid’s elbow will probably be five grand out of pocket. I tried not to think about that as he and I picked up his sister and I took them both to get a Happy Meal. What would I pay for that little boy’s comfort? All that I have and more, of course.

Wednesday came and went. I ran a few miles on the treadmill at race pace, didn’t feel great, but tried not to overthink it. I packed. The pace band I’d paid fifty times market value for still hadn’t arrived. I shrugged it off and packed those things I did have, including three pairs of shoes, two hats, three GPS watches (in case my battery died in two of them I guess?) and everything else I could think to bring. Thursday, we loaded into the car as a family and drove to Pipestone, Minnesota, where we had a picnic and watched some amazing craftsmen carve from the rock before strolling to see the waterfall and getting back into the car. We reached the cabin in Danbury, Wisconsin near nightfall, and half an hour later I was pulling smallmouth bass out of the lake behind our rented “cottage” as Zooey called it. Titus caught his first fish before I read to him from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and put him to bed that night. I watched the Warriors win game six of the NBA Finals to clinch the championship series, marveled at how Steph Curry has changed the game, sent a congratulatory text to a friend in Napa, and went to bed.

I awoke around three in the morning to the sounds of Sonja retching. “Are you ok?” I mumbled in a stupor. “I’ve been puking for two hours” she replied, as if I should have known. As bad as I felt for my wife, I was terrified for myself. Back in February, you may recall that my own debilitating illness followed the onset of hers by about a day’s time. Guiltily, I prayed she had food poisoning this time and went back to sleep on the couch in the living area, beneath a big picture window overlooking the lake.

The next morning Sonja was still sick to the point of being bedridden, so I fed the kids a makeshift breakfast and piled them into the CRV. We went into town, grabbed what Sonja wanted (Tums, Pepto, Gatorade) and then all the easy stuff—microwave pizza, mac n’ cheese, ramen—so that whomever was cooking for them could manage it easily enough. We went back to the cabin and dropped off Sonja’s supplies, then piled back into the car and struck out for Duluth, about an hour to the north. It was a pretty drive, a little crowded on the road, and we stopped on the way to the expo to get the kids a Happy Meal. At the expo, Zooey got lost, I got my packet, snagged the pace band I’d been so worried about, and we took some pictures together. I bought the kids each a plush hare (as in the tortoise and the) which they named Zitus and Tooey and we retreated to the car. It had made an odd noise as we pulled into the lot, and now as I pulled out of that same lot the noise was magnified. It was terribly similar to the noise a car makes when it traps a cardboard box underneath of the chassis and proceeds to drag it along the pavement, but no amount of crawling around on my belly underneath the CRV would reveal the source.  I called our mechanic back in Omaha who diagnosed it easily: the brake calipers had locked up. What was the worst thing that could happen if I drove it? Possibly nothing. Or it could heat to the point of lighting hoses on fire, and those contain flammable brake fluid. Google informed me that the nearest mechanic was .4 miles away. I drove slower than my grandmother used to do the whole way there.

Mike and his team at Five Star Automotive were amazing, and talked me through our options before bumping us up in the queue. I read Curious George to Titus and Zooey while they munched happily on peanut M&M’s and drank hot chocolate in the waiting room. Zooey pooped three times while we were there which scared the heck out of me. I don’t want to get sick at all, but if I was going to anyway, couldn’t it at least be after the race? The mechanics finished up, undercharged us on purpose because they’re nice guys, and an hour later we pulled up to the cabin again. I laid my running things out to make sure I had everything, then made spaghetti for the kids and I and some iskiate for the next morning.  The shuttle was an hour away and left at 5:30. It was going to be an early one. Sonja was still in bed. I took her some crushed ice, then put the kids to bed, did the dishes, and walked down to the dock and started casting. I cast for an hour, during which time I drank a local beer, my first alcoholic drink all week, and watched the sun abandon the forest across the water. On my last cast of the evening, I pulled in a good-sized bluegill. I got him off the hook and let him go, finished the last swallow of my beer, and headed inside for a shower, feeling more nervous for the race than I could ever remember feeling in all my prior years of racing. I set my alarm and soon I was in bed. After six months of training, Grandma’s Marathon had finally arrived.


