In mid-March the Coronavirus pandemic was in full swing in the United States: states, counties, and cities locked down; schools & universities everywhere out for the foreseeable future; and stores empty of toilet paper (despite the fact that this bug doesn’t give you diarrhea). These were challenging and dangerous times unlike any I’ve seen over the last 20 years. Probably since the days and weeks after September 11th 2001.
As I ran on that day in March isolated on my little Navy base in the mid-south, my mind took me back to another dangerous time in my life, and it dawned on me that despite all the rhetoric, all the pandemonium buying toilet paper, and the calls for quarantining, it’s all relative. This blog post is about another dangerous time in my life, my first deployment to Iraq in 2007-2008 and the world’s most dangerous track team, the Tikrit Running Club.
Even with the dangers posed by COVID-19, I still see a light at the end of the tunnel. Sure the next few months will stink, we’ll be at home isolated going stir crazy, and need at least 87 rolls of toilet paper to make it, but it will get better. That wasn’t how I felt when I went to Iraq in 2007. I didn’t think I would return. I was on a 15-month tour serving as a military advisor to the Iraqi Army just outside of the northern Iraqi town of Tikrit.
At that point in that war I had lost over half a dozen friends and I didn’t think I had much of a chance. These were good people, with families and loved ones. Why should I be any better than they were? Going into Iraq in late September 2007 I was scared, but at the same time, dedicated to the mission at a time we did not know how it would end.
A few months later, however, despite my fears, things improved as I moved up from my advisory job to working at the headquarters on what was then known as Contingency Operating Base (COB) Speicher north of Tikrit. Prior to the war, Speicher had been the home to the Iraqi Air Force Academy (known as Al Sahra Airfield) and our bombings left many of the facilities intact to include the running track. Let’s face it, we just don’t drop bombs randomly, we do try and keep some things functioning, and fortunately the track and soccer field, although nothing but dirt, were two examples. Legend had it that Saddam Hussein once executed the Iraqi National Soccer Team on this very field after a loss. Whatever the truth, it was still 400m around and that was all we needed.
Over the course of the next few months, a group of us met one day a week and ran track workouts on that barren dirt ring in the hot mornings of spring and summer 2008. The camaraderie among us grew. We even had t-shirts made (which I have proudly kept up for over a decade). More than anything it made time go by in a seemingly repetitive cycle of days commonly known as “Groundhog day.” And while I’ve lost touch with most of my teammates, those early morning workouts sit fondly with me. Danger still lurked though, COB Speicher took random rockets and mortars during our stay, but you learned to live with it. You went on with your day and your resolve to do your job and get home grew each day. I draw inspiration from my teammates and all I served with on that tour. Thankfully I made it back the day before Thanksgiving 2008 and to this day cherish this return.
With all of this in mind this morning, I opted to head to the track for a good set of 800m intervals. Getting a 1.25 mile warm-up under my belt, I opted for 4x800m with a 200m walk/jog in between. After that, 2x400m, and wrapped it up with some strides and a .75 mile cooldown. It may not have been 90 degrees (just over 70), but I proudly wore my Tikrit Running Club shirt to give me the inspiration I needed for my workout and for the days & weeks to come. On the front is written “Tikrit Running Club, OIF 07-08” and on the back “454” the number of days of a 15-month tour. Wearing that shirt I still feel a sense of nostalgia to all that I did there, not to mention it keeps me fast when I do track workouts even now.
Later I paired my track session with a good beer. Memphis’ own Wiseacre Brewing has the perfect beer for hearty runners. If you’ve ever read Christopher McDougall’s running gospel, Born to Run, you are well versed in the legendary Mexican running tribe, the Tarahumara. For those not versed, they are a legendary tribe of super runners from Mexico.
Wiseacre went the extra distance and named their dry hopped pale ale after this renowned group. They don’t disappoint: their beer is perfect after a hard run. A hearty flavor and not overly hoppy, Tarahumara clearly has the endurance to go the distance with any beer. Not to mention, the beer gave me some added oomph in getting out some drab emails I needed to send that afternoon as well. (It really is about replacing lost minerals, isn’t it?).
Thus life rolls on in somewhat self-isolation. The next day was a long run day, and the day after, a long bike ride. I’ll keep working on the paths, pedals, pilsners and pinots in the absence of my swims at the now closed YMCA. For now things are pretty much the same minus the long lines to buy toilet paper (I mean really folks?). Let’s hope this ends soon…until then though hope you find your own paths and pilsners (and toilet paper) to keep your sanity!