The Kandahar Marathon: Week One

The Kandahar Marathon: Week One

“When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

 ~Elie Wiesel

It was five degrees below zero when I awoke on New Year’s Day, so I took my time getting ready. I sipped at a cup of black coffee, the beans purchased from Guatemala and roasted by a friend of mine from college, while I read my new book on Andre Tchelistcheff, a Napa Valley winemaker who was born in Russia in 1901. A refugee.

I put on my socks first, one pair of tall socks, then a pair of shorter running socks, before sliding on my leggings. The short socks were a gift from a former runner from the cross country team I coach, and they’re my favorites. I brought them on purpose to wear for this run. I put on a tank top, then a running shirt, then another, then my Garmin, a pair of gloves, and a ninja hood that covers everything but my eyes. Finally, with the difficulty of a person whose dexterity has been sacrificed for the warmth of thick, lined gloves, I zipped up my down coat. Then I laced up my Asics Gel Nimbus 22’s, strapped my cleats to them, and looked at the door. By the time I was ready to run, it had warmed to negative two degrees. I hate the cold, and I almost never run in the cold, but it’s 2022 and this year, my running isn’t just exercise anymore.

Though the immediate blast of frigid air was distracting to say the least, the natural beauty of my surroundings wasn’t lost on me. The mountains were silent in a way that only cold can create, and my cleats crunched the snowpack that separated me from the gravel road beneath. All around me, massive pines and aspen trees offered some shelter from the wind, though when the breeze hit it felt like ten below.

Despite the fact that I ran nearly eleven hundred miles the previous calendar year, I hadn’t run in about two weeks. I had hoped that the time off would help me to recover from a couple of lingering injuries, not least a strain near my groin, and my ever-present knee issues. I tell my runners that for athletes in our sport, the questions of injuries is when, not if. We can attempt to avoid injury, and we can do lots of things to recover from them quickly, but in the end no runner escapes injury over the course of a career. Hell, most runners I know suffer minor injuries repeatedly throughout any given year, and I proudly count myself among them.

I started out jogging slowly down the gravel road away from our rented mountain lodge toward the highway, about a mile and a half away. I felt good, rested, and I was hoping to run a half marathon. About a month ago I went out planning to run about ten miles and, feeling good, ran nineteen. I hoped to feel similarly strong today as I moved with increasing speed through the secluded white world around me.  At the highway I turned around and started to backtrack. As I respired into my ninja mask, the moisture from my breath was forced upward, and soon my eyebrows were frozen with a thick layer of self-inflicted frost. As I maneuvered the uneven road, I repeatedly spiked myself with my metal cleats in the protruding interior bone of each ankle. Not long after, both of my ankles bled slightly through two pairs of socks. I’d need to get used to these cleats. By mile seven, my knees, perhaps unused to this level of activity, or perhaps the same old injury-prone knees I’ve always had now well into their fortieth year of supporting my considerable bulk, began crying out loudly. Often I can ignore them, but this day they hurt in a way I hadn’t experienced since the final ten kilometers of the Chicago Marathon over a decade ago. I resolved to push on until, at mile eight, I felt a sharp pain in my left foot, in the middle, between my high arches and my hammer toes, both the product of a strange degenerative disease my family passes around through our genes, of which I am fortunate to have only a minor case. Immediately, I thought of Deena Kastor’s broken foot in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. I knew my foot wasn’t broken, but I also knew that I have ambitious running goals for 2022, more ambitious than I’d ever set for myself before, and that injury was my greatest fear. Reluctantly, I tempered my expectations, and wrapped up my run having covered just over ten miles. I walked inside, kissed my wife, hugged my kids, and ran a bath. Ten miles down. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more to go.

For the entirety of my adult life, I have been two things: I am a runner, and I am a teacher. Other facets of my identity have come and gone, but those two things have remained consistent. I haven’t always been a dedicated runner, but even in an off year I run five hundred miles, and most of the time it’s closer to twice that. My favorite distance to race is the half marathon, and back in November, at the age of forty, I set a lifetime PR by running a 1:41:07 in the Good Life Halfsy in Lincoln, Nebraska, a race that was cancelled midway through due to horrible storms. I finished anyway, without my pacer, and I’m proud, though far from satisfied, with my time.  In addition to racing, I coach high school cross country and I pace half marathons I’m not racing in. I’ve been doing both of those things for around a decade now, and both help connect me to our sport in unique ways. I love helping other runners reach their goals.

