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Six

JUNE 23, 1996 • LAKE SAROMA, HOKKAIDO

Nobody Pounded the Table Anymore, Nobody Threw Their Cups

Have you ever run sixty-two miles in a single day? The vast majority of people in the world (those who are sane, I should say) have never had that experience. No normal person would ever do something so foolhardy. But I did, once. I completed a race that went from morning till evening, and covered sixty-two miles. It was draining physically, as you can imagine, and for a while afterward I swore I’d never run again. I doubt I’ll try it again, but who knows what the future may hold. Maybe someday, having forgotten my lesson, I’ll take up the challenge of an ultramarathon again. You have to wait until tomorrow to find out what tomorrow will bring.

Either way, when I look back on that race now I can see that it had a lot of meaning for me as a runner. I don’t know what sort of general significance running sixty-two miles by yourself has, but as an action that deviates from the ordinary yet doesn’t violate basic values, you’d expect it to afford you a special sort of self-awareness. It should add a few new elements to your inventory in understanding who you are. And as a result, your view of your life, its colors and shape, should be transformed. More or less, for better or for worse, this happened to me, and I was transformed.

What follows is based on a sketch I wrote a few days after the race, before I forgot the details. As I read these notes ten years later, all the thoughts and feelings I had that day come back in quite sharp focus. I think when you read this you’ll get a general idea of what this harsh race left me with, both the happy and not-so-happy things. But maybe you’ll tell me you just don’t get it.

This sixty-two-mile ultramarathon takes place every year at Lake Saroma, in June, in Hokkaido. The rest of Japan is in the rainy season then, but Hokkaido is too far north. Early summer in Hokkaido is a very pleasant time of year, though in its northernmost part, where Lake Saroma is, summer warmth is still a ways off. In the early morning, when the race starts, it’s still freezing, and you have to wear heavy clothes. As the sun gets higher in the sky, you gradually warm up, and the runners, like bugs going through metamorphosis, shed one layer of clothes after another. By the end of the race, though I kept my gloves on, I’d stripped down to a tank top, which left me feeling chilly. If it rained, I’d really have frozen, but fortunately, despite the lingering cloud cover, we didn’t get a drop of rain.

The runners run around the shores of Lake Saroma, which faces the Sea of Okhotsk. Only once you actually run the course do you realize how ridiculously huge Lake Saroma is. Yuubetsu, a town on the west side of the lake, is the starting point, and the finish line is at Tokoro-cho (now renamed Kitami City), on the east side. The last part of the race winds through Wakka Natural Flower Garden, an extensive, long, and narrow natural arboretum that faces the sea. As courses go—assuming you can afford to take in the view—it’s gorgeous. They don’t control the traffic along the course, but since there aren’t many cars and people to begin with, there really isn’t a need to. Beside the road cows are lazily chewing grass. They show zero interest in the runners. They’re too busy eating grass to care about all these whimsical people and their nonsensical activities. And for their part, the runners don’t have the leisure to pay attention to what the cows are up to, either. After twenty-six miles there’s a checkpoint about every six miles, and if you exceed the time limit when you pass, you’re automatically disqualified. They’re very strict about it, and every year a lot of runners are disqualified. After traveling all the way to the northernmost reaches of Japan to run here, I certainly don’t want to get disqualified halfway through. No matter what, I’m determined to beat the posted maximum times.

This race is one of the pioneering ultramarathons in Japan, and the whole event is smoothly and efficiently run by people who live in the area. It’s a pleasant event to be in.

I don’t have much to say about the first part of the race, to the rest station at the thirty-fourth mile. I just ran on and on, silently. It didn’t feel much different from a long Sunday-morning run. I calculated that if I could keep up a jogging pace of nine and a half minutes per mile, I’d be able to finish in ten hours. Adding in time to rest and eat, I expected to finish in under eleven hours. (Later I found out how overly optimistic I was.)

At 26.2 miles there’s a sign that says, “This is the distance of a marathon.” There’s a white line painted on the concrete indicating the exact spot. I exaggerate only a bit when I say that the moment I straddled that line a slight shiver went through me, for this was the first time I’d ever run more than a marathon. For me this was the Strait of Gibraltar, beyond which lay an unknown sea. What lay in wait beyond this, what unknown creatures were living there, I didn’t have a clue. In my own small way I felt the same fear that sailors of old must have felt.

