ST. LOUIS — Tales of extreme athletes conquering their latest goal seem more common than ever. The path to the top of Mount Everest is traveled by so many thrill-seekers that it’s littered with trash — and occasional bodies.
Andy Bass, 51, of St. Charles, is part of the craze. He’s a long-distance runner who does a marathon every month, or a half when he’s slacking.
He said he’s traveled great distances to race, including Uganda, Beirut, North Korea and Russia. On Tuesday night, he returned from the Marathon of Afghanistan, home to the longest war in United States history.
“This one is probably my favorite,” said Bass. “Just because it was so unusual. The scenery was out of this world.”
In its fifth year, the race was held Oct. 11 at Band-e Amir National Park, a natural paradise in central Afghanistan that has clear blue lakes and waterfalls amid a backdrop of endless brown. Elevation is so high, about 9,000 feet, that there isn’t much vegetation.
For security reasons, Bass said, there was minimal advertising for the race and the route wasn’t disclosed until the day before the event.
“It felt relatively safe,” he said.
Race conditions were favorable. Sunny and in the 40s. As the pack of 250 runners stretched out across the barren landscape, he said, a few teenage children from nearby villages joined him along the way. He said they wanted to practice English. None of the them had heard of St. Louis. He said he told them that he lived in the middle of the United States.
“Just like we don’t know all the places in their country, they don’t know all the places in ours,” Bass said.
He said Afghans dominated the competition, taking first, second and third place. Bass said he finished first among men from 14 foreign countries, with a time of 5 hours and 25 minutes, finishing 34th overall. He said a woman from Michigan who does development work in Afghanistan beat him.
He said official results weren’t publicized for security reasons, and about half of the local participants were women. All of them wore loose clothing and had their heads covered for the race, as per tradition.
“The young women who came out and ran were very brave,” Bass said.
The wherewithal of the Afghan competitors and the rural people he ran past impressed him. He saw villagers stockpiling tumbleweeds to burn this winter. Water was stored in yellow cans. Donkeys were their tractors.
Those sights continue to have an impact on Bass now that he’s home, with a clean shave and easy access to a thermostat.
“Just go to an American grocery store and you know this is the greatest place ever,” he said of the United States. “Having an operating sewer system is such a luxury. Good drinking water. Electricity that works all the time.”
Bass grew up near Charlotte, North Carolina, and was a Marine in the 1980s. He moved to St. Charles a few years ago, drawn by a job at Trane, in Earth City, which manufactures HVAC equipment. Bass manages logistics. By his tally, the Afghanistan adventure cost him $4,000, which included 11 days of tours in the country.
His fiancée doesn’t share his enthusiasm for running in the developing world and other hot spots.
But November won’t take him far. That race, a half marathon, will be in Clayton.