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.