Nearly 40 hrs of travel, from the time I left Flagstaff to when I finally made it to Doha, Qatar to represent Team USA at the 50K World Championships.
A few days to acclimate in the desert heat before the World 50k Championships. The mountains of Iran sang with the songs of particularly seductive siren. Apparently I’ve got a thing for high, rocky peaks. Someday I’d love to explore on foot what I was only able to witness from the sky. Dubai was stunning. A perfect combination of two clashing worlds – the beautiful, devoted orthodox & the flashy, gaudy modern. Doha is more of the same. The air is the first thing noticed when dropping from the hypoxic, rugged Flag town down to sea level. It always feels as though it’s the first time in months that you’re able to fully fill your lungs. Except that in Doha, the air is so hot & humid it feels like you might choke on it – as if suffocating from the outside in. Like Kona, but even hotter – seriously.
My clock is off. My body keeps telling me that despite the blazing sun, it’s time to sleep. An hour shake out, meandering through Doha’s Aspire Zone was enough to oil this old machine and pump those bilateral, flight derived cankles back towards my heart.
It’s so hot here. Luckily everyone agrees. Thank you to the architects of the athletic complex for fitting the running paths with arches of water. I commend you for your attention to detail. To add to the heat, I even wore clothes! Kinda. Out of respect for local custom, I dawned an extra shirt & long shorts until I had reached the “athletic area” where I resumed “business casual”, tossing the extras into my Nathan snack-pack. The last time I wore knee length shorts was as an aspiring 7th grade b-ball player. In my opinion, the only shorts better than full split running shorts, are no shorts, and shirts are superfluous in almost all settings. But not everyone agrees. That’s ok. One of the few things that brings me to tears is witnessing true devotion – almost of any kind. Whatever the distinction, respect is typically better received than entitled defiance, especially as a guest in someone else’s home.
Post election day in the Middle East, head to toe in stars n’ stripes. My first instinct is to hide. I divert my gaze and drop my hat as if I can somehow hide from the world as long as my eyes aren’t seen. I assume that everyone in this Muslim country – the host of the World Championships – has seen what I have seen in the previous year. That is unsettling to me. I disappear for a few hours to reflect. I find a change in perspective, born out of compassion, kindness, and praise from the local community; extending sincere congratulations for our country’s peaceful, democratic election of a controversial leader. It is interesting how difficult it is to refuse love. It is inspiring to realize how affective love can be in defusing hate, division, and even self pity. It is ironic that this epiphany came from a group of people expressing praise for our country’s democratic appointment of a new leader – a leader who built his platform on a policy that would demonize, and promote hate and prejudice towards this very group.
I change my approach. I choose to no longer hide and cower. I make a choice to believe that I may be the only American many of these people will ever meet. Likely untrue, but I put hope in the idea that this lens will serve me. It means that in terms of face-to-face, interpersonal interactions, my country has a clean slate. It means that my own interactions will serve as the only proof of how those from my country treat people from theirs. I make a choice to be as visible as possible; to extend love, and gratitude and joy ; to communicate to the members of the host nation, and every nation that even if the leaders of my country try to bar your entry on a basis of faith, you will still be welcome in my home. I will meet you with the same kindness and hospitality that you have extended me and my countrymen. Even if the talking heads choose to paint an entire faith with a broad brush rooted in deceptive focus on the vile, evil, actions of extremists, I will choose to see the billions of devoted people who use that faith as a means of becoming better human beings – kinder, more generous, more loving.
Another late night shake out on the World Championship course in Doha. The sun sets early and the world comes alive. Bright, colorful lights are illuminated and families come out in droves. Parents walk together in traditional attire – mothers in black, fathers in white, as children run freely. I see sincerity and welcome in the faces around me. I weave to avoid colliding with 3 teenage boys in full length white thobes doing parkour off of polished stone structures. One of them loses his shumagh and igal – the red and white threaded scarf-like head piece and doubled black rope-like cord to hold it in place. The two others use it to play an impromptu game of “keep away”. We exchange mutually amused smiles and nods at the paradox – me with orthodox grooming, running around in booty shorts; them in orthodox dress being perfectly irreverent teenagers.
My daily routine hasn’t changed: sauna, run, sauna, run, hydrate, eat, repeat. The heat is beginning to lose it’s sting, hopefully a sign that the thermoregulatory adaptations are taking effect. I’m optimistic that it will be enough.
Just one more sleep & a long, still day before the gun goes off.
I reflect on the honor and dream come true to race for and represent team USA. There is division in our home country. I sense it even here. The local community are congratulatory when they see “USA” on my chest. Clearly from nations where leaders are not typically appointed through peaceful, democratic elections. The notion of a controversial leader put in power ‘by the people’ is an intriguing, utopian dream. It sobers me and makes my strife feel petty.
The fact that division is permitted; that people are allowed to voice their differences & fumble forward together in messy, democratic compromise; that people can dream, & hustle, & grind their way to something better; the fact that I live in a time & in a place where I don’t have to run FROM something, but rather get to run FOR something. THAT is at the very heart of freedom & liberty. Some will call this “privilege”. I don’t disagree. But when given incredible opportunities, I see merit in doing what I can do use that platform to call attention to injustice and do what is within my reach to affect positive change and maybe leave the world a little bit better. I am grateful for that & for all who have made that possible. That’s what allows me to be here in the first place. That is what makes me proud to represent Team USA.
That is what I run for tomorrow.
