As he approached the 25th hour of the race, Kamran Talattof tried not to think about it.
The remaining miles of frozen Indiana trails didn’t bother him. He welcomed the pain ahead. He wished the race demanded all of his attention. But Talattof couldn’t keep the intrusive thoughts from creeping into his head—the harrowing memories of his home country of Iran that had haunted him for so long.
For years, desert heat, sandy singletrack, and high altitude had partially distracted Talattof during the grueling ultramarathons he’d grown to love. The conditions helped him temporarily forget about the trauma of his twenties, when he was an aspiring professor who became trapped in Iran. But the flashbacks always returned. They had once again invaded his headspace during the 2013 Indiana Trail 100 Mile Run.
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In the distance, Talattof spotted three lights in the dark. Suddenly, he was transported back to the streets of Tehran. The lights reminded him of an anti-aircraft mechanism that used to light up the Iranian sky. His heart began to pound as he neared them on the trail. But soon, the three lights turned into one, and the sinister machine transformed into another runner’s headlamp. Talattof took a deep breath.
As he traversed the cold Indiana night, running was Talattof’s escape. But no matter how fast he moved his feet, it was also his captor.
Keep Up the Fight
Talattof grew up in Iran but left the Middle Eastern country for the U.S. to attend graduate school in the 1970s. After receiving his master’s degree in education from Texas A&M University–Kingsville, he returned to his home country to visit family in 1979. But political turmoil was brewing. Iran’s pro-Western government—led by its monarch, the Shah—collapsed on February 11, 1979, ushering in a restrictive theocratic regime.
The very next day, Talattof arrived in the capital city of Tehran, unaware that the country in which he’d grown up would soon be unrecognizable. The new government became oppressive. Talattof knew he had to escape, but he wasn’t able to obtain a visa to go back to the States and the Iranian government wasn’t renewing passports. He was trapped.
To bide his time, Talattof took a position teaching education at a local university, but the government accused him of promoting pro-American values. The new regime scorned Western thought, and academics were often the target of censorship and violence. “Numerous intellectuals died at the hands of the new authorities,” Talattof says. “The smell of death was all over.” For the next four years, Talattof lived a semi-subterranean life, avoiding the watchful eye of the police and hopping from job to job and city to city.
On one occasion, Talattof was brutally beaten in the streets by police forces for supporting the abolition of a mandatory women’s dress code. Other times, he encountered bombing sites. “I witnessed the demise of a developed and somewhat modern society,” he says. “I painfully saw the destruction of a culture—a civilization—by an aggressive ideology. You would never hear any good news. It was all about execution and martyrdom.”
In 1984, after a prior failed attempt to flee, Talattof finally found an escape. “I managed to exit the country for the second time through a perilous journey with my ex-wife and our three-and-a-half-month-old baby,” he says. Once his family was safe, he sought refuge in Belgium to improve his French skills and eventually got a job teaching the language in Montreal—the first steps in resuming his goal of becoming a professor and returning to normalcy.
Find Your Passion—and Your People
Ten years after leaving the U.S., Talattof returned to complete graduate school, earning a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan in 1996. In 1999, following a stint at Princeton University, he got a job teaching at the University of Arizona in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, where he’s remained a faculty member since.
While he was still settling in in Tucson, Talattof’s neighbor told him about the city’s upcoming marathon. Talattof was curious—he casually ran during his time at Michigan and Princeton—so he signed up with a few weeks to spare.
“Of course it was a disaster,” Talattof says. He was vastly unprepared, and his scratchy socks blistered his feet so badly that he had to stop at a pharmacy during the race to buy a new pair. “That pain and that experience changed my life forever,” he says. “I decided I would run the marathon again, but without that much agony. That’s when my life as an avid runner began.”
Over the next few years, Talattof trained with locals to tackle all kinds of distances, including the marathon. In 2005, he even started his own Tucson-area run group: ComeRun (a clever play on his name, suggested by his wife, Christine), which now boasts over 200 members.
Talattof regularly leads Saturday morning runs, and he and his friends plan routes and sometimes clean up the local trails, always with a smile. “I felt that I owed the running community,” he says. “It’s one of the very few places where nobody discriminates against you or punishes you for being slow or fast. I wanted to return the kindness of my nonjudgmental social group.” In 2012, the Southern Arizona Roadrunners gave Talattof the Spirit of Rob Bell Award, their honor for someone in the running community who exhibits enthusiasm and kindness to others. “I’m as proud of that as of my college degrees,” he says.
Make Pain Productive
In 2011, Talattof set his sights on a new challenge: completing an ultramarathon. Once he checked off his first one—the Old Pueblo Endurance Run—he became addicted to the pursuit of pushing himself harder, farther, and faster. Yet the more time he spent logging mile after mile on lonely trails, exhausted and in sweaty solitude, the more time he had to think. And before long, his repressed memories from Iran reemerged.
“Running is this shining spot in my life that has helped me to overcome that trauma.”
Instead of trying to fight off the flashbacks, however, he learned to embrace them. While Talattof has written dozens of articles and books about Iranian culture, he has never written anything with an introspective, creative narrative. But he has kept a written log of his races, training, and personal memories. So as he started increasing his distances and remembering more of his painful past, Talattof realized he might be able to properly process his trauma by collecting his notes into a forthcoming book organized around five major runs and five painful memories. “Those flashbacks made me realize that I really haven’t solved those eternal sufferings that I went through,” he says.
As he’s reflected on life and worked to heal the wounds of his youth, Talattof has codified what running means to him. “Running is a lifestyle,” he says. “It helped me find a home where I truly feel I belong.”
Talattof knows that he’s only at the beginning of his journey. But he’s proud of the progress he’s made so far. “Running makes other challenges easy,” he says. “It has given me a home, a sense of belonging, and a group of running fellows who expect nothing of me except to show up at the next run.”
It’s a perspective he’s gained from races like that transformative Indiana 100-miler back in 2013. As the sun crept over the horizon signaling a new day, Talattof crossed the finish line in 29 hours, 12 minutes, and 28 seconds. It was the longest race he’d tackled at the time, but his hunger for ultramarathons was as strong as ever.
Now, when the memories come hurtling back, he recognizes that they are a fact of life. Not something he can change, but something he must accept. “Running is this shining spot in my life that has helped me to overcome that trauma,” he says. “I’m a happier person than I was before I got so crazily involved in running.”
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Theo Kahler is the membership editor for Runner’s World, Bicycling, and Popular Mechanics. He’s a former all-conference collegiate runner who’s now based in Easton, PA.
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