After I passed that point, and as I was coming up on thirty-one miles, I felt a slight change physically, as if the muscles of my legs were starting to tighten up. I was hungry and thirsty, too. I’d made a mental note to remember to drink some water at every station, whether or not I felt thirsty, but even so, like an unfortunate destiny, like the dark-hearted queen of the night, thirst kept pursuing me. I felt slightly uneasy. I’d only finished half the race, and if I felt like this now, would I really be able to complete sixty-two miles?

At the rest stop at thirty-four miles I changed into fresh clothes and ate the snack my wife had prepared. Now that the sun was getting higher the temperature had risen, so I took off my half tights and changed into a clean shirt and shorts. I changed my New Balance ultramarathon shoes (there really are such things in the world) from a size eight to an eight and a half. My feet had started to swell up, so I needed to wear shoes a half size larger. It was cloudy the whole time, with no sun getting through, so I decided to take off my hat, which I had on to keep the sun off me. I’d worn the hat to keep my head warm, too, in case it rained, but at this point it didn’t look like it was going to. It was neither too hot nor too cold, ideal conditions for long-distance running. I washed down two nutrition-gel packs, took in some water, and ate some bread and butter and a cookie. I carefully did some stretching on the grass and sprayed my calves with an anti-inflammatory. I washed my face, got rid of the sweat and dirt, and used the restroom.

I must have rested about ten minutes or so, but never sat down once. If I sat down, I felt, I’d never be able to get up and start running again.

“Are you okay?” I was asked.

“I’m okay,” I answered simply. That’s all I could say.

After drinking water and stretching, I set out on the road again. Now it was just run and run until the finish line. As soon as I set off again, though, I realized something was wrong. My leg muscles had tightened up like a piece of old, hard rubber. I still had lots of stamina, and my breathing was regular, but my legs had a mind of their own. I had plenty of desire to run, but my legs had their own opinion about this.

I gave up on my disobedient legs and started focusing on my upper body. I swung my arms wide as I ran, making my upper body swing, transmitting the momentum to my lower body. Using that momentum, I was able to push my legs forward (after the race, though, my wrists were swollen). Naturally, you can only go at a snail’s pace running like this, in a form not much different from a fast walk. But ever so slowly, as if it dawned on them again what their job was, or perhaps as if they’d resigned themselves to fate, my leg muscles began to perform normally and I was able to run pretty much the way I usually run. Thankfully.

Even though my legs were working now, the thirteen miles from the thirty-four-mile rest stop to the forty-seventh mile were excruciating. I felt like a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder. I had the will to go ahead, but now my whole body was rebelling. It felt like a car trying to go up a slope with the parking brake on. My body felt like it was falling apart and would soon come completely undone. Out of oil, the bolts coming loose, the wrong cogs in gear, I was rapidly slowing down as one runner after another passed me. A tiny old lady around seventy or so passed me and shouted out, “Hang in there!” Man alive. What was going to happen the rest of the way? There were still twenty-five miles to go.

As I ran, different parts of my body, one after another, began to hurt. First my right thigh hurt like crazy, then that pain migrated over to my right knee, then to my left thigh, and on and on. All the parts of my body had their chance to take center stage and scream out their complaints. They screamed, complained, yelled in distress, and warned me that they weren’t going to take it anymore. For them, running sixty miles was an unknown experience, and each body part had its own excuse. I understood completely, but all I wanted them to do was be quiet and keep on running. Like Danton or Robespierre eloquently attempting to persuade the dissatisfied and rebellious Revolutionary Tribunal, I tried to talk each body part into showing a little cooperation. Encouraged them, clung to them, flattered them, scolded them, tried to buck them up. It’s just a little farther, guys. You can’t give up on me now. But if you think about it—and I did think about it—Danton and Robespierre wound up with their heads cut off.

Ultimately, using every trick in the book, I managed to grit my teeth and make it through thirteen miles of sheer torment.

I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.

That’s what I told myself. That’s about all I thought about, and that’s what got me through. If I were a living person of blood and flesh I would have collapsed from the pain. There definitely was a being called me right there. And accompanying that is a consciousness that is the self. But at that point, I had to force myself to think that those were convenient forms and nothing more. It’s a strange way of thinking and definitely a very strange feeling—consciousness trying to deny consciousness. You have to force yourself into an inorganic place. Instinctively I realized that this was the only way to survive.