Two days before my birthday last year, on which I ran the Oma-half, President Biden announced that it was “time to end the forever war,” and promised to withdraw all US Troops from Afghanistan. This wasn’t a deviation from his previous statements and campaign promises, but that didn’t make it any less horrifying. In the months ahead, the images of Afghans attempting to flee from the airport in Kabul were heart-rending, while the Taliban’s expeditious assumption of power was deeply alarming. All politics aside, after twenty years of war, a terrorist organization assumed control of a powerful nation in about the same amount of time it takes my high school seniors to prepare for and account out scene one of Hamlet.

My students and I talked about these events at length, and kept an eye on things in the media. We learned that Nebraska was second only to Oklahoma in the number of Afghan refugees we had agreed to take per capita. I spoke with friends at local organizations who work with refugees and immigrants, and I ordered about two dozen books on Afghanistan and began working through them at a blistering pace. I found several that I loved, and that I thought my students would connect with, secured some funding, and ordered class sets of each for use second semester. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do, but I knew I needed to do something to try to be useful, and I’ve always possessed and unwavering belief in the power of education.

In October of 2021, my most recent book was released from Teachers College Press. I titled it Think Higher Feel Deeper after something Elie Wiesel once said to me in response to a question I had asked him. I later learned that this brief yet potent bit of advice was something he had said to others from time to time, and I was reminded of just how brilliant he was and how many lives he touched.  My favorite thing he ever said is found in his 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Afghanistan is now the center of the universe. The people of Afghanistan need our help. Through my reading I learned things about the horrors of living under the Taliban the first time, and there is no reason at all to believe that they are somehow less radical, less draconian, less sexist, or less violent than ever before. They are terrorists and now they run a country. The people of that country are in the greatest possible need, and I began thinking about what I could do, in my own small way, to help meet their needs.

I ultimately concluded that what I could reasonably hope to accomplish from my home in Omaha, Nebraska, would be to help keep the spotlight shining on the issue while at the same time raising money to resettle those who managed to escape Afghanistan in their new home in Nebraska. I reached out to friends at the Refugee Empowerment Center and the people I’d worked with at Fan Angel to help raise money for my cross country team, and we devised a plan. In 2022, every mile I ran would be to help raise money to resettle Afghan refugees in Nebraska. We would accomplish this by asking people to pledge me by the mile, and then donating the money to the REC, earmarked to resettle Afghans this year.  I titled the project the “Kandahar Marathon” in an ironic turn of phrase. So many great cities, from Chicago to Boston to Berlin, have their own marathons, but Kandahar could never. How could someone run a marathon under the rule of a terrorist organization? Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, deserves a marathon just like every other great city in the world, and I concluded that if they couldn’t have one there then I would host it here in America in their honor.

These were the thoughts that were going through my mind as I ran the morning of January the first, 2022. I was torn between wanting to run more miles and realizing that I couldn’t risk injury this early in the mission. Ten miles felt good—almost as good as the hot bath I took when I got in.


Thirty degrees felt comparatively warm the following morning as I stepped out for a quick recovery run. Just down to the road and back, I told myself, a few quick miles today, no need to overdo it.

I felt good for the first few hundred yards, but as I closed in on mile one my knees felt as if they were going to combust. It wasn’t just pain, it felt dangerous, and I cursed the universe. I’m going to try to run farther than I’ve ever run this year, and this isn’t helping, I shouted in my head. By the first mile I had to turn around, and as I approached the snow-covered driveway I was doing that pathetic limp-run we runners do when we’re injured but insist on not stopping, my entire upper body moving hard while my legs drag weakly along, a “run” that’s almost slower than a walk, just trying to finish. I went inside, took some ibuprofen, and resolved not to think about it. I’ve been injured before. The only difference was bad timing. Besides, I knew I overdid it the day before. Maybe a little rest would be enough.

