Saturday, September 12, 2009

When Chariots of Fire Get Flat Tires

September 11
On holiday weekends (like Labor Day weekend last weekend) we don’t really get any time off and as far as life around base goes, not much changes with a few small adjustments. For one, the DFACs (chow halls) usually serve up their special, a combination of fried steaks (we are all eagerly anticipating grilling on a real charcoal grill back home!), sometimes crab legs, fried shrimp, corn on the cob, and all the other usual salad options, overall not a bad spread. Often there are enormous cakes decorated by one of the workers with icing American flags, stars, and jet planes although somehow I’m never around to see these cakes cut and passed out so I'm not convinced that they're actually cakes. Balad recently “consolidated” its dining facilities from four facilities (two big and two small) to four dining facilities (three big and one small). They plan to close the last of the “old”, small DFACs right after we leave Iraq, having already closed “The People’s DFAC”—where everyone knows your name—which was right across the street from our office, had a diner-esque coziness about it, and where all the workers remembered exactly how you liked you eggs cooked, ice cream scooped, etc. Many people think the new DFAC is a representation of the kind of wasted money and misguided planning typical of this war and while we still manage to eat well no amount of recycled 4th of July decorations can help the new dining facility—with its white-washed walls, bright lights, tile floors, and high ceilings—not feel like a cafeteria in a mental institution.

For the third or fourth consecutive holiday we started our day by waking up before the sun came up, lacing up our shoes, and running a race. This is, apparently, the typical deployed fun thing to do. I already have seen “Halloween Costume Run” posters hanging up for October’s run. Today’s run was special because it was commemorating both Patriot’s Day (at some point in the last few years we stopped just calling it “September Eleventh” and the eleventh of September became Patriot’s Day, not sure if everyone got the memo on that one) and the Air Force birthday on the 19th. About a month and a half ago we signed up for the race. At the time I was on my way out for a week of site visits and my other team members were going to do it so I signed up with them and forgot about it. Unlike the usual monthly, holiday variety, this race was a half-marathon.

When you’re still two months away from an event, it’s pretty easy to sign up for it. This past week the full dread of the pain I was about to endure started to hit me. One of my teammates pointed out to me that the race shirts (printed on a shade of brown that truly makes the shirts un-wearable) have 10k written on them as well as half, and full marathon (I have to interject another point about the shirts: the text is off-center on the front but not quite enough to look like it was done on purpose and on the back they’ve printed a picture of a Global Hawk UAV although I would hardly call this aircraft the new poster child of the Air Force. The shirts for the volunteers who manned all the hydration stations were printed in white text that was perfectly centered on a dark blue background. I wonder why they opted to give the runners the doo-doo brown variety). From this I assumed that all three races would be featured with runners given the choice to pick their route and run what they chose. A ten kilometer race is about 6.2 miles, a half-marathon is 13.1, and a full marathon is 26.2. It was a no-brainer for me. I don’t like running. I never really have. I grew up playing soccer, certainly a running game, but without the ball, or even the prospect of getting the ball, running loses its appeal. So I told everyone I was going to do the 10k and that I would bring my camera and take pictures of them as they crossed the finish line of the half-marathon. Sounded like a good plan.

There were two things that happened before the race started that stick out in my memory. As a quick background, understand that every race (although given a new name and a new shirt based on the nearest holiday) starts and ends the same way here. We show up at the stadium at 4:30. At 4:55 we line up at the start on the track and a prayer is said by the Chaplain followed by the singing of the National Anthem by someone and then someone else says go. Last month the Chaplain chose to forego his amen and replaced it instead with “and with that dear Lord I say GO!” catching most of us off guard. But we went. This month the Chaplain implored God to help us all have “an enjoyable morning”. Even running just the 10k, there was no part of the 6 mile loop around the base that I was looking forward to enjoying. He, however, was probably headed off to breakfast, or back to bed, both things that truly sounded enjoyable at the time. Normally at that point we would stand at attention for the National Anthem, but for some reason we skipped that part of the ceremony today. I’m thinking it’s because the singer was a no-show, but it was a bit disappointing considering what the run was commemorating. Instead, the announcer joked into the microphone “I hope none of y’all think you’re running a 10k today!” and then proceeded to go into explaining the route and other details of the race. People chuckled and talked amongst themselves. I wasn’t laughing. Wait… Is he serious? Before I could put any real, intelligent, thought into the matter, they fired off some blanks out of a shotgun and started the race. And so, having not run farther than 4 miles in the past several years and not run at all in the past three plus weeks, I took my first steps of the Joint Base Balad half-marathon.

Later I figured out that 10k, half-marathon, and marathon are the races being offered at different bases around Iraq which as a group were commemorating the day. Our base just happened to be hosting the half-marathon. That makes sense now. I’m really not sure why I didn’t think of it earlier in the week. By about mile three (the usual limits of my distance running) I was seriously evaluating my decision to not turn back early and call it a morning. The race course was laid out as a 6.6 mile distance out, and then 6.6 miles back, so I knew if I went much further I would be committed to the total distance. Plus, I was reminded of an episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart runs out into the Springfield marathon with just a half mile or so to go and wins the race, wearing a mustache as a disguise and I knew I would be both embarrassed and ashamed to run across the finish line (mustache and all) having not run the full race. So I kept going. The course took us past the chow hall, our office building, and my CHU, giving me three opportunities on the way out, and three opportunities on the way back to stop and throw in the towel but I pushed through, the image of Bart burned in my mind.

