The Kandahar Marathon: Week Fifteen
“’Marcus was just arrested,’ Casey said, steadying himself. ‘I can’t say why. There’s nothing we can do for him right now, except play the rest of the game like it means something to us.’”
~Paul Volponi, Black and White
I slept terribly Sunday night, though I couldn’t say precisely why. When I finally did fall into a deep sleep, I felt as if I was immediately awoken by my five o’clock alarm. I read my email as I got ready. Cindy wrote to tell me that we remain in a holding pattern with the families we are seeking to support, but that their contracts—whatever legal documents were used to get them into the country—give them only ninety days to get situated. Apparently, three different people at the agency have three different ideas about when that ninety days is up. Even the easy stuff seems difficult sometimes. Groggily, I drug myself downstairs and plodded away five miles on the treadmill. I half-watched TV as I doggedly jogged, switching back and forth between ESPN and CNN. Frank Vogel was fired by the Lakers after an overtime win last night. President Zelenskyy conceded to possibly ceding land. Some twenty-five-year-old won the Master’s. Sweden and Finland are making bids to join NATO. Baseball has apparently started. No mention of Afghanistan.
I spent Monday at school with the express goal of making kids smile. I just wanted to see how many of them I could make turn up at the corners of their mouths, even from behind the masks which many of them still wear. By the end of the day I was at sixty. I decided to try it again the next day. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? That afternoon I got an email, informing me that we had raised over $400,000 that weekend for charity. I was overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude for the legion of volunteers who had made it possible. Monday night the weather was so good we ate outside on the patio. My father showed up after we put the kids to bed, apparently in town for the week. He doesn’t tell me much. It was good to see him.
Tuesday morning the temps were in the high forties so I dealt with the wind and did my hill workout outside. Eight miles of rolling hills, with a strong wind seemingly more often in my face than at my back, took well over an hour. As I ran, I began thinking about the half I was running that weekend. Undertrained, I ran the same course last year in under 1:50:00. I checked the weather for Saturday, and it looked like the temps should be in the high thirties at the gun. I hadn’t been thinking of truly racing, but decided perhaps I should reconsider. I finished my run and changed into pink trousers and a white shirt with blue polka-dots. Time to make some more kids smile.
After school on Tuesday, an email arrived during my last meeting of the day, asking me to forgive a library fine from 2014 so that a student’s father could collect his son’s diploma. I remembered the student vividly. I remembered extended tremendous grace and patience to him all year long—right up until I didn’t, right up until I snapped at him, right up until I decided that my soft love wasn’t working and that maybe tough love would move him. It did indeed. It moved him to climb up on a table and yell back at me, in the middle of the library, before storming out of class. He never returned; I never saw him again. The email stated matter-of-factly that the student was “serving fifty years.” Fifty years. A lifetime. I wrote back, asked for more details, and forgave the fine for a book called Black and White about two kids who wind up on the wrong side of the law. One of them, the Black kid, goes to prison. I walked out of the building feeling defeated. It read ninety-two degrees on the thermometer in my car. The wind was strong, and later the storms came, complete with tornado sirens. What happens if a tornado hits a prison?
The following morning, Wednesday, the temperatures were in the low thirties and it was threatening to snow. Where but Nebraska can you get a sixty-degree shift in diurnal range over the course of twelve hours? I ran my five miles on the treadmill, and continued my new habit of flipping back and forth between ESPN and CNN. I had slept terribly again the night before. I anticipated sleeping terribly for the foreseeable future. I can relate to Macbeth, who along with his wife had similar difficulties locating the land of Nod. “O full of scorpions is my mind!” (Act III Scene 2).
In class Wednesday, after my first block, a student left a note on my desk. On it was a self-portrait, a signature, and a brief yet important message:
Continue to spread positivity and motivate students to find their [nitch] and solve problems. Your empathetic attitude has helped me express myself in a lighter light, being able to make myself feel good. Continue to be great.