The morning of January third my alarm woke me up at five AM. I hadn’t heard my alarm clock in weeks, hadn’t needed to on account of winter break, and it startled me so badly that I thought it must be Sonja’s. Groggily, I got out of bed, put on shorts, and made a quick shot of espresso. I went to our home gym, did a little core workout, a few pullups, a few pushups, and felt…weak. I got on the treadmill with trepidation. Was I hurt? It didn’t hurt to walk, but I knew from experience that didn’t mean a thing. I dialed the treadmill up to 6.0, a ten-minute mile, slow for me. It felt good, jogging along, and a few minutes later, I poked the up button a few times, 6.2, a 9:40 mile. Immediately, my left knee began to ache dully. Alarmed, I dialed it back one, 6.1, a 9:50. Weirdly, I felt ok at that pace, and continued to run a 5K, plodding along the entirety of the 3.1 miles at what felt like a very slow jog. When I finished, I got off the treadmill and hopped on the Peloton, found a low-impact ride with Kendall, and finished out my workout.

I’m going to pause here to note the obvious: I’m incredibly privileged. I know that waking up in the mountains at a rented lodge and going for a run isn’t the norm for everyone, and I know many people can’t afford a gym membership, let alone to have a Peloton and a treadmill in their home gym. I won’t make any excuses for myself. We built the home gym during the early stages of the pandemic and quit our gym memberships because we like it so much. Anyway, I hate it when writers casually, unapologetically make mention of sipping Lafite on the Sienne as if that’s normal human behavior, and I didn’t want to perpetrate a similar sin against people who are hoping to read about activism and Afghanistan. I’ll wrap this little aside up just by saying that the two things I know about privilege are that being defensive about it is ridiculous and that its best application is in the service of others.

Tuesday morning I bundled up and did a five-and-a-half mile run in the cold on the Field Club Trail near my neighborhood, then got home, hopped on the Peloton, did some core, and had a protein shake before heading up to school. I spent the morning in meetings, and the afternoon preparing to teach about Afghanistan. Some of my cross country runners met me and helped me haul around three hundred books about Afghanistan in from my car.  I hung an Afghan flag in my room—my map of Afghanistan is apparently still en route—and a little “poster” the size of a sheet of paper I bought off Amazon with a quote from Rumi on it. Normally, I don’t hang things up with which I’m not especially well acquainted, but I’ll admit that I’m teaching about Afghanistan because it feels important, not because of my own expertise, and though I may be out of my depth I trust my students to help me learn as we go.  The little poster by the door reads:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

I like it because it captures an idea that is articulated differently where I’m situated.  Kanye said “That that don’t kill me only makes me stronger” (I think he stole that from someone else) and many of my evangelical friends would profess to believing that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle”. I see this same idea reflected in Rumi’s guest house; every morning a new arrival—invite them all! It’s difficult advice to take in the moment, no matter how you articulate the thought, but it’s undeniably part of this being human, too.

Thursday morning I got up and ran again, a 5K on the treadmill. It was about eight degrees outside and I wanted to watch SportsCenter to see how the Lakers did and whether or not Mina Kimes had retaliated in any way against the stupid chauvinistic abuse she’s been taking on social media. The Lakers won, nothing on Mina. I ran my 5K a bit faster than two days before, a 9:13 pace with an incline of 1, then showered, threw on some clothes, and headed to school early so I could be sure I was ready to teach after a three-week hiatus.

I got to my room and made a cup of black coffee.  When my Honors Humanities students returned, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. These brilliant young people were why I had gone into teaching—and I find myself needing a reminder of why I do this immensely difficult job more and more frequently of late, especially in the cold, dark, winter months here in Nebraska.

I explained to my class that we’d be studying Afghanistan through literature, why and how. These are bright kids in an elective class driven by themes of social justice; it didn’t take much to talk them into it. Then I started book talking the books I’d chosen for class. “This is what four grand worth of books looks like,” I told them, gesturing to the pile my runners and I had unloaded the day before. I asked them to listen and jot notes as I told them about each one; they have ten choices, from the more than twice that which I had considered, and they will get to read two of them, each one in small groups. I encouraged them to work with friends and also to make new ones.

