On almost dying in Afghanistan

“Do you want me to grab you a can of Blue Monster?” Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Martin asked me as we left the Afghan National Army’s war room and stepped outside.

“Hell yeah,” I replied. “I love those things.”

We exited the joint U.S.-Afghan tactical operations center, known as a TOC, through a cypher-locked metal gate, which led out to the small U.S. Army camp attached to Camp Maiwand — the Afghan National Army’s compound at Forward Operating Base Shank.

Martin and I snaked through the jungle of plywood barracks, called hooches, passing by a reinforced bunker built as a shelter from Taliban mortar and rocket attacks.

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The point is to hurt


6 a.m., April 30, 2011, at the trailhead of the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail: Three runners silently step up to the starting line through the morning fog. There are six spectators there to send them off; their arms folded against the early-morning chill. The starter gives the signal, and the runners shuffle off into the mist.

 Only 123 miles to go.

More than a year later, Tony Cesario shows up on the Chicago lakefront at 5 p.m. for his second 10-mile training run of the day. He does a few stretches and munches on an energy bar as groups of runners whiz by. Many are wearing spandex running tights with futuristic designs. Some have on bright neon Nike tank tops made of a special moisture-wicking material that is a spin-off of the space shuttle program. Almost all have IPod headphones in their ears.

Cesario’s running shorts are old, with a brand label that long ago rubbed off in the wash. The 48-year-old bank vice-president wears a wrinkled, cotton, Chicago Cubs T-shirt with cut-off sleeves. He takes off his wedding ring and weaves it through a crucifix necklace. “Sometimes my fingers swell if I’m dehydrated,” he offers, tucking the necklace back under his shirt. His shoes are from the bargain rack at Payless and he doesn’t listen to music when he runs.

Tony Cesario is an ultramarathon runner.

Unimpressed by the 26.2-mile challenge of the marathon, the father of two is part of a tribe of athletes who routinely complete races of 50, 100, even 200 miles. They’re called ultrarunners, and they have redefined the limits of what the human body can endure. And in a sport whose champions receive no glory or fame, the obvious question to ask is why?

The answer is hard to understand.

The point is to hurt.

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Brothers in arms

My little brother and I together at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

My little brother and I together at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.


It was time to say good-bye. We both got out of the truck and circled around back to give each other a hug. It was hard to see his face in the dark black of night — they keep most of the base blacked out after the sun goes down as a defense against Taliban rocket and mortar attacks. But I could see his silhouette, and I could hear his voice.

We embraced. The hug was a little tighter, and it lasted a little longer than usual.

He pulled back and placed both hands on my shoulders like he was holding me in place, making sure his words found their mark. He told me to be careful, reminding me to not be a hero.

He started to say something else, but then he stopped, and that’s when I noticed that he was crying.

“I’ve seen a lot of people get really hurt out there,” he told me, talking through the tears, not letting them affect his words. “Just be careful.”

“I will,” I said. “It was special seeing you today, you know. I’ll always remember it.”

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” he said, working now to push his words through the tears. “When you realize you’re living in a moment that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”

He hugged me again.

“Be safe.”

I told him I would, feeling a wave of guilt wash over me for some reason. And then I hugged my little brother one last time before we parted ways.

The next day I loaded onto a CH-47 Chinook helicopter for a flight out of Bagram Air Base to a forward operating base in Khost Province, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. For the next two weeks I would circulate among various U.S. forward operating bases (known as FOBs) as an embedded journalist with U.S. and Afghan military units, writing about the war on an assignment as a war correspondent for United Press International.

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