My alarm went off at 3:30 the next morning.  I rose and asked no questions—there was no one awake to ask. I went to the bathroom, put on my running clothes, pinned my bib to my shorts in anticipation of removing my shirt during the race, sorted through my gear again, ate a banana and some oatmeal, and tried to drink enough coffee to make myself poop. A melancholy thought lingered briefly: my kids would not be there to cheer me on today. The thought was quickly replaced with sympathy for my wife who could not bring them because, rather than reading books by the lake on vacation, she was bedridden and nauseous. Perspective.

By the time I needed to leave, I had succeeded in making myself gassy, but nothing more. Fine, I reasoned. My lifetime PR in the half was run under similarly less-than-ideal circumstances. I got into the car and took off for the shuttle to the race course, an hour’s drive.

But it didn’t take long, between the coffee and the chia seeds in my iskiate, for nature to call. I hit a gas station on the way into town, breaking my own rule about never stopping at a business to use the bathroom without buying something (my tank was full and I was in a huge hurry) before arriving at the University of Wisconsin Sterling and climbing aboard a bus destined for the start line. On the intimidatingly long drive, I chatted with a couple guys from Minneapolis. Mike was sixty and running for a BQ, his third, and Tony was in his thirties, on his way to a bachelor party in Eau Claire, and shooting for a PR. At the start line I texted Sonja, did a few run-outs, and stretched as we waited for the gun. During the national anthem, two F-18’s ripped past overhead and the DJ switched the music to “Highway to the Danger Zone” immediately after. It was frankly awesome. And then we were off.

The 3:50:00 pace group was large, probably significantly larger than it might have been due to the addition of blokes like me who, given our druthers, might have opted for 3:55 if that time had its own pacer. I hadn’t gotten a ton of sleep, but I was well-fueled and well-trained and feeling confident—which is why I was startled by how quickly fatigue set in. Normally, I can run a two-hour half marathon on no sleep with a mild injury in intense heat, but by the time our group crossed the halfway mark of the marathon at 1:53:30 my body was beginning to feel heavy. I tried to ignore the feeling, and the commentary coming from Statler and Waldorf in my head. In mile fourteen, I took small lead on our group, thinking of the Ann Trason “prey” method might work. By mile fifteen I was struggling to cling to my pacer, and by sixteen he was ten steps in front of me. I’d recover, I lied to myself. By seventeen I began to fall off his pace. I’d averaged 8:44’s the entire way to that point. I decided that even if I couldn’t hit my A goal of sub-3:50 (I was shooting for a 3:49:49) it shouldn’t be hard to stay sub-10:00 and hit my B goal of sub-4:00:00, right? Wrong. Around mile eighteen I totally bonked. I was hurting. I never cramp—I hadn’t cramped in a race of any distance since 2005, but they set in quickly and began to feast upon my muscles. First in the usual places: calves and hips, and mild enough so as to serve to take my mind off of the pain in the bottoms of my feet. Then they spread.

My shoulders began to cramp, a new sensation, and terrible. Then my quads. Quadriceps, the muscles on the front of your leg above the knee, are massive and so-named for their general layout. Their cramping was a nice compliment to that in my traps and lats. I stopped for a moment to massage them gently, knowing that if they seized up entirely I would be physically unable to finish the race. I ate a pickle that was offered me by a spectator, and it seemed to help yet combined with my Gatorade and the sugars I had been taking in to nauseate me as my lower abdominals joined in the tour de cramp. This is where your brain comes in, I told myself. This is a mental race. Any grit in there, or is it all just talk? I tried to use all that noise in my head to my advantage. I taunted myself. I coach runners. I write about running. Running is part of my identity. A big part. Whatcha got left, tough guy? I soldiered on, left foot, right foot, left foot, right. Like hell was I going to stop.

