Saturday, July 08, 2006

The dumbest thing that has ever been done

It was done by me. Two days ago. I admit it. My act has no equivalent regarding such lack of planning. Many have engaged in silly endeavors through man's long history. Custer's last stand comes to mind. So does the game of hacky-sack, or the nuclear-armed bazooka (It is the only weapon the US has ever developed where the blast radius was greater than the firing range). I believe my activity was stupider. I hope by describing it, I will divest myself of some of the guilt, a purification through confession

I went for a run. In Cairo. In Center City. The decision was my own. There was no element of force.

Cairo is one of the most overpopulated cities in the world, and while it may not be as polluted as Beijing or New Delhi, the air quality here is something to behold. Center city, where I live and where The American University in Cairo (AUC) is located, is the worst of the worst. The traffic is unbearable. A statistic on Wikipedia claims that 60 percent of the cars in Cairo are more than 10 years old, and thus do not have modern emissions systems. The statistic is without citation, and I am skeptical of its authenticity. With the exception of the Mercedes that I see entering the Interior Ministry (which is right next door to my apartment), I almost never see a car that could possibly have been constructed during this decade.

Perhaps it was the air pollution itself, and its deleterious affects on my judgment that led me to run. It had been a month since I had gone for a jog, and my experience in Damascus, where I had run weekly in short-shorts and an "I love New York" t-shirt, had led me to believe that running was doable. Oh, Damascus had been polluted, but I had been training for soccer. I had coughed, I had strained and the inhaled dust had caused unspeakable amounts of phlegm, but I had persevered there. Why should Cairo be any different?

I threw on a t-shirt and shorts, grabbed my I-pod, and ran downstairs. Within a hundred steps, I knew something was terribly wrong. It started out as a light throbbing sensation at the bottom of my stomach, just above the mons pubis. Not a stitch exactly. Closer to a tactical warning coming from just above my loins. My body saying "Don't even think about it." I ignored such sage advice. My body doesn't know what the fuck it's talking about, I told myself, even as a fuller understanding of the unfolding calamity began to form in the back of my brain.

10 minutes into the run, the reality set in. Initially I had ignored the smell, but as the acid built up in my muscles, such Pollyanic thoughts became more difficult. Lactic acid is what builds in the muscles during periods of extreme exertion. It is what makes the mind slow the body down. It is why man cannot run a mile at the same pace as he can sprint a hundred meters. What was building in my muscles was not lactic acid exactly. It was some sort of mixture of acids produced by the body and those that are emitted by exhaust systems more than 10 years of age. Cairo streets have few serviceable sidewalks which forces one to run in the streets, right next to those fumes. When I say 'one', I mean one, because I am the only 'one' who would engage in this activity. Every time a car passed, I was forced to inhale molecular compounds I had never before encountered or imagined. It was hell.

And yet, I didn't stop. Something about having once been an athlete forced me to continue. Perhaps I would not run again, but an athlete does not quit in the middle of a run. Ever. I also had to get back home, and running would be far faster than walking, or so I told myself. In truth however, at some point the difference between those two speeds, walking and running, had decreased precipitously.

Instead of stopping, I tried to let my mind wander. If only I could fall into the fantasy world that the 50 Cent blasting in my ears normally provided. Rap music has become such a phenomenon in part because it allows white middle- to upper class boys like myself to imagine themselves to be as tough as the gangsta rapper. It is a fantasy that I often partake in. On most runs, I can imagine that there is some parallel between my slow jog and the ghetto lifestyle that the likes of 50 Cent apotheosize.

In Cairo's bustling streets, it wasn't working. My mind did wander, but to other topics. Despite the pain in my legs, I noticed I wasn't sweating or breathing deeply. My thoughts were thus: I wasn't sweating because the air is impossibly dry, and even in the 90 plus degree heat, any sweat immediately evaporates. I wasn't breathing deeply because every breath made me want to vomit. When I wasn't breathing car exhaust, I was running past abandoned construction sites with gratuitous amounts of debris littered everywhere. The putrid smell of neglected garbage greeted me about every 100 yards. And the constant dust inhalation made me incredibly congested. My asthma, dormant since age 5, began to pop up. My lungs simply wouldn't expand.
I began to wonder about cancer. How many cigarettes does one 'Cairo run' equal? Where would the malignant nodules develop? I could have sworn I felt one growing on my liver, on my larynx.
Of course, I had plenty of less fully constructed thoughts. Thoughts like: "Fuck." And "God damn motherfucker." And: "Cocksucker." On the run back, I got lost. The random cursing going off in my brain began to spew from my mouth. I began to get strange looks. Or perhaps I was only noticing the looks for the first time. Thinking of my mother and her undying love for me, I had tried to focus on not being killed by the cars that I was forced to weave in and out of. No one in Cairo wears shorts, and the spectacle of someone not only wearing shorts, but running in them, must have been strange indeed. I was only able to take in the reaction when stopped, searching for familiar landmarks. Or perhaps they were staring because they new English curse words. I guess I'll never know.

I finally found some kids who knew where my apartment was. They pointed me down a street. I figured out my location. I got home. I went inside. I took the elevator up to my 5th floor apartment. I banged on the door, my roommate opened it, and I walked in.

"How was the run," he asked.

I responded: "Well, there's a first, and a last time, for everything."


At 8:23 AM, Blogger Amelia said...


Yesterday I went for a run along the Potomac at about noon, and felt pretty brave and foolish for attempting such a thing. Now I see I was mistaken, and that running in DC is a cake walk, comparatively.

Love hearing your take on Egypt.


At 8:34 AM, Blogger Jacob said...

I, too, thought about going on a run a few days ago. I find that if you just wait it out, the desire usually fades.

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Jacob said...

Oh, and as Reuben's older brother, I can attest that Reuben has done many, many dumber things than this. For example, after getting major hip surgery but right before his final soccer season, he decided to join a vicious soccer game played between immigrants from Jamaica and Haiti, if I remember correctly. The out of bounds were marked by cement walls, and players were repeatedly being tackled into the these walls. Reuben, trying to prove he's no Woody Allen, threw caution to the wind and starting running after the ball. After a few minutes, as should've been expected, slammed right into the wall, on his bad hip. He limped for the rest of the week. Now that's dumb.

At 5:26 AM, Blogger Garnet Soccer said...


Now I know you HATE the Cooper Test, but trying to do it in Cairo in the summer? I know you GKs are "touched," but that is a bit overboard. You no longer have to prove your cred as a nutjob to any of your (former) coaching staff or teammates...we believe you.

Oh, and we miss you.

-Garnet Soccer (a.k.a. Coach W-)


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