I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.

I repeat this like a mantra. A literal, mechanical repetition. And I try hard to reduce the perceptible world to the narrowest parameters. All I can see is the ground three yards ahead, nothing beyond. My whole world consists of the ground three yards ahead. No need to think beyond that. The sky and wind, the grass, the cows munching the grass, the spectators, cheers, lake, novels, reality, the past, memory—these mean nothing to me. Just getting me past the next three yards—this was my tiny reason for living as a human. No, I’m sorry—as a machine.

Every three miles I stop and drink water at a water station. Every time I stop I briskly do some stretching. My muscles are as hard as week-old cafeteria bread. I can’t believe these are really my muscles. At one rest stop they have pickled plums, and I eat one. I never knew a pickled plum could taste so good. The salt and sour taste spreads through my mouth and steadily permeates my entire body.

Instead of forcing myself to run, perhaps it would have been smarter if I’d walked. A lot of other runners were doing just that. Giving their legs a rest as they walked. But I didn’t walk a single step. I stopped a lot to stretch, but I never walked. I didn’t come here to walk. I came to run. That’s the reason—the only reason—I flew all the way to the northern tip of Japan. No matter how slow I might run, I wasn’t about to walk. That was the rule. Break one of my rules once, and I’m bound to break many more. And if I’d done that, it would have been next to impossible to finish this race.

While I was enduring all this, around the forty-seventh mile I felt like I’d passed through something. That’s what it felt like. Passed through is the only way I can express it. Like my body had passed clean through a stone wall. At what exact point I felt like I’d made it through, I can’t recall, but suddenly I noticed I was already on the other side. I was convinced I’d made it through. I don’t know about the logic or the process or the method involved—I was simply convinced of the reality that I’d passed through.

After that, I didn’t have to think anymore. Or, more precisely, there wasn’t the need to try to consciously think about not thinking. All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically. If I gave myself up to it, some sort of power would naturally push me forward.

Run this long, and of course it’s going to be exhausting. But at this point being tired wasn’t a big issue. By this time exhaustion was the status quo. My muscles were no longer a seething Revolutionary Tribunal and seemed to have given up on complaining. Nobody pounded the table anymore, nobody threw their cups. My muscles silently accepted this exhaustion now as a historical inevitability, an ineluctable outcome of the revolution. I had been transformed into a being on autopilot, whose sole purpose was to rhythmically swing his arms back and forth, move his legs forward one step at a time. I didn’t think about anything. I didn’t feel anything. I realized all of a sudden that even physical pain had all but vanished. Or maybe it was shoved into some unseen corner, like some ugly furniture you can’t get rid of.

In this state, after I’d passed through this unseen barrier, I started passing a lot of other runners. Just after I crossed the checkpoint near forty-seven miles, which you had to reach in under eight hours and forty-five minutes or be disqualified, many other runners, unlike me, began to slow down, some even giving up running and starting to walk. From that point to the finish line I must have passed about two hundred. At least I counted up to two hundred. Only once or twice did somebody else pass me from behind. I could count the number of runners I’d passed, because I didn’t have anything else to do. I was in the midst of deep exhaustion that I’d totally accepted, and the reality was that I was still able to continue running, and for me there was nothing more I could ask of the world.

Since I was on autopilot, if someone had told me to keep on running I might well have run beyond sixty-two miles. It’s weird, but at the end I hardly knew who I was or what I was doing. This should have been a very alarming feeling, but it didn’t feel that way. By then running had entered the realm of the metaphysical. First there came the action of running, and accompanying it there was this entity known as me. I run; therefore I am.

And this feeling grew particularly strong as I entered the last part of the course, the Natural Flower Garden on the long, long peninsula. It’s a kind of meditative, contemplative stretch. The scenery along the coast is beautiful, and the scent of the Sea of Okhotsk wafted over me. Evening had come on (we’d started early in the morning), and the air had a special clarity to it. I could also smell the deep grass of the beginning of summer. I saw a few foxes, too, gathered in a field. They looked at us runners curiously. Thick, meaningful clouds, like something out of a nineteenth-century British landscape painting, covered the sky. There was no wind at all. Many of the other runners around me were just silently trudging toward the finish line. Being among them gave me a quiet sense of happiness. Breathe in, breathe out. My breath didn’t seem ragged at all. The air calmly went inside me and then went out. My silent heart expanded and contracted, over and over, at a fixed rate. Like the bellows of a worker, my lungs faithfully brought fresh oxygen into my body. I could sense all these organs working, and distinguish each and every sound they made. Everything was working just fine. People lining the road cheered us on, saying, “Hang in there! You’re almost there!” Like the crystalline air, their shouts went right through me. Their voices passed clean through me to the other side.

