On a hot Ugandan morning last fall, face slack with exhaustion, I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, the Kampala International Marathon in the country’s hilly capital. Some smiling friends walked over to congratulate me. I promptly excused myself and found a shady, lonely spot and broke down: tears, sobs, my face hidden in my sweaty, bloody, disgusting shirt.
I moved to Uganda from the United States in early 2006 to work with Invisible Children, the non-profit group that last year got the whole world talking about Uganda with their ‘Kony 2012’ viral video. Much of my work was in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in the devastated north of the country. For me, a suburban kid from southern California, the camps were a baptism into the opposite of eternity.
IDP camps are for people who flee their homes but don’t cross an international border, and like refugee camps they are usually terrible places to try to live. Northern Uganda’s IDP camps were especially appalling, with population densities rivaling Manhattan but without all the plumbing, sanitation, water and food systems that make such densities viable. People were confined to this squalor by strict curfews and men with guns. Estimates vary, but it’s a good bet that over two decades of civil war more people died from the poverty, malnutrition, and disease of the camps than at the hands of Kony’s rebels.
The first time I ever bought a coffin was for someone in the camps, and the first time I ever dug a grave was just outside Awer IDP camp, with rough shovels and hoes under a banshee blue sky.
That the 26.2-mile race would happen at all was officially announced only three weeks before race day (which if you’ve ever trained for a marathon you know is at least three months too late). And the race itself started 20 minutes earlier than announced, as competitors still jogged up to the start line—the first event I’ve attended in my seven years in Uganda that started early.
About three miles into the race the elite half-marathoners rushed by like a wind of disembodied athleticism. Even my own rookie legs felt less beholden to the usual entropic laws. They lapped up miles happily. I hit the six-mile mark before I thought I had run three. When the half-marathon route broke off, leaving us scattered few marathoners behind, I settled into a smooth, quick pace. Faster, I knew, than I had ever run such distance before, but in the moment I felt inexhaustible. A Ugandan man in a black knit cap and knock-off Converse settled into the same stride next to me. He wore no racing bib or number.
After living two years in northern Uganda I started a humanitarian business in the country’s capital, sourcing crafts from women who had fled the civil war up north and selling them to store owners in America. For the last five years I’ve split my life almost evenly between the two worlds: a Ugandan slum where the claustrophobia of poverty is always circling, and a middle-class America where everything is increasingly on offer all the time, where ideas are possible until proven otherwise, where thoughts scale virally, immediately, infinitely across the network. For over seven years I have held these two distantly polar worlds inside of me, their irreconcilability a deep, thrumming tension in my chest.
At mile 15 I started to bleed. A little bump on the skin of my left pectoral opened up to the constant rubbing of my shirt and made a growing red dot on my shirt’s chest. I pulled off the shirt and watched my blood mix with sweat in rivulets down my torso before it finally stopped flowing. By mile 16 my legs were going soft, like someone was holding open a valve and letting the pressure slowly out. On a long, hot straightaway of unusually well-paved road my mysterious running partner huffed, ‘Let me walk,’ and disappeared. I was alone with the sun and the road and my body.
Biola, ageless between 50 and 70, was one of the Uganda women I partnered with. She could outdance all comers and whenever I approached she would break into a laugh that held all the joy and absurdity of our cross-cultural, cross-generational, cross-lingual friendship. Her buoyancy was my optimism in working in Uganda. Then one day she was almost dead. She was unresponsive in her small house high up a steep dirt hill. Boils had broken out all over her skin. Her adult son, squatting with me in the darkness of her room, seemed resigned to whatever fate she was approaching.
Why didn’t he take her to the hospital? I asked. No money, was the response. In my mind this could not be true, not with the same finality that threatened his mother, not when we have so much of the world at our wired fingertips. We carried Biola, almost weightless, down the steep, rocky trail from her house and took her to the hospital. There she laid for hours on the very teetering edge of death, threatening every moment to fall forward into darkness. Instead she fell back into life and today still laughs and dances in her ageless way.
At mile 20 my legs went flat. I was driving on rims. My elastic system of muscle and tendon had withered to a barely animate skeleton, all bone and joint and shockwaves to the hips. After three hours of running I had found the hard boundaries of my physiology.
In normal American middle-class life we almost never meet our actual physical limits. We get tired, of course, and hungry, and sometimes we breathe hard. But even when we push ourselves it’s almost always to a point far short of our biology’s final edge. The sort of poverty you find in IDP camps or Uganda’s slums, on the other hand, is precisely a confrontation with real biological limits, of getting enough food and shelter and clean water to keep a family’s bodies alive.
For the final hour-and-a-half of the race I treadmilled into my own hard physical limits. I warred with them. I threw myself against them over and over again, sometimes with primal yells and attempted bursts of speed, and every time I was quickly, unflinchingly rebuffed.
Wordlessly the facts of those limits seeped into me, like the spreading of a deep bruise: the fact of having and being contingent upon a body—that I am local and temporal and, ultimately, mortal.
The strangest part of having a body is that we boot up into this clunky hardware minds that feel limitless. They can crawl into the past, can cast themselves into the future, can fly to the furthest edges of our universe and invent new universes of their own. They can even pull and cajole our bodies to new heights. Training for marathons and climbing out of poverty are both, firstly, victories of the mind. Both are battles against entropy, battles against encroaching physical limits, battles for life.
But even our expansive minds are contingent on the mushy physicality of our brains. Victories of the mind are inevitably short victories, battles won in the long defeat. Our minds might contemplate eternity, but they will follow our bodies to rest.
The marathon course was routed a bit too long, and when there should have been only a mile left there were actually three, uphill and in the sun. It was a cruel twist and the final confrontation of mind and flesh. I kept moving forward but, in a sort of treaty of the self, only at the creeping pace dictated by my spent body. Finally, in the last 30 yards, with cheers coming from the stands, I found the strength to kick my legs back and close with a runner’s stride. And then I broke down.
And maybe that’s the meaning of the marathon, the unification in a single morning of boundary and transcendence, victory and defeat, life and death. A reminder that, like Biola, we might as well dance on the hard slope of mortality.
Consider the legend of the first marathon. A courier named Pheidippides ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, seat of reason and democracy, to bring news of an impossible Greek victory over the invading Persians. “Rejoice, we conquer!” he shouted when he entered the heart of the city. And then he died.