I allowed myself to walk the aid stations, favoring water and wet sponges over the Powerade they offered as my stomach was already in knots. Course support was thick as we entered Duluth. I took my headphones out—I didn’t need K’Naan and U2 and Jay-Z to inspire me. The cheering from the spectators, the repetitive footfalls of the army of ten thousand runners who spread out around me in either direction, was more than sufficient. I was getting passed by three people for every one that I managed to pass. Then four. Then six. And then it happened, that horrible thing I knew that I had done to so many runners over my decade plus of pacing races: I got passed by the pace group behind me at mile twenty-two. The four-hour pacer came trotting up, his pace group wrapped around him. It occurred to me briefly to try to cling to him for four miles, but this was simply not an option. My body was doing everything it was capable of to move forward step by step; pace was not within my control and I was lucky to achieve forward motion. Soon the pacer and his group were out of sight as I continued my 10:40’s in pain.

After mile twenty-two, runners around me began to drop. There were ambulances and aid stations and “drop out” stations labeled as such. Runners would stop and stretch and never start again. I passed one girl only to have her pass me back. We repeated this routine several times until she all-but collapsed. It wasn’t my place to stop and help her—she wasn’t dying, she was running a marathon, or at least she had attempted to do so.  I was in intense pain but I knew I was going to make it. With less than a mile to go, I saw a runner being tended to by medics. His left knee appeared to have imploded after twenty-five miles and change. It was mangled, and for a moment Statler and Waldorf kicked around theories about how many surgeries it would take to repair.  Insensitive jerks.

As I headed toward the finish, I wanted to kick but I simply couldn’t. Three young women in a pack flounced past me as if they had just realized they were being timed and had all the energy in the world, followed by a man in his forties moving at a dead sprint. Where did this energy come from? I crossed the line and staggered hard, barely keeping my balance. “Do you need the med tent?” asked a volunteer. “N.” I replied. “You sure?” she asked, eyebrows raised in incredulity. “Mfn.” She eyed me for another moment. I nodded to try to reassure her, wrapping myself in an aluminum blanket and accepting my finisher’s medal and tee-shirt. She soon turned her attention to the next tortured soul to cross the line. I saw people sitting down and wanted desperately to join them. I leaned against a chain-link fence for a moment, considered dropping, then thought better of it. Hal Higdon says keep moving, and I knew I needed to do so. I limped the mile back to the shuttle bus, skipping the post-race party entirely. My shoulders were engaged in a painful revolution against the rest of my body, and my walk had devolved into an unsteady saunter. I thanked God that I had registered for the other three marathons this year before running this one—or else I might not have made such a fool hearty decision!  A woman on the shuttle offered me a chocolate milk and I downed it gratefully. Then another sat down next to me and we chatted about her PhD program. Slowly I returned to the land of the living.

Back at the car with an hour drive in front of me, I called my friend Brian with whom I am pacing two races this fall and running St Jude in December. He had texted to ask how the race went. We chatted a bit about strategy, and he mused that I had gone out too fast. He wasn’t wrong. I was disappointed that my marathon had not been as successful as my twenty-four mile training run, which would have easily finished under four hours, but I knew each day is different. My unofficial time of 4:08:49 was soon usurped by my official clock time of 4:10:43. I realized I had two options. I could look at this as an abject failure to reach my very ambitious goals, or I could instead recognize that it was still a lifetime PR by seventeen minutes. I chose the latter. Back at the cabin, the kids and I laid around a bit and I ate some ramen, which mercifully stayed down. Then we went down to the lake and they splashed around. Sonja, feeling some better, joined us. When she took them in to bathe, I grabbed my pole and caught a smallmouth and a bluegill before heading in to shower myself off. I baked pizzas for dinner and Titus chose Captain America: Civil War for our movie.  I had a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, then read Harry Potter to the kids before we all went to bed, the entire family retiring well before the summer sun. It had been a pretty amazing day.