At or around the mile 5 marker a woman ran up next to me and started looking at me. Very seriously, and with great concern she asked me “Is it harder to run with that?” pointing to my mustache. I was ready for her: “No. It’s my humidor. Keeps my face cool.” It’s not a third leg lady. It’s a mustache.

Somewhere around mile 6 of the pavement/gravel/dirt road course, jumping up and down curbs and around potholes, my knees started to go. First it was just my left knee, a sharp pain every time my left foot hit the ground. But then to compensate for the pain, I instinctively shifted some of my weight to the right side which caused my right ankle, and eventually my right knee, to start to hurt as well. By the turn around point, an unceremonious cone on the ground with a paper arrow, my knees were screaming at me to stop. While I never stopped moving forward, there was no way I could continue running at that point, so I swallowed my pride and slowed to a walk. Six and a half miles from where I needed to end up, I now had no choice but to start walking back. The pain was constant, but I found that every few minutes I could extend into a jog for a short distance before my knees would start to seize up again forcing me to slow to a walk for a few more minutes. My next hour and twenty minutes followed this pattern. It really wouldn’t be honest to say at the end of the day that I “ran” a half-marathon. More like, I ran a quarter marathon, and “wogged” another quarter marathon. The walk/jog combination ended up keeping my time shorter than if I just walked, and I managed to finish in just under two and a half hours. Hey, it’s not going to put me on a Wheaties box, but I’m hoping to pick up my “Gutsiest Performance” award right after I win the “Stupidest Guy” trophy for running in the first place without having done any training at all for it.

Since we started running at 5 am, when the base was still relatively quiet (and cool), the first leg of the run was actually not bad, might I even say, borderline enjoyable. I wasn’t trying to push because I knew I needed to save my energy so I was able to get a good look around some parts of the base I had never been, including along a part of the flight line where some Cessnas and F-16s were parked, and through the Army housing area where there were… a lot of Army people. The back roads were great. Not a lot of traffic, real quiet, but the noise, traffic, car exhaust and dust seemed to increase exponentially with the rising of the sun. By 6:30 or so we were jumping out of the path of cars, trucks, MRAPs and Humvees and the air had lost its crisp, morning freshness, having been replaced with the mixture of dust, exhaust, and burnpit smoke that dominates during the days. Thankfully, the run was taking place in September and not July where by 6:30 it would already have been 100 for an hour. We were fortunate to not have anything over 90 during the race and the water/Gatorade stations at every mile marker were kept well stocked so dehydration was never really a fear. For that matter, fatigue never really was a fear either. Wogging isn’t really tiring and it was extremely frustrating to feel the gaze of every person who drove by on the road labeling me weak or lazy as I slogged on down the path unable to run for long periods of time due to the pain in my knees.

With a few miles to go the giant voice, our loudspeaker system that announces when the base is coming under mortar attack, came to life. It turned out to be an announcement for a controlled detonation, probably of seized munitions. My buddy and I, recalling it later in the day, were glad it hadn't been an actual "dive-in-a-bunker" attack because neither of us think we would have been able to get our bodies going again after that.

By the time I neared the final stretch of the race I was reduced to alternating my running and walking with minute splits, my running now more of a shuffle and the distance it took me to start up and slow down increased to five or ten steps because abrupt starts and stops put too much pressure on my knees. The last quarter mile leg of the race was a final “victory” lap around the track back at the start (now finish) line. I decided to run the whole distance for pride and honor and all that, and because I knew all my friends were watching and I was not going to be able to hear the end of it if I walked across the finish line and at 2:28:36 I finished the race. For finishing we all got really nice medals (surprisingly they are really nice considering the t-shirts we got) as well as a complimentary continental breakfast of fresh fruit and muffins.

We were all hurting the rest of the day after the race, the phrase “I didn’t even know I had a muscle there!” being used on many occasions. For me the pain migrated from my knees to my hips overnight, and then back again to my knees after sitting in a chair for a few hours the next day. I have one rather large blister on the bottom of my right foot, but I will lose no toenails. Really other than going up and (worse) down stairs we have mostly recovered our normal gaits already. One of my friends (who finished the race about 50 minutes before I did) was having some serious issues with his knees throughout the day, especially his right knee. Anyone who has seen “Forrest Gump” and can picture the way young Forrest walked in his leg braces, can get a good picture of what my buddy looked like on the way to dinner last night, swinging his right leg way out to avoid bending it. Not good. But I’m sure he’ll heal, as we all will. We have to. There's probably going to be a Canadian Thanksgiving run scheduled in a few short weeks.


  1. You'll have some conversations with Megan, I'm sure. I remain in awe of anyone who can run . . . Thanks for this, Tim!

  2. You're a better man than I am, Gunga Dinh!