I read the note several times. If I’m being entirely candid, I had no idea that this particular student appreciated me, but I found myself deeply moved by the simple fact that he had taken the time to reach out—and had written a note by hand, no less. In my next class, a student stayed behind after class. She then proceeded to hand me her phone. On it, a Tik Tok video of a teacher in his classroom, performing a slam poem about why he allows students to sleep in class. What he said about knowing kids need sleep jived with what I’ve always told my students, namely that people sleep when they are tired, so if you need to sleep then sleep and I’ll catch you up later. The teacher wasn’t two lines into his poem before I started crying. I cry so infrequently that when I do I take it as a pleasant reassurance that I still can. “Should I not have shown you this?” asked my student, with kindness radiating from her eyes. “No no,” I told her. “Thank you for showing me. I needed that. Thank you.”
By Wednesday night, I was extremely stuffy and couldn’t stop sneezing; it felt like a combination of allergies and a bad cold. I slept terribly again, and by Thursday morning it was all I could do to walk four miles on the treadmill at a brisk pace. I went to school despite it, knowing that if I didn’t six of my colleagues would have to teach my classes for me, knowing that if I didn’t my students would be in unfamiliar hands the day before a four-day break. Sonja found some Zyrtec D and I took that along with some Afrin, hoping to fake it for eight hours. I called my therapist and rescheduled my session as a Zoom for that evening, and drank hot coffee all morning to sooth my throat. Despite feeling awful, however, I was able to have a number of important, personal conversations with students, conversations that maybe both of us needed, the kind that remind me why I teach.
At one point during my first block, I excused myself to the restroom where I saw a student I have never spoken to but whom I witness skipping his classes almost every single day. “We don’t know each other, but could I speak to you?” I asked him, quietly so as not to put him on the spot in front of the other Ferris Buehlers who were hanging out in the boy’s restroom. He seemed to have no concerns about this at all and joined me in front of my room. I introduced myself, as did he. I asked how he was doing, if he was passing his classes, what year he was in, and if he had plans to graduate. I was careful not to let any of this sound too much like a lecture. He told me he was ok, not great, that he was passing most of his classes but that they bore him, that he’s a sophomore, and that he’s already told himself he’ll do better next year—so he doesn’t have to take summer school again. I told him I took summer school twice in college, that I had to in order to graduate, and I pointed out my room and told him if he ever needed anything to come and see me. We shook hands. He returned to the restroom, me to my class. And suddenly, because I took two minutes out of my day, this nameless delinquent was a real person in whom I am now invested. I wondered for a while when I had forgotten how to do that—how to connect with the random kid in the hallway—but I realized it was too long ago even to remember. I jotted his name on a sticky note so I couldn’t forget it, and took a mental note to call him by name the next time we see each other, and every time after that as well.
Thursday night I went to bed, dosed on NyQuil, hoping to sleep. I awoke Friday morning to a conundrum; deal with the NyQuil groggies or break my pre-race caffeine fast in order to function more clearly. I struggled through my pre-race rest day drinking decaf and in a haze. It was a work day. I managed with significant difficulty to post my grades and plan the next week’s lessons before allowing myself to go home for lunch. After a cup of noodles, I fell asleep on the couch and awoke hours later, the work day over. My cold had evolved into the kind that makes it difficult to climb stairs without being winded, a novel and unenjoyable experience for a person whose normal resting heartrate is in the mid-fifties.
Saturday morning arrived with no pomp and circumstance, despite being my forty-first birthday. I awoke from a NyQuil-induced coma after nine hours of rest feeling sedate if perhaps marginally better. The congestion was terrible and I had a headache. I briefly considered skipping the race, but realized there was no hope of going back to sleep and decided to give it a go.
As I prepared for the race, I replied to an email from Cindy. The agency had found the families a suitable home, it seemed, and wanted to move them in right away. This was exciting news, though coordinating our schedules would prove tricky. I knew I had all sorts of orientations and commitments in the coming weeks and was out of town all of the following weekend. I sent Cindy a list of dates that I hoped might work for her, then grabbed my cold weather gear and headed out into the cold.
