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. SarajevoRoses.net 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!