The Kandahar Marathon: Weeks Forty and Forty-One
“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
It was Monday morning, during my run, when I realized that I had failed to write a post for the previous week about my running. The oversight wasn’t intentional. I was on a work trip in California and was keeping such crazy hours that only those things at the very top of my to-do list were being addressed. I met the most pressing deadlines, but I missed runs, missed meals, and didn’t have much time to write for pleasure. When I did run, it was a quick three miles here, a 10K there. I was in San Jose the day of the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon, but didn’t run it for want of time and better planning.
Being so busy, even with work that I genuinely enjoy, was stressful. Each day I got in the car and drove from one interview to the next, collecting information and taking pictures. I was “on assignment” for both of the magazines based in California that I write for, and I was conducting interviews for a book I have due out next year. It was work that I enjoyed, much the way that I enjoy teaching, and in that vein as enjoyable as it was it also had the ability—like teaching—to wear me out. All told, the entire time I was in California, in addition to my diet being less than ideal, I also consumed less water than normal and ran far fewer miles, only around twenty-five the entire nine-day period I was in wine country.
I knew I’d get away with it, though, and in fact it was probably ideal in the sense that I had the I-35 Challenge looming on the horizon. My friend Scott and I had texted back and forth a bit during the week. We both claimed we were ready. We both knew that we were lying. How can you be ready for something like running two marathons in two days? It’s like being ready to ride a bull. You can be willing to do it and see what happens, but you’re not in control of the situation. Physically, mentally, I was as prepared as I could be, but to say that I was ready would have been a stretch.
Tuesday morning I received a text message from a winemaker I was supposed to interview on Wednesday. He didn’t have harvest in yet and had to cancel. I understood. I also missed my children desperately, and I knew they missed me, too. So when the winemaker cancelled, I cancelled my other appointments and booked a last-minute ticket home early. It cost an arm and a leg, but knowing I’d see my kids sooner made the cost unimportant (there’s a lot of privilege in that statement, I know). I got home Tuesday night at midnight, grabbed a Lyft, and was in my own bed asleep when Zooey came in the next morning, expecting to find grandma and grandpa there. It was amazing. We hugged and snuggled for what felt like an eternity, joined shortly thereafter by her brother. It was great to be home.
I spent the rest of the week taking care of the kids, and wishing they were with me when they were at school. At night, I’d make dinner and we’d watch movies or play games, then read books when it was time for bed. Titus and I have started Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I remain conflicted on the topic of Harry Potter. They are my favorite books, and I cannot understand why their author has taken a completely indefensible, backwards position, and continued to double down on it. Many great books have been written by problematic authors, certainly, but this one continues to feel somehow personal.
Friday night, I drove down to Kansas City and went straight to the race expo where I met my friend Scott and his girlfriend, Tiffany. Scott and I have been friends since we were in graduate school, back when I used to try to talk him into running half marathons with me. He never would, back then, but today he views marathons as short courses and devotes the time he’s not working as a firefighter to running ultras with Tiffany. The three of us had agreed long ago to run the I35 Challenge, back-to-back marathons on the same weekend, and at last it had arrived. After the expo, we grabbed a bite to eat and crashed early.
Saturday morning, the Kansas City Marathon was a spectacle. A tight chute was erected in front of the massive, iconic shuttlecocks that rest on the lawn of the Nelson Atkins Art Museum. Tiffany went ahead, and Scott and I locked on to the 4:50 pace group and one of the best pacers I’d ever had. We ran our 11:03 miles, walking up hills and speeding up going down, chatting about life and catching up for nearly five hours. My new nutrition regiment, including trail mix packets every six miles and sodium capsules every four, was working well for me. At mile 21, someone handed me a can of Bud Light and I gratefully downed it. At mile 23, I Facetimed with Sonja and talked to the kids for a bit. By 26.2, we were tired, but fine. My left big toenail throbbed a bit, but not bad. I ate the barbecue sandwiches and braced myself for the three-hour drive to Des Moines.
We arrived in Des Moines and went straight to the expo, then to dinner. I grabbed a salad and soup and went back to the hotel to shower and turn the Husker game on. We were all a little sore, and my left toenail, instead of falling off as I had hoped, seemed to have sealed itself overtop of a balloon. It was swelling underneath but hanging on tight. At the base of the nail, it pushed into the quick, making each step with my left foot painful. I began to harbor doubts about my ability to run a second marathon the next morning.
Sunday came quickly. I woke up, began to prepare, and promptly stubbed my toe. It hurt like crazy, but the nail hung on for dear life. I attempted to keep the toe elevated inside my Gel Cumulus, but it only sort of worked. I decided I’d give it a shot, but gave myself permission to drop to the half or drop out of the race if needed. 50,000 steps of sharp pain would be too much.
Scott and Tiffany were sore as well, but we all encouraged one another over a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. The Des Moines race begins downtown and is beautiful. The weather was a near-perfect forty degrees with little to no wind. We started with the 5:05 pace group, but quickly found we wanted to move faster and caught the 4:50 by mile five. For a brief while, we left that pacer too, but she soon caught us and we agree to lock onto her if we could. The Kansas City race was a good one, but the Des Moines may be special. The course is beautiful and the crowd support was the best I’ve seen outside of major races like Chicago and New York. There were so many aid stations that walking them seemed impractical, yet we did, and over the course of the race I consumed at least three bananas handed to me by spectators. Pain in my hamstrings distracted me from the pain in my toe, until the pain in my knees usurped my attention. Later, my right calf threatened to cramp with every step. At mile fifteen, shortly after running through Drake Stadium, I at last felt confident that I would at least finish the race. By mile 24, I was facetiming my kids again. Tiffany ran ahead at mile 25, and Scott and I finished together for a second straight day.
At the finish line I saw Jared, a friend I’ve done some training with. He and his wife congratulated me. He’d run a 3:50-something and felt great about it—as he should. We snapped a picture and I set out in search of food and drink. My big toe pulsed in such a way that I was sure the nail had detached. Looking down, I saw that I had bled through the top of my shoe. There was so much blood that at first I assumed it was dirt, but upon closer inspection it was a crimson hue even on a sea of Asics “gecko” green. When I got to my car, however, I discovered that the nail remained attached. Blood and other substances were all over, but the nail wouldn’t budge. I fear it may require surgery. Time will tell.
I think my biggest take-away from the weekend was that, unlike running a single marathon, which experience and training tell me I can do, I genuinely had no idea if I could do this or not. I ran as many marathons this past weekend as I did in the time between birth and the age of forty-one, and have now run twice as many marathons in 2022 as I did in my twenties. I’ve run a total of six marathons in my life now, with a seventh coming up in December. To have run two of them in the space of only around thirty hours made me feel, if not invincible, certainly stronger than I knew I was. I suspect that there ae many things a person can do, dependent largely upon who they are and what they enjoy, to make themselves feel this way. My hope for all people is simply that they find that thing and come to feel about themselves as I did after finishing two marathons in two days.
The drive home from Des Moines went quickly. I spent it talking to friends on the phone and eating bagels. When I got home, the kids were drawing with chalk in the driveway and ran up to greet me. I spent the rest of the day eating everything I could get my hands on and watching the Chiefs game with my kids, later She-Hulk. We snuggled on the couch and I reflected on how fortunate I was to have my family. In all, it had been a heck of a weekend. I went to bed exhausted, smiling from ear to ear.