Sunday was Father’s Day. I slept in, then woke up and reread Hal Higdon’s chapter on recovery. I felt affirmed. I hadn’t awoken in the middle of the night with cramps, and I stepped gingerly out of bed to discover that I could walk without trouble. The kids brought me a Father’s Day card they had signed, Sonja made the family breakfast, and as I downed a slab of bacon I two-fisted black coffee and Champagne until it was damn near time for lunch. Unlike the weeks of tapering, I didn’t feel the urge to go run. Higdon wrote of more than one runner who tried to jump back in too early, didn’t take recovery seriously, or thought they didn’t need it; the results are pretty much always the same. I can’t risk injury unnecessarily, despite my generally impatient nature. I decided I would be taking a week off, possibly a bit more or less depending on how I felt in the coming days, but definitely giving myself the time I need to recover. I knew I needed it, because I knew I needed running. The voices in my head, as Molly Seidel has noted in her own writing, were at their quietest when I was pushing myself, when I was in the midst of intense physical activity. Of course, as Molly also concludes, that sort of therapy—working yourself to exhaustion in order to attain inner peace or, barring that, at least a brief period of respite—isn’t sustainable in the long run of life.

Already in 2022, I’ve run 1,369 miles, at least a few hundred more than any previous year of my life, and I’m not even halfway through the year yet. I need running. I need it the way I need air and food and love. It sustains and strengthens me. It gives me peace of mind. And if I’m lucky, it can help others as well. Sunday evening, I received an email informing me of a donation that came through to support resettling refugees from Afghanistan in Nebraska. I was so grateful—it had been a while since I’d received such a message. And truth be told, in the end I think my best shot at quieting those voices and attaining anything akin to inner peace is to know that I’m doing something worthwhile with my life. As I tucked my kids in tonight after a long day that included teaching them to cast, canoeing, grilling brats, watching a movie, reading, and which ended with making s’mores around a campfire by the lake, I was nearly startled by the quiet. In fact, for the moment, all I could hear was the soft breathing of my children, the gentle whir of the ceiling fan, and the road calling me back out to go for a run.

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Twenty-Three

“Moderation in all things—especially moderation!”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tapering is brutal. I know I need rest. My legs need rest. They have been abused and battered for fourteen weeks of intense marathon training, not to mention the fact that the two months prior to starting training I averaged 184 miles per. All the same, it’s summer at last, my time is finally my own, and to have days without runs in them make me squirmy and anxious. Not as if I don’t have anything to do with my time, of course; preparing to teach nine new classes should take two people the better part of a year, and I’m hoping to do it more or less solo over the course of a couple months. Already in June, the amount of time I spend writing each day has gone up about 50%, and I anticipate that number to continue to climb steadily throughout the course of what promises to be a busy but productive summer.

By the time I headed out for my seven-mile hill workout on Tuesday morning, I had already taken the kids to daycare, downed my second French press of black Sumatra dark roast, and worked on my book for a couple of hours. I laced up my Nimbus Lite 3’s and headed for the hilliest parts of my usual routes, running figure eights that led me up and down the largest hills in Hanscom Park as well as on the Field Club Trail. Seven miles quickly turned into ten, as I struggled to pry myself away from the therapy of my sport. Back home, I swapped texts with my friend Brian, who paced with me for years, about pacing a few races this fall together and possibly running a marathon, and my friend Scott, a football-player-turned-body-builder-turned-ultra-runner friend, about possibly doing the I-29 Challenge (back-to-back marathons in KC and Des Moines) together this fall. He seemed intrigued.

I’ve always struggled with self-restraint. Don’t look at me like that. Long distance runners are zealots by nature. If your default personality isn’t all-or-nothing then neighborhood fun runs are probably more your speed, and that’s totally cool. Those of us who run not a half marathon but many, not a marathon but as many as we can, are clearly not great at recognizing our own limitations—or admitting that we have them at all, for that matter. This can be a real benefit in some instances, a real curse in others. People who don’t know their own limits, or who aren’t good at self-regulation, should probably avoid things like fast cars, casinos, all-you-can-eat buffets, and distilleries. And while I am definitely working on learning to pace myself in various aspects of my life, sort of a reverse-midlife-crisis if you want to think of it that way, when it comes to running I seem determined to pound off all of my toenails as quickly as I possibly can.

