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Seven

OCTOBER 30, 2005 • CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS

Autumn in New York

As if to lament the defeat of the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs (they lost every game in a Sox vs. Sox series with Chicago), for ten days afterward a cold rain fell on New England. A long autumn rain. Sometimes it rained hard, sometimes softly; sometimes, it would let up for a time like an afterthought, but not once did it clear up. From beginning to end the sky was completely covered with the thick gray clouds particular to this region. Like a dawdling person, the rain lingered for a long time, then finally made up its mind to turn into a downpour. Towns from New Hampshire to Massachusetts suffered damage from the rain, and the main highway was cut off in places. (Please understand I’m not blaming the Red Sox for all this.) I had some work to do at a college in Maine, and all I recall from the trip was driving in this gloomy rain. Except for the middle of winter, traveling in this region is usually fun, but unfortunately my trip this time wasn’t very enjoyable. Too late for summer, too early for the fall colors. It was raining cats and dogs, plus the windshield wiper on my rental car was acting up, and by the time I returned to Cambridge late at night I was exhausted.

On Sunday, October 9, I ran an early-morning race, and it was still raining. This was a half marathon held every year at this time by the Boston Athletic Association, the same organization that holds the Boston Marathon in the spring. The course starts at Roberto Clemente Field, near Fenway Park, goes past Jamaica Pond, then winds back inside the Franklin Park Zoo and ends up right where it started. This year some 4,500 people participated.

I ran this race as a kind of warm-up for the New York City Marathon, so I only gave it about 80 percent, really getting fired up only in the final two miles. It’s pretty hard, though, to not give it your all in a race, to try to hold back. Being surrounded by other runners is bound to have an influence on you. It’s a lot of fun, after all, to be with so many fellow runners when the starters shout Go!, and before you know it the old competitive instinct raises its head. This time, though, I tried my best to suppress it and keep my cool: I’ve got to save my energy, so I can bring it as a carry-on when I board the plane for New York.

My time was one hour and fifty-five minutes. Not too bad, and about what I expected. The last couple of miles I floored it, passing about a hundred runners and making it to the finish line with energy to spare. The other runners around me were mainly Caucasians, especially a lot of women. For whatever reason, there weren’t many minority runners. It was a cold Sunday morning, with a mistlike rain falling the entire time. But pinning a number on my back, hearing the other runners’ breathing as we ran down the road, I was struck by a thought: The racing season is upon us. Adrenaline coursed through me. I usually run alone, so this race was a good stimulus. I got a pretty good feeling for the pace I should maintain in the marathon next month. For what will happen in the second half of that race, I’ll just have to wait and see.

When I’m training I regularly run the length of a half marathon, and often much farther, so this Boston race seemed over before it began. Is that all? I asked myself. This was a good thing, though, since if a half marathon left me exhausted, a full marathon would be hellish.

The rain continued off and on for quite a while, and during this time I had to take a work-related trip, so I wasn’t able to run as much as I’d have liked. But with the New York City Marathon fast approaching, it really isn’t such a problem if I can’t run. Actually, it’s to my advantage to rest. The problem is, I know I should take a break and rest up, but with a race coming up I get excited and end up running anyway. If it’s raining, though, I give up easily enough. I suppose that’s one good side of having it rain so much.

Even though I’m not doing much running, my knee has started to hurt. Like most of the troubles in life it came on all of a sudden, without any warning. On the morning of October 17, I started to walk down the stairs in our building and my right knee suddenly buckled. When I twisted it in a certain direction the kneecap hurt in a peculiar way, a little different from an everyday ache. At a certain point it started to feel unsteady and I couldn’t put any weight on it. That’s what they mean by wobbly knees. I had to hold on to the railing to get downstairs.

I was exhausted from all the hard training, and most likely the sudden dip in temperature was bringing this to the surface. The summer heat still lingered in the beginning of October, but the weeklong period of rain had quickly ushered in the fall to New England. Until a short while ago I’d been using my air conditioner, but now a chilly breeze blew through the town, and you could see the signs of late autumn everywhere. I had to hurriedly drag some sweaters out of the dresser. Even the faces of the squirrels looked different as they scurried around collecting food. My body tends to have problems during these transitions from one season to another, something that never happened when I was young. The main problem is when it gets cold and damp.