“We few. We happy few.
We band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.” -W.S.
Leading up to the race we hatched a plot to ensure gold for Team USA. The obvious competition was the East Africans. Our team consisted of 3 small runners – quick roadies who we referred to affectionately as “The Birds”, and three more stout runners, “The Bears.” In the heat and humidity we knew that our chances for team success rested with “The Birds”. It was simply a matter of thermodynamics – small bodies typically do better in heat. Last year, the Kenyans made a move with 35K left to race. Tony Migliozzi from Team USA stuck to his plan and in the final kilometers overtook the Kenyans for gold as they were falling apart. The goal this year was to make sure the same thing happened. The plot was dubbed, “Escaped goat”, a nod to the ancient tradition of casting the collective blame of an entire nation on the head of a goat and forcing it out to die in the desert. The plan was simple. I (one of “The Bears”), would go out with “The Birds” in the lead pack for the first two laps. If the pace was honest, I would drop back and join the bears, but if the pace was too slow, I would gently push to the front trying to lure the East Africans & the rest of the field along with me, & then absolutely bury myself over the next hour – hopefully stringing out the pack & making a wreck of everyone who was foolish enough to go with me. “The Birds” would stick to their game plan, focusing on fueling, hydration, and maintaining an even, sustainable pace. After the big ol’ bear had done his damage, the birds would move out and clean up the carnage. The other bears would run smart and provide a safety net – securing the team gold in the event that one of the birds lost the ability to fly.
Race Day. The race gun goes off. The pace is quick. I fall into a rhythm, jockey for position, take on my role as “Bear”, and immediately scan the crowd. As I Iock in the with eyes of others, I smile. The eyes stare back. I know I’ll have another chance as the course repeats 20 times over the same, unforgiving 2.5K loop. Children line the perimeter and try to squeeze through the blockade for a closer look. Stone faced parents stand behind them, men in white with heads covered in checkered red, women in black, their faces veiled.
We carry out the team plan just as we had discussed. I hang tight to the birds and wait. In the second lap though, the East Africans make the move themselves. The pace quickens and the pack quickly strings out. The birds focus in on their plan, fueling, hydrating, and waiting. I pull on the reigns and drifted back among my fellow bears, joining the safety net.
Four laps in. My eyes still scan the crowds of spectators, and little faces, now familiar, begin to smile back. I break tangents and high five their eager little hands. Children laugh & parents begin to smile. Then slowly, the parents begin to cheer.
An hr passes. I begin to wilt under the heat, humidity, pace, and unforgiving surface of ornate brick and polished stone tiles. I resist the temptation to break, pushing the thought from my mind and reminding myself of cadence, rhythm, gratitude, and joy.
Still the effort taxes me.
I hear a child’s voice as I approach a group of families dressed in orthodox clothes, “Daddy your friend is coming!” My knees begin to buckle. I glance at my watch. There’ s still an hour left to race. I feel a deep chill. Goosebumps cover my legs & arms. I grimace, knowing that certain physiological thresholds have been crossed. Body systems have begun to shut down. Despite my efforts to hydrate, I no longer have the enough water in my blood to allow my body to regulate temperature. I am quickly burning down. I push the thought out of view. I look up, scan for eyes, smile, and grind.
Now, neutral security guards, race officials, and coaches of other nations join our team. They smile back, clap, high five, and beat their chests. Groups of women stand together dressed all in black. Early on they diverted their eyes & refused to acknowledge my presence. Now, as I approach, my eyes glazed over, my knees buckling, they look at me and fill the air with high pitched, ululating cheers. Their faces are covered except for a narrow slit but, I know they are smiling. I know because when you truly smile, you smile with your eyes.
I am moved by the outpouring of love. My eyes well with tears as I remember the words of the Reverend Dr. being illustrated in action right in front of me by a Muslim community.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I cross the finish line and stagger off the course. I stumble, and slide into an ice bath. Within a minute, my body is convulsing in violent shivers. I find myself on a medical bed being told I am hypothermic – seemingly impossible given the extreme heat, but then I remember the dehydration and it adds up. A local nurse wraps me in blankets and lays over my shuttering body, trying to warm me with her own heat. I hear the doc call for an internal temperature reading, and I perk up, voicing through chattered teeth and an uneasy chuckle that the patient does NOT give consent. Slowly my body begins to warm and I am told that Team USA has won the gold medal. I smile as I sense a feeling of pride well inside. Not a sense of nationalism, but a feeling of empowerment that comes from the knowledge that every day, and hour, and minute, I am free to choose. My identity as a countryman is not reduced to the hurtful policies of zealots in office. Rather than accept ignorance, and hate, and extremism, I can choose love, and knowledge, and moderation. Rather than hostility, and fear, and division, I can choose kindness, and acceptance, and tolerance. Rather than simplistic, binary views rooted in fear, and myopic, decisive notions that numb cognitive dissonance and stroke our egocentric agendas, I can choose grey scales, and paradox, and ambiguities that challenge my views and are big enough to accept those of others. I can choose to acknowledge the validity of other’s ideas without feeling like my own are under attack. I can choose compassion over indifference. I can choose joy over despair. Even in moments of agony, I can choose to smile. Not that I typically succeed in any of these attempts. On the contrary, I’m typically pretty bad at it. But the choice is up to me to at least try. That is something that I can feel proud of.
What an honor to represent Team USA. Sincere thanks to all those who made this dream possible.