The first three books are by Khaled Hosseini, who as a writer myself (though not a novelist) I consider to be the greatest author of my generation. I told him so in an interview I did with him for Teacher TV back when the pandemic first broke out and we were all scrambling to figure out what to do remotely. My students had a copy of The Kite Runner, and Khaled graciously agreed to let me interview him. He even read his poem, “Sea Prayer” to my students during those virtual sessions back in the spring of 2020, which seems like a lifetime ago.

I told my students about The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and—my personal favorite—And the Mountains Echoed, a book which I regard as the best I’ve ever read for the manner in which Hosseini so seamlessly weaves the lives of his characters together, and one that I attempt to emulate in my own writing in some ways. Then I talked on Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, My Forbidden Face by Latifa, West of Kabul, East of New York by Tamim Ansary, The Essential Rumi (for aspiring philosophers, I told them), Ground Zero by Alan Gratz, I am a Bacha Posh by Ukmina Manoori, and finally I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai. The final book is, of course, by a young lady from Pakistan, not Afghanistan, yet she was a victim of Taliban violence and is such an inspirational young woman, such an advocate for women and education, that I wanted to include her memoir as an option. She has ties to Omaha, and we had a class set of her book anyway, so I just made it a point of explaining that Afghanistan and Pakistan are not to be conflated, but they share a long border, an even longer history, and that I thought students would benefit from reading Malala’s writing. My students listened intently, selected their books, authored reading maps in their groups, and got to work, all the while asking questions and poring over their books as if I had just given each of them a precious gift. I sighed happily, my scruffy face and cocky, lopsided smile concealed behind my mask. This is what education is supposed to look like, and on good days it still does.


Friday morning I woke up, hopped on the treadmill, ripped off a quick five miles, and got to school early. I typed out my favorite quote by Elie Wiesel, an excerpt from his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, increased it to size 140 font and hit print. My plan is to put a few words of it up each day, taping them to the floor-to-ceiling world map on the North wall of my classroom, until it starts to form and my students start to take note of it. Today, I taped the words “When human” to the top part of Alaska but, as of yet, nobody seems to have noticed.

We had a lot of trouble getting the email out about what I’m doing at first. My friend Chris helped me out, and I’m grateful, because without her I’d never have been able to manage it. Even with her help, the email we intended to go out January first only finally got sent a full week later on the seventh. Immediately, people took note. A few texted me. Some just donated. By Friday afternoon, I had a one-off hundred-dollar donation and pledges of $1.35 for every mile I ran—and by Sunday evening, I’d raised $352.35. Not bad for a week, and if I can stay healthy and get a few thousand miles in this year, those pledges could really add up.

The last few days of the week were tough for running. Usually, Saturday is a long run day for me, but I was a whopping one mile into my Saturday run when my body threatened to mutiny. I’m not sure why I couldn’t turn my legs over, but I couldn’t, and it caused me to take a rest day Sunday when I had hoped perhaps to get more miles in. This is going to be a balancing act, I can tell, but I’m encouraged by the donations that have come in and honored by the support people are showing for the Afghan community in this way.

I’ve read most of my book on Tchelistcheff this past week. In many ways, the story of that man is the story of the global wine trade we now know. This Russian refugee trained many of the most skilled and talented winemakers in the Napa Valley for almost an entire generation. He trained Miljenko Grgich, a Croatian refugee, and he assisted Warren Winiarski, who was an academic like me who, unlike me, had the courage to up and move to Napa and start making wine. Anyway, Grgich and Winiarski made the wines that, in 1976, bested the best French wines from Bourgogne and Bordeaux in a blind tasting. The long-term result of this tasting, which I’m currently writing a book about, was that the global wine market opened up, the world realized great wine can be made anywhere, and today you and I can purchase South African Cabernet Sauvignon in the grocery store. It’s amazing really, and it can be credited in large part to the work of people who came to America as refugees. I never tire of telling people that the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, one of the most famous wines ever made, was created by a Croatian who studied under a Russian who was employed by a Frenchman in the United States of America. What refugees and immigrants have contributed to our country are among the most meaningful acts ever to have taken place, and I’m honored to be doing my own small part to help our brothers and sisters from Afghanistan as they bravely enter this new world and begin to make their way.  Thank you for joining me for the Kandahar Marathon.

Yours in solidarity,