If you’re a long-distance runner who trains hard every day, your knees are your weak point. Every time your feet hit the ground when you run, it’s a shock equivalent to three times your weight, and this repeats itself perhaps over ten thousand times a day. With the hard concrete surface of the road meeting this ridiculous amount of weight (granted, there’s the cushioning of the shoes between them), your knees silently endure all this endless pounding. If you think of this (and I admit it’s something I don’t usually think about), it would seem strange if you didn’t have a problem with your knees. You have to expect the knees to want to complain sometimes, to come up with a comment like, “Huffing and puffing down the road’s all well and good, but how about paying attention to me every once in a while? Remember, if we go out on you, we can’t be replaced.” When was the last time I gave my knees any serious thought? As I was pondering this, I started to feel a little remorseful. They’re absolutely right. You can replace your breath any number of times, but not your knees. These are the only knees I’ll ever have, so I’d better take good care of them.

As I said before, I’ve been fortunate as a runner not to have had any major injuries. And I’ve never had to cancel a race or drop out because of illness. Several times in the past, my right knee has felt strange (it’s always the right knee), but I’ve always been able to soothe it and keep it going. So my knee should be okay now too, right? That’s what I’d like to think. But even in bed I still feel uneasy. What’ll I do if after all this I can’t run in the race? Was there something wrong with my training schedule? Maybe I didn’t stretch enough? (Maybe I really didn’t.) Or maybe in the half marathon I ran too hard at the end? With all these thoughts running through my head I couldn’t sleep well. Outside the wind was cold and noisy.

The next morning, after I woke up, washed my face, and drank a cup of coffee, I tried walking down the stairs in our apartment building. I gingerly descended the stairs, holding on to the railing and paying close attention to my right knee. The inner part of the right knee still felt strange. That’s the spot where I could detect a hint of pain, though it wasn’t the startling, sharp pain of the day before. I tried going up and down the stairs one more time, and this time I went down the four flights and back up again at close to normal speed. I tried all sorts of ways of walking, testing my knee by twisting it at various angles, and felt a little relieved.

This isn’t connected to running, but my daily life in Cambridge isn’t going that smoothly. The building we’re living in is undergoing some major remodeling, and during the day all you hear is drills and grinders. Every day is an endless procession of workmen passing by outside our fourth-story window. The construction work starts at seven thirty in the morning, when it’s still a little dark outside, and continues until three thirty. They made some mistake in the drainage work on the veranda above us, and our apartment got totally wet from the rain leaking in. Rain even got our bed wet. We mobilized every pot and pan we had, but still it wasn’t enough to catch all the water dripping down, so we covered the floor with newspapers. And as if this weren’t enough, the boiler suddenly gave out, and we had to do without hot water and heating. But that wasn’t all. Something was wrong with the smoke detector in the hall, and the alarm blared all the time. So altogether, every day was pretty noisy.

Our apartment was near Harvard Square, close enough that I could walk to the office, so it was convenient, but moving in right when they were doing major remodeling was a bit of bad luck. Still, I can’t spend all my time complaining. I’ve got work to do, and the marathon’s fast approaching.

Long story short: my knee seems to have settled down, which is definitely good news. I’m going to try to be optimistic about things.

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There’s one more piece of good news. My public reading at MIT on October 6 went very well. Maybe even too well. The university had prepared a classroom that had a 450-person capacity, but about 1,700 people poured in, which meant that most had to be turned away. The campus police were called in to straighten things out. Due to the confusion the reading started late, and on top of that the air conditioner wasn’t working. It was as hot as midsummer, and everyone in the room was dripping with sweat.

“Thank you all very much for taking the time to attend my reading,” I began. “If I’d known there would be this many attending I would have booked Fenway Park.” Everyone was hot and irritated by the confusion, and I thought it best to try to get them to laugh. I took off my jacket and gave my reading wearing a T-shirt. The audience’s reaction was great—most of them were students—and from start to finish I could enjoy myself. It made me really happy to see so many young people interested in my novels.

One other project I’m involved in now is translating Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and things are going well. I’ve finished the first draft and am revising the second. I’m taking my time, going over each line carefully, and as I do so the translation gets smoother and I’m better able to render Fitzgerald’s prose into more natural Japanese. It’s a little strange, perhaps, to make this claim at such a late date, but Gatsby really is an outstanding novel. I never get tired of it, no matter how many times I read it. It’s the kind of literature that nourishes you as you read, and every time I do I’m struck by something new, and experience a fresh reaction to it. I find it amazing how such a young writer, only twenty-nine at the time, could grasp—so insightfully, so equitably, and so warmly—the realities of life. How was this possible? The more I think about it, and the more I read the novel, the more mysterious it all is.

