16 December 2004
The Army Reserve requires its members to take an annual physical fitness test. In two minutes, one does as many push-ups as one can. After a ten-minute rest, there is another two-minute flurry of sit-ups. A second ten-minute break follows, and then one must run two miles in under a certain amount of time (and do so without puking at the end, which is very uncouth). Almost all of the time, these Army Physical Fitness Tests (APFTs) are conducted on a military base, where the run routes have long been mapped out. It is usually a rather boring journey around at track, parade field, or along a road lined with depressing, dilapidated barracks.
As the army did not pack its depressing, dilapidated barracks when it came to the Middle East, we must improvise. Last year I took my APFT inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, doing my push-ups and sit-ups on the front lawn of a house that formerly belonged to a Special Republican Guard general. I then huffed and puffed my way for two miles past huge Saddamite palaces and through triumphal arches. (Saddam Hussein never won any of the wars in which he involved his country, but there is more heroic architecture in Baghdad than there are Starbucks in all of America.)
This year, we small band of brothers (and sisters) operating out of Jordan decided that we would take our APFT down in the Jordan Valley, along a road that runs near the spot where Jesus Christ was baptized a few years back. We liked this idea for three reasons. First, that spot, just a couple miles north of the Dead Sea, was the lowest point on earth. Supposedly, the air was more dense down there and more oxygen-rich, which would help us with our run. (There were no scientists among us to confirm or contradict this, and we all thought it sounded good.) Second, as Amman is a very hilly, congested city, finding a straight, flat road that wasn’t choked with cars was impossible. By contrast, the Jordan Valley road was very flat and had long stretches of straightness. Finally, how neat would it be to say we took an APFT in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John the Baptist once ran around in a camel hair shirt, eating locusts and wild honey, and where the spirit of God descended on the Savior like a dove, saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Or words to that effect. Back then God only spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, so there may be something lost in the English translation.)
One might think that such a special place would be encased in glass and frozen in time. However, the Jordan Valley is still very much a working, agricultural area. The present day tenders of the land grow bananas, corn, dates, and other yummy things down there. As we did our stretches in the subdued, cool morning air, weather-beaten farmers who smelled of the land went about their business close by. Muslim women with scarves on their heads worked bent over in the fields. Toothless old men with red and white checkered cloths wrapped around their skulls slowly motored by on World War II-era tractors. “Sabah hull hair!” we shouted to them. (This means “Good Morning!”) The men would smile, wave slightly, and remove the burning cigarette from their parched lips to reply “Sabah hull noor!” Our sit-up event was delayed by a heard of shaggy sheep who needed to pass through our area on their way to better grazing land, or wherever it is that sheep need to go to in the morning. They smiled as they went by and said “bah,” which I believe is colloquial sheep Arabic shorthand for “sabah hull hair.” A few even dropped off presents for us.
The contrast between the earthy Arabs wearing traditional headgear and gowns toiling in the fields because life required them to do so and the clean-cut Americans wearing shorts and T-shirts testing their bodies along the road because the U.S. Army required them to do so was pretty sharp. We must have looked as crazy to these modern-day locals as old John the Baptist did to those Judeans way back when, running around in that camel hair shirt of his, all wild eyed and shouting prophecies.
We all shouted encouragements to each other as our muscles flexed and strained. The push-ups and sit-ups went well. Now it was time for that oxygen-enriched run. With the words of Isaiah in my head, I prepared the way for us by marking out a straight path with my car that measured exactly a mile. Our start point would be the intersection where one turns off for the baptismal site. We’d run down to the rock I’d placed along the road 5280 feet away and then turn around and run back as fast as we could. As I drove the route, I blasted Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” on the car stereo to get me pumped up. That song must have been a favorite with the local farmers, judging by the fact that they all turned their heads and stared as I rolled by.
I started out strong on the run. My strategy has long been to go as fast as I could to the mile turn around point and then slow down a bit in the home stretch. If I have to do the two miles in 16 minutes, then I will try to do the first one in seven so that I have a whole nine minutes to finish. This makes sense to me at least.
Going into the turn I was number two in the pack. As I headed back I waved to my boss who was coming up in the opposite direction. “Good job, sir!” I shouted. A couple minutes later, I heard footsteps behind me and soon my boss—a former Airborne Ranger—passed me up. He’d had ten years more experience on these runs than I had and his approach seemed to be the better one. Start off at a medium pace and go all out for the last mile. So, for at least the second time in the history of this valley, the words of John the Baptist rang true. “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.”—John, 1:30.
Scruffy dogs and little boys lifted their heads and stared curiously at us as we ran by. Two pretty young women standing in the road, conservatively dressed, covered their mouths with their hands as they giggled, embarrassed by my smile and my little wave. Who knows what they were thinking. Imagine a bunch of Arabs in traditional garb running down Wilcox in Castle Rock. That’s how strange we must have looked to them.
Out of nowhere, a more 21st-century Arab businessman zoomed by at a zillion miles per hour in his new BMW. I don’t know what he was doing down in that remote area at that hour, but whatever his reasons he was going way too fast. “Slow down!” I shouted, a voice of one calling in the desert.
As I pumped my arms and extended my stride, I felt both the thrill of a good heart-pounding workout and the pain of a stitch in my side. I didn’t think about the finish line, but rather kept looking for little markers 100 meters in front of me. A rock, a palm tree, a staring Arab. After I reached a marker, I’d look for another one. I took the rest of the race piecemeal like that until the big blue and white sign pointing the way to the baptismal site told me I was at the end.
Fifteen minutes, twenty-three seconds was my time. Good enough to have comfortably passed, but a reminder that I’m getting old. Back at West Point, when I was 18, I could do it in 12:30. The APFT made me hungry, but I had nothing to eat in the car. I poked around the bushes and trees, but there were no locusts or wild honey to be found, so I drove back home and ate a cheeseburger, with which I was well pleased.