Wednesday, my four easy miles turned into six. It seemed like no big deal, though with just a little more than a week until my marathon, this whole “whatever I’ll just run about fifty percent more than the plan that was written by an expert advises me to” attitude is, what’s the word? Oh, yeah: stupid.  Then came Thursday. Honestly, I woke up Thursday and thought it was a rest day, but I had it backwards; Friday was rest. Thursday was eight miles at marathon pace. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I set out several months ago hoping my marathon pace would be a 9:09 mile, which over the course of the distance between Marathon and Athens would get me there in 3:59:59.  Then I decided somehow that I was selling myself short (never mind that a four-hour marathon is damn near a half hour PR for me) and I quickened it slightly. I was thinking 9:00 was a good pace, significantly under 4:00, but not aggressive. Then I got an email from Grandma’s Marathon informing me that they had pacers at 3:50:00 and 4:00:00 but not, for reasons unbeknownst to me, at 3:55:00. Well shit, I thought, and then my inner-zealot took the wheel and suddenly my goal of PR-ing by over twenty-seven minutes (almost unheard of) became a goal of PR-ing by over thirty-seven minutes (almost enough to warrant a psych eval). So, with 8:47’s as my new goal pace, which would allow me to hang around the 3:50:00 pacer, assuming they’re any good at pacing, that is, I set out Thursday morning hoping at first to run eight consecutive 8:47’s. But somewhere between lacing up my sneaks and the head of the trail, my inner-zealot woke up from his nap and craftily pried the steering wheel, and gas pedal, away from me. I really hate that guy.

The weather was fine and I felt good. I’d made a double batch of iskiate, a Rara¢muri beverage that’s essentially a natural energy drink made from chia seeds, lime, and honey. Gringos like me tend to call the drink “chia fresca” just like we tend to call the Rara¢muri the Tarahumara, however I’ve long been an advocate for white westerners not renaming everything with wanton abandon for the cultures and traditions of the things we’re seeking to describe (think Espana and Deutschland, the Banyarwanda, or countless other examples) simply because we struggle to pronounce them correctly. So, fueled by my homemade iskiate (as if store-bought iskiate is a thing—imagine 128 ounces of that stuff, which looks like frog’s eggs suspended in murky water, with a Kirkland label on it!) and a combination of K’naan, U2, and showtunes, I hit the trail. And I hit it hard.

Without much of a warmup, I started turning my legs over at what felt like a “good” pace, paying little attention to my Garmin. At the one mile mark, my watch chirped at me so I looked down at it, only to discover that instead of running my first mile in 8:47, I’d run it in 6:54, nearly two minutes faster than planned. Slow down, I urged myself. No way in hell you could maintain a pace like that for even half a marathon, let alone a full. Slow. Down. And I did slow down. Slightly. Mile two was a 7:56. Glass-half-full types of folks would point out that that’s a minute slower than mile one. People with any grip on reality, however, realize it’s still damn near a minute too fast. Know which one I am? I’ll give you a hint: mile three was a 7:50. Still unsure? Mile four was a 7:44. Giving me wayyyyy too much credit because you know and like me? Mile five was a 7:47, which over half-way through my run and less than ten days from my race, certifies me as a bona-fide grade A nimrod.

In an attempt to compensate, when it finally got through my thick skull that I was not, in fact, going to slow down unless an injury forced me to do so, I just stopped. Five miles into an eight mile run, three miles from my house, I quit moving. Bart Yasso, who designed my training plan, would not approve of the pace I had been running, and from what I know of him would probably be pretty vocal about it. Hal Higdon, who wrote the definitive guide to marathoning which I am currently reading, would have tripped me if he saw me disregarding pace like that. Chris McDougal, whose book Born to Run I consider the definitive work on running (also where I first learned about iskiate), might actually think it was cool, but he’d know better than to say so. Deana Kastor, one of my idols, would curse me for being this reckless this close to my marathon. Molly Seidel, who in addition to being a great racer is one of the most introspective and articulate about the act of racing and the obstacles that runners face, would never behave this foolishly. I could go on. The point is that no experienced runner would do what I was doing. They all know better. So after twenty-five years in this sport, why didn’t I? 