I’m me, and at the same time not me. That’s what it felt like. A very still, quiet feeling. The mind wasn’t so important. Of course, as a novelist I know that my mind is critical to doing my job. Take away the mind, and I’ll never write an original story again. Still, at this point it didn’t feel like my mind was important. The mind just wasn’t that big a deal.

Usually when I approach the end of a marathon, all I want to do is get it over with, and finish the race as soon as possible. That’s all I can think of. But as I drew near the end of this ultramarathon, I wasn’t really thinking about this. The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence. It’s very philosophical—not that at this point I’m thinking how philosophical it is. I just vaguely experience this idea, not with words, but as a physical sensation.

Even so, when I reached the finish line in Tokoro-cho, I felt very happy. I’m always happy when I reach the finish line of a long-distance race, but this time it really struck me hard. I pumped my right fist into the air. The time was 4:42 p.m. Eleven hours and forty-two minutes since the start of the race.

For the first time in half a day I sat down and wiped off my sweat, drank some water, tugged off my shoes, and, as the sun went down, carefully stretched my ankles. At this point a new feeling started to well up in me—nothing as profound as a feeling of pride, but at least a certain sense of completion. A personal feeling of happiness and relief that I had accepted something risky and still had the strength to endure it. In this instance, relief outweighed happiness. It was like a tight knot inside me was gradually loosening, a knot I’d never even realized, until then, was there.

Right after this race at Lake Saroma I found it hard to walk downstairs. My legs were wobbly and I couldn’t support my body well, as if my knees were about to give out. I had to hold on to the railing to walk down the stairs. After a few days, though, my legs recovered, and I could walk up and down the stairs as usual. It’s clear that over many years my legs have grown used to long-distance running. The real problem, as I mentioned before, turned out to be my hands. In order to make up for my tired leg muscles, I’d vigorously pumped my hands back and forth. The day after the race my right wrist started to hurt and turned red and swollen. I’d run a lot of marathons, but this was the first time it was my arms, not my legs, that paid the greatest price.

Still, the most significant fallout from running the ultramarathon wasn’t physical but mental. What I ended up with was a sense of lethargy, and before I knew it, I felt covered by a thin film, something I’ve sinced dubbed runner’s blues. (Though the actual feeling of it was closer to a milky white.) After this ultramarathon I lost the enthusiasm I’d always had for the act of running itself. Fatigue was a factor, but that wasn’t the only reason. The desire to run wasn’t as clear as before. I don’t know why, but it was undeniable: something had happened to me. Afterward, the amount of running I did, not to mention the distances I ran, noticeably declined.

After this, I still followed my usual schedule of running one full marathon per year. You can’t finish a marathon if you’re halfhearted about it, so I did a decent enough job of training, and did a decent enough job of finishing the races. But this never went beyond the level of decent enough job. It’s as if loosening that knot I’d never noticed before had slackened my interest along with it. It wasn’t just that my desire to run had decreased. At the same time that I’d lost something, something new had also taken root deep within me as a runner. And most likely this process of one thing exiting while another comes in had produced this unfamiliar runner’s blues.

And what about this new thing within me? I can’t find the exact words to describe it, but it might be something close to resignation. To exaggerate a bit, it was as if by completing the over-sixty-mile race I’d stepped into a different place. After my fatigue disappeared somewhere after the forty-seventh mile, my mind went into a blank state you might even call philosophical or religious. Something urged me to become more introspective, and this newfound introspection transformed my attitude toward the act of running. Maybe I no longer have the simple, positive stance I used to have, of wanting to run no matter what.

I don’t know, maybe I’m making too much of it. Perhaps I’d just run too much and gotten tired. Plus I was in my late forties and was coming up against some physical barriers unavoidable for a person my age. Perhaps I was just coming to terms with the fact that I’d passed my physical peak. Or maybe I was going through a depression brought on by a sort of general male equivalent of menopause. Perhaps all these various factors had combined into a mysterious cocktail inside me. As the person involved in this, it’s hard for me to analyze it objectively. Whatever it was, runner’s blues was my name for it.

