The Kandahar Marathon: Week Nineteen

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Nineteen

“They say ‘find a purpose in your life and live it,’ but sometimes it is only after you have lived that you recognize that your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.”

~Khaled Hosseini

The reality that I had resigned from my job settled upon me in much the same way that muscle aches eventually overtake someone who has run a very long distance. At first, the absence of feeling was reassuring; perhaps this wasn’t going to bother me after all. The delay was deceptive. It is two days after a marathon, not one, that the real pain creeps into your muscles, that the lactic acid takes hold and the cramps begin in earnest. For a week after I resigned, I felt next to nothing outside of the moments in which I was face to face with someone I would deeply miss. It was the week after that, this past week, when every step I took into the cavernous hallways of the school in the early morning left me cognizant of the fact that very soon I would cease to belong in this place. Soon, the students and athletes who had been mine as I had been theirs would belong to someone else, as would my classroom, perhaps even my chair. The books from which I had taught for close to a decade would be put to use by someone else or, far worse, boxed up to collect dust until at last they would be incinerated, a condemnation of my choices if not my teaching as a whole. North had been my home for eight years. In only a few weeks, it would not be. Similarly, being a high school teacher and a cross country coach had been my identity. In only a few weeks, that too would cease to be the truth. Every second, every interaction, felt precious. It was as if I had been given only a short time to live, yet like the religious zealots of the world, I was sustained by the knowledge that what came next would be even greater than I could imagine. With that thought in my mind, I continued to put one tired foot in front of the other, enjoying every last moment of my time at the school where I had at last become a master of my craft—at least until that craft was taken from us and destroyed. But that’s a story for another time.

Monday morning’s run was anything but reassuring. I had hoped after my crushing twenty-miler on Saturday and a painful Sunday recovery followed by ample food and rest that I might be ready to roll, but I was anything but. I went out in the cool breeze and warm temps Monday morning for what I hoped would be eight miles, but every step was heavy, laborious. I wasn’t in pain, I was simply exhausted, and a few miles in found myself craving electrolytes in a way that I suspect only dehydrated runners and people who have been pregnant can relate to. I stopped after five miles, walked in, and grabbed a Gatorade and a protein shake and downed them on the Peloton. I was badly fatigued and resolved to take the next day off. Running had been going so well, so very well. Was this when that was finally going to change?

School was intense all week. Seniors were preparing their finals, presenting, eager to leave. Grades were due. Last minute requests flowed in, as did young people just stopping in to say hi one last time. I greeted them all with enthusiasm. Graduation announcements, letters of appreciation, handshakes and hugs—I ate them all up, knowing I was unlikely ever to experience this sacred final week as a teacher of seniors again. As seniors checked in their books—A Thousand Splendid Suns, Ground Zero, And the Mountains Echoed, I am a Bacha Posh, My Forbidden Face, and others, we occasionally reminisced. They had read these books, these books and others. Those that came back dog-eared and battered pleased me especially.

I pushed all week, emailed young people, called them in, sent them work. The number failing dwindled from sixteen to twelve, to eight, to seven, six, and finally five. Of the five seniors who would fail my classes, I hadn’t seen three of them since February. Two others flatly refused to write the free verse poem and author’s note that I promised them would be enough to raise their grade. I had lead the horses to water, and most of them drank deeply. Still, the few who did not never cease to trouble me. “You can’t save them all,” a colleague once said to me, long ago. “When I believe that I’ll quit,” came my reply, and now look at me. I’ve quit. What does that mean that I believe?

After a rest on Tuesday, I ran again on Wednesday, eleven and a half miles at an easy pace. Thursday I met up with TJ and his friend, Quinn, a dentist, and we knocked out seven and a half more. Friday, I set my alarm thirty minutes later and settled for an easy five, knowing what lay ahead. Saturday morning came, feeling ominous. A week ago, twenty miles had nearly been the end of me, had dehydrated me so badly that I was nearly immobile, dizzy, cramping and in pain. What had transpired over the course of this week that might enable me to fare better in the same feat this time around? I loaded my water bottles, made sure to put my driver’s license (which has now been expired for well over a month) and credit card in my pack, and headed out.

The first mile went swiftly, and was partly downhill. I finished at a pace of 8:58. I had originally intended to run my marathon next month in four hours, which is a 9:09 average pace. Lately, however, I’ve realized that may be selling myself quite short, and I’ve begun to envision running with the 3:55 or event the 3:50 group. Sub-nine miles reassure me that this is a possibility. Mile two was largely uphill, and I came in at 9:20. After that, the sub-nines continued, but I was more careful to regulate myself than last week when I came in under eight several times in the first half of my run. I ran all the way to Aksarben village and stopped for a Gatorade, hoping to stay better hydrated. Heading back home, I felt much stronger in miles eleven and twelve than I had the week prior. I hit the half marathon mark at 1:55:28, and remembered that the week prior had been a 1:52, but this week I felt so much stronger and it reminded me not to go out so fast in the future. As I finished out the teens in mileage, 8:35, 8:49, 8:55, 8:39, I felt tired yet so much better than last week that I wanted to celebrate. Mile twenty was mostly uphill, and ugly. I was exhausted and putting one foot in front of the other hurt. I finished the uphill in 9:29, ticked my Garmin off, and threw my hands up in the air (I may only have done that in my head, I’m not entirely sure). I’d done it. Twenty miles down, and if needed I could run that next 10K.

I was tired the rest of the day, as I watched my children play soccer, attended a graduation party, mowed the lawn, and stopped by a neighbor’s house to say hello. That night, Sonja and I watched an episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which she’s far more into than I am (I enjoy Marvel, but it is  exhaustingly formulaic and tediously predictable), before heading to bed. I read a bit from Hal Higdon’s book on marathon running before turning off the lights. I slept for more than nine hours and awoke with the creases of my sheets pressed into my shoulder. It felt great.

Sunday morning, I ran seven and a half miles at an easy pace in my new Gel Cumulus Lite Shows as a recovery. The shoes felt great right out of the box, and my legs were surprisingly strong. I came home and made omelets, bacon, waffles, and fruit, and cracked a bottle of wine. Higdon insists that runners need carbs, which convert to glucose (energy) far more easily than proteins or fats. I buy that, if only because it suits me. The family and I had brunch on the front steps, and then Titus and Zooey and I kicked Zooey’s new pink soccer ball around in the newly-mowed front yard.

As I sat down Sunday afternoon to write this, I was plagued by a nagging thought: I had set out in January to run more miles than I had ever run before, and I have accomplished that easily. I’m officially a running zealot now, and I run more miles in a standard week than I used to run in two. This is good. But I also did this for a cause, for a reason. I wanted to raise money to help Afghan refugees, and I’ve done that, but not in the way I wanted to. I guess I thought that with my contacts, with my reach, this would all just, well… work. And while I helped raise nearly half a million dollars for charity for another event this spring, while my fundraising efforts this year look like they may, for the first time, breach $1M, the “Kandahar Marathon” as I’ve termed it is sort of smoldering. I’m grateful to those who’ve contributed so generously, but honestly, I’m not even sure if anyone is reading this anymore.  I need to find a way to rekindle this publicly, so that I can help raise more money to support the Refugee Empowerment Center and those they exist to serve. If you have any ideas about that, please hit me up. Until next time, thank you.