And cold it was. Mid-to-high twenties, reduced drastically by blustery winds, offset slightly by sunlight. I felt ok in my cold weather gear while nestled in among the buildings, shielded from the wind, and after a quick warmup I was ready to pound pavement, sinuses be damned. At the start I went out with the fast runners; it was a small race with no elites, so my pace in the low seven’s—a pace I knew I couldn’t sustain indefinitely—had me near the front of the pack. I finished mile one at a 7:15, and mile two at an identical clip. I felt amazing. My lungs burned some from the combination of illness and cold, but my legs felt fresh and strong. Mile three I ran a 7:07, and by the turn around on the out-and-back course I was thrilled to be right at 48:00 and on pace for a 1:36:00 finish, which would be a personal best of more than five minutes. Then the wind hit.
I hadn’t realized that it had been at my back for the first six-and-a-half miles, and I had naively allowed myself to forget about it. We turned around and it hit me as if it were solid instead of gas, as if it were ice instead of air. I may even have cried out at the feeling. I dug my heels in, lowered my head, and pushed forward. My seventh mile was an 8:05, and my eighth was an 8:30. The 1:36 was gone. The prospect of a sub-1:40, which I have never run, was fading fast. I pushed on. From time to time the wind would die down slightly behind a grove of trees, only to reemerge with a vengeance. Mile nine was in the low eights. Mile ten I got down to a 7:57, but the wind would not let up. I was almost there. I sucked it in, sucked it up, and turned my legs over as fast as I could get them to go. As I passed mile twelve I knew that I could not get under 1:40, but that I could still set a lifetime PR if I hit it hard enough and could muster a 7:40 in this last mile. I pulled my hat down and my earbuds out for the last quarter mile, and let the crowd that had accumulated in the little park move me. I crossed the finish line at 1:40:42, setting a new personal record by twenty-five seconds and finishing 33rd overall out of 439 runners.
As I crossed the finish line, my wife and children cheered me on and held up signs that read “Go Dad” in their own handwriting. After I crossed, I grabbed them each a pack of Oreos and let them help my ring the PR bell. I felt better than perhaps I ever had before. God I love to run, and I am so thankful that I am able. The rest of the day was full of barbecue, family, movies, and relaxation. It was everything a forty-one-year-old man could ever want.
Easter Sunday, Sonja got on the bike and I ran a casual six miles to help work the lactic acid out of my muscles. After another night of great sleep, my cold had broken if not disappeared entirely, and I marveled at how strong I felt. In the past, after a PR-effort, I would take a week off. This time, there was no question that I felt good enough to run. It was as if the night of sleep was all I needed to recover, and I began to realize for the first time the tremendous advantages of high milage running. Later in the day, some lactic acid found its way into my quads and nagged at me when I took the stairs, but it was little more than a reminder of the previous day’s victory over the elements, and over time. We had dinner with my wife’s parents, and played with the kids with the NBA playoffs on in the background. My second day of being forty-one was nearly as satisfying as my first.
As this weekend, draws to a close, I’m reminded that around this city and around the world, people I love have been celebrating not only Easter, but also Passover and Ramadan. I thought about the families that we are going to help move soon, families full of people who celebrate religious holidays, who have birthdays, children, siblings—everything. And in these moments of joy I’m reminded yet again of why I’m dedicating this year of running to others, because I know that so many others out there cannot, at least at the present moment, have the things that I have, cannot run for health and pleasure, cannot celebrate birthdays and religious holidays with their families, cannot go to bed tonight with the knowledge that when they wake up in the morning, they will yet again be able to begin the day doing something that they love. Some of those people can’t do these things because they still live under the rule of the Taliban. Others, like my former student, because they are in prison. At times the world seems utterly amazing. Other times it feels only ugly and cruel. But no matter how the world feels to me at any given moment, I know that I am fortunate to be able to respond to it always in the same way: by going for a run.