Mind you, completing the ultramarathon did make me extremely happy and gave me a certain amount of confidence. Even now I’m glad I ran the race. Still, I had to deal with these aftereffects somehow. For a long time after this I was in this slump—not to I imply that I had such a tremendous record to begin with, but still. Each time I ran a full marathon, my time went steadily down. Practice and racing became nothing more than formalities I went through, and they didn’t move me the way they used to. The amount of adrenaline I secreted on the day of a race, too, was ratcheted back a notch. Because of this I eventually turned my focus from full marathons to triathlons and grew more enthusiastic about playing squash at the gym. My lifestyle gradually changed, and I no longer considered running the point of life. In other words, a mental gap began to develop between me and running. Just like when you lose the initial crazy feeling you have when you fall in love.

Now I feel like I’m finally getting away from the runner’s-blues fog that’s surrounded me for so long. Not that I’ve completely rid myself of it, but I can sense something beginning to stir. In the morning as I lace up my running shoes, I can catch a faint sign of something in the air, and within me. I want to take good care of this sprout that’s sprung up. Just as, when I don’t want to go in the wrong direction—or miss hearing a sound, miss seeing the scenery—I’m going to focus on what’s going on with my body.

For the first time in a long while, I feel content running every day in preparation for the next marathon. I’ve opened a new notebook, unscrewed the cap on a new bottle of ink, and am writing something new. Why I feel so generous about running now, I can’t really explain systematically. Maybe coming back to Cambridge and the banks of the Charles River has revived old feelings. Perhaps the warm feelings I have for this place have stirred up memories of those days when running was so central to my life. Or maybe this is simply a matter of time passing. Maybe I just had to undergo an inevitable internal adjustment, and the period needed for this to happen is finally drawing to a close.

As I suspect is true of many who write for a living, as I write I think about all sorts of things. I don’t necessarily write down what I’m thinking; it’s just that as I write I think about things. As I write, I arrange my thoughts. And rewriting and revising takes my thinking down even deeper paths. No matter how much I write, though, I never reach a conclusion. And no matter how much I rewrite, I never reach the destination. Even after decades of writing, the same still holds true. All I do is present a few hypotheses or paraphrase the issue. Or find an analogy between the structure of the problem and something else.

To tell the truth, I don’t really understand the causes behind my runner’s blues. Or why now it’s beginning to fade. It’s too early to explain it well. Maybe the only thing I can definitely say about it is this: That’s life. Maybe the only thing we can do is accept it, without really knowing what’s going on. Like taxes, the tide rising and falling, John Lennon’s death, and miscalls by referees at the World Cup.

At any rate, I have the distinct feeling that time has come full circle, that a cycle has been completed. The act of running has returned as a happy, necessary part of my daily life. And recently I’ve been running steadily, day by day. Not as some mechanical repetition anymore, or some prescribed ceremony. My body feels a natural desire now to get out on the road and run, just like when I’m dehydrated and crave the juice from a fresh piece of fruit. I’m looking forward now to the NYC Marathon on November 6, to seeing how much I can enjoy the race, how satisfied I’ll be with the run, and how I’ll do.

I don’t care about the time I run. I can try all I want, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to run the way I used to. I’m ready to accept that. It’s not one of your happier realities, but that’s what happens when you get older. Just as I have my own role to play, so does time. And time does its job much more faithfully, much more accurately, than I ever do. Ever since time began (when was that, I wonder?), it’s been moving ever forward without a moment’s rest. And one of the privileges given to those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old. The honor of physical decline is waiting, and you have to get used to that reality.

Competing against time isn’t important. What’s going to be much more meaningful to me now is how much I can enjoy myself, whether I can finish twenty-six miles with a feeling of contentment. I’ll enjoy and value things that can’t be expressed in numbers, and I’ll grope for a feeling of pride that comes from a slightly different place.

I’m not a young person who’s focused totally on breaking records, nor an inorganic machine that goes through the motions. I’m nothing more or less than a (most likely honest) professional writer who knows his limits, who wants to hold on to his abilities and vitality for as long as possible.

One more month until the New York City Marathon.

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