On October 20, after resting and not running for four days because of the rain and that weird sensation in my knee, I ran again. In the afternoon, after the temperature had risen a bit, I put on warm clothes and slowly jogged for about forty minutes. Thankfully, my knee felt all right. I jogged slowly at first, but then gradually sped up when I saw things were going okay. Everything was okay, and my leg, knee, and heel were working fine. This was a great relief, because the most important thing for me right now is running in the New York City Marathon and finishing it. Reaching the finish line, never walking, and enjoying the race. These three, in this order, are my goals.

The sunny weather continued for three days straight, and the workers were finally able to finish the drainage work on the roof. As David, the tall young construction foreman from Switzerland, had told me—a dark look on his face as he glanced up at the sky—they could finish the work only if it was sunny for three days in a row, and finally it was. No more worrying about leaks anymore. And the boiler’s been fixed and we have hot water again, so I can finally take a hot shower. The basement had been off-limits during the repairs, but now we can go down there and use the washer and dryer again. They tell me that tomorrow the central heating will come on. So, after all these disasters, things—including my knee—are finally taking a turn for the better.

October 27. Today I was finally able to run at about 80 percent without any strange sensations in my knee. Yesterday I still felt something weird, but this morning I can run normally. I ran for fifty minutes, and for the last ten minutes picked up the pace to the speed I’ll have to have when I actually run the NYC Marathon. I pictured entering Central Park and getting near the finish line, and it was no problem at all. My feet hit the pavement hard, and my knees didn’t buckle. The danger is over. Probably.

It’s become really cold, and the town is full of Halloween pumpkins. In the morning the path along the river is lined with wet, colorful fallen leaves. If you want to run in the morning, gloves are a must.

October 29, the marathon a week away. In the morning it started snowing off and on, and by the afternoon it was a full-scale snowfall. Summer wasn’t all that long ago, I thought, impressed. This was typical New England weather. Out the window of my campus office I watched the wet snowflakes falling. My physical condition isn’t too bad. When I get too tired from training, my legs tend to get heavy and my running is unsteady, but these days I feel light as I start off. My legs aren’t so tired anymore, and I feel like I want to run even more.

Still, I feel a bit uneasy. Has the dark shadow really disappeared? Or is it inside me, concealed, waiting for its chance to reappear? Like a clever thief hidden inside a house, breathing quietly, waiting until everyone’s asleep. I have looked deep inside myself, trying to detect something that might be there. But just as our consciousness is a maze, so too is our body. Everywhere you turn there’s darkness, and a blind spot. Everywhere you find silent hints, everywhere a surprise is waiting for you.

All I have to go on are experience and instinct. Experience has taught me this: You’ve done everything you needed to do, and there’s no sense in rehashing it. All you can do now is wait for the race. And what instinct has taught me is one thing only: Use your imagination. So I close my eyes and see it all. I imagine myself, along with thousands of other runners, going through Brooklyn, through Harlem, through the streets of New York. I see myself crossing several steel suspension bridges, and experience the emotions I’ll have as I run along bustling Central Park South, close to the finish line. I see the old steakhouse near our hotel where we’ll eat after the race. These scenes give my body a quiet vitality. I no longer fix my gaze on the shades of darkness. I no longer listen to the echoes of silence.

Liz, who looks after my books at Knopf, sends me an e-mail. She’s also going to run the New York City Marathon, in what will be her first full marathon. “Have a good time!” I e-mail back. And that’s right: for a marathon to mean anything, it should be fun. Otherwise, why would thousands of people run 26.2 miles?

I check on the reservation at our hotel on Central Park South and buy our plane tickets from Boston to New York. I pack my running outfit and shoes, which I’ve broken in pretty well, in a gym bag. Now all that’s left is to rest and wait for the day of the race. All I can do is pray that we have good weather, that it’s a gorgeous autumn day.

Every time I visit New York to run the marathon (this will be the fourth time) I remember the beautiful, smart ballad by Vernon Duke, “Autumn in New York.”

It’s autumn in New York

It’s good to live it again.

New York in November really does have a special charm to it. The air is clear and crisp, and the leaves on the trees in Central Park are just beginning to turn golden. The sky is so clear you can see forever, and the skyscrapers lavishly reflect the sun’s rays. You feel you can keep on walking one block after another without end. Expensive cashmere coats fill the windows at Bergdorf Goodman, and the streets are filled with the delicious smell of roasted pretzels.

On the day of the race, as I run those very streets, will I be able to fully enjoy this autumn in New York? Or will I be too preoccupied? I won’t know until I actually start running. If there’s one hard and fast rule about marathons, it’s that.

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