I watched a few cars drive by and wiped the sweat from my brow. I pulled my phone out of my belt and checked my email, only barely resisting the urge to tweet about my own stupidity right there on the spot. (There would be plenty of time to write it all down in a blog post later.)  I took a swig from my bottle, water first, then Gatorade. I noticed the sweat built up on the rim of the bottle, which presumably had dripped off of me, and realized why the last time I had gone for a run my Gatorade had tasted like SPF50 sunscreen. I pondered a moment longer. My options were to stop being a complete boob, or to walk home. I decided to try the former, and keep the latter in my back pocket in case of emergency.

Mile six was a far more restrained 8:42, still faster than race pace but not unmanageably so. Mile seven was an 8:48, and I chuckled to myself that it was too slow, which in turn may be why mile eight came in at an even 8:30. I had managed to slow down, but barely. I had run fast, but I hadn’t run intelligently, and I had unnecessarily put my odds of running well in the marathon at risk. I got home, did some pushups and other core work, then made an omelet. I recruited a few friends I saw on the trail to run my thirteen miles with me on Saturday, sandwiched between two rest days that I knew I needed to take seriously, in the hope that they’d help me regulate my speed. If I didn’t find a way to seize control of my running back from that inner-zealot I keep blaming for my lack of self-control, I was doomed.

Exercising that self-control on Friday, I took my prescribed day off with difficulty. It helped that I was busy all day with things to do—a haircut, meeting with a friend to try to work on my web page, dropping off a wine donation to a local charity we support, going to lunch and a movie with my wife—and soon the day had passed without a run. I devoted a small amount of the energy that I might have put into miles Friday to critiquing the otherwise excellent reboot of Top Gun for the, in my thinking at least, unforgivable sin of recasting Tom Cruise’s love interest while keeping most of the other characters the same. Know who isn’t twenty-four and gorgeous anymore? Val Kilmer. Yet he was an integral part of the movie. With all respect to Jennifer Connelly who, it bears mention, was fifteen when the original movie came out, making the director’s bullshit claims about her playing the “admiral’s daughter” who was referenced in the first movie enough to warrant an investigation into his own personal affairs, recasting Kelly McGillis would have not only made the two storylines far more congruent, but it would also have allowed the movie to make a powerful and important statement about things like love and beauty. Nope. They just wanted to make a statement about American exceptionalism and apparent immortality of Tom Cruise’s undeniable good looks. Sigh. It was a genuinely entertaining movie if you can just not think about any of that stuff. Jets are cool.

Saturday, I awoke and did some writing, then met Gary (the other friend apparently slept in) on the trail that runs between our houses. Gary is a kind man with a deep love of running and a knowledge to match it. He was an elite runner in high school and college and isn’t much older than me. We set out for what was to be my last double-digit run before Grandma’s Marathon one week later. The out was probably an 8:15-8:20 pace, far faster than intended yet again, but on the back we made a conscious effort and slowed to something closer to 9:15’s. When I got home I felt fine, but oddly weary from such a middling run, perhaps punctuating my need for rest the coming week. Knowing that I had a rest day scheduled Sunday, and knowing that I needed to take it seriously, I ended the week with 35.5 miles, my lowest mileage total for the year since the second week of January.

I began this post with the reflection that tapering is brutal, which it absolutely is, but I suppose more than tapering, injury would prove brutal, if not outright fatal. I simply don’t know what I would do without running, and that thought should probably disturb me far more than it does. Despite having coached cross country for eight years and basketball for more than twice that, and despite having competed in running since I was fourteen years old, I remain a far more enthusiastic runner than I am an intelligent one, never really being able to completely wrest control of things away from my inner zealot. Upon reflection, this bodes ominously for the long future I hope to have in this sport, especially given my observations about how much longer it takes to recover from injury than it once did as I continue to age. I have always preached to my runners, especially the zealots among them, that rest is a vital part of training. It’s ironic that only now that I have resigned from coaching am I beginning to realize how very badly I need to take my own advice.