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18 Til I Die

Right now I’m training for a triathlon. Recently I’ve been focusing on bicycle training, pedaling hard one or two hours a day down a bicycle path along the seaside at Oiso called the Pacific Oceanside Bicycle Path, the wind whipping at me from the side. (Belying its wonderful name, the path is narrow and even cut off at various points, and not easy to ride on.) Thanks to all this perilous training, my muscles from my thighs to my lower back are tight and strong.

The bike I use in races is the kind with toe straps that let you push down on the pedals and lift. Doing both increases your speed. In order to keep the motion of your legs smooth, it’s important to focus on the lifting part, especially when you’re going up a long slope. The problem is, the muscles you use for lifting those pedals are hardly ever used in daily life, so when I really get into bike training these muscles inevitably get stiff and exhausted. But if I train on the bike in the morning, I can run in the evening, even though my leg muscles are stiff. I wouldn’t call this kind of practice fun, but I’m not complaining. This is exactly what I’ll be facing in the triathlon.

Running and swimming I like to do anyway, even if I’m not training for a race. They’re a natural part of my daily routine, but bicycling isn’t. One reason I’m reluctant when it comes to bicycling is that a bike’s a kind of tool. You need a helmet, bike shoes, and all sorts of other accoutrements, and you have to maintain all the parts and equipment. I’m just not very good at taking care of tools. Plus, you have to find a safe course where you can pedal as fast as you want. It always seems like too much of a hassle.

The other factor is fear. To get to a decent bike path I have to ride through town, and the fear I feel when I weave in and out of traffic on my sports bike with its skinny tires and my bike shoes strapped tight in the straps is something you can’t understand unless you’ve gone through it. As I’ve gotten more experienced I’ve gotten used to it, or at least learned how to survive, but there have been many moments startling enough to put me in a cold sweat.

Even when I’m practicing, whenever I go into a tight curve fast my heart starts pounding. Unless I keep the right trajectory and lean my body at exactly the correct angle as I go into the curve, I’ll fall over or crash into a fence. Experientially I’ve had to find the limits I can take my speed to. It’s pretty scary, too, to be going down a slope at a good clip when the road’s wet from the rain. In a race one little mistake is all it takes to cause a massive pileup.

I’m basically not a very nimble person and don’t like sports that rely on speed combined with agility, so bicycling is definitely not my forte. That’s why, among the three parts of a triathlon—swimming, bicycling, and running—I always put off practicing bicycling till last. It’s my weakest link. Even if I excel in the running part of the triathlon, the 6.2 miles, that final segment is never long enough to make up the time. This is exactly why I decided I had to take the plunge and put in some quality time on the bike. Today is August 1 and the race is on October 1, so I have exactly two months. I’m not sure I’ll be able to build up my biking muscles in time, but at least I’ll get used to the bike again.

The one I’m using now is a light-as-a-feather Panasonic titanium sports bike, which I’ve been using for the last seven years. Changing the gears is like one of my own bodily functions. It’s a wonderful machine. At least the machine is superior to the person riding it. I’ve ridden it pretty hard in four triathlons but never had any major problem. On the body of the bike is written “18 Til I Die,” the name of a Bryan Adams hit. It’s a joke, of course. Being eighteen until you die means you die when you’re eighteen.

The weather’s been strange in Japan this summer. The rainy season, which usually winds down in the beginning of July, continued until the end of the month. It rained so much I got sick of it. There were torrential rains in parts of the country, and a lot of people died. They say it’s all because of global warming. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Some experts claim it is, some claim it isn’t. There’s some proof that it is, some that it isn’t. But still people say that most of the problems the earth is facing are, more or less, due to global warming. When sales of apparel go down, when tons of driftwood wash up on the shore, when there are floods and droughts, when consumer prices go up, most of the fault is ascribed to global warming. What the world needs is a set villain that people can point at and say, “It’s all your fault!” At any rate, due to this villain that can’t be dealt with, it went on raining, and I could hardly practice biking at all during July. It’s not my fault—it’s that villain’s. Finally, though, these last few days have been sunny and I’ve been able to take my bike outdoors. I strap on my streamlined helmet, put on my sports sunglasses, fill my bottle with water, set my speedometer, and take off.

The first thing to remember when you ride a competitive bike is to lean forward as much as possible to be more aerodynamic—especially to keep your face forward and up. No matter what, you have to learn this pose. Until you’re used to it, holding in this position for over an hour—like a praying mantis with a raised head—is next to impossible. Very quickly your back and neck start to scream. When you get exhausted your head tends to drop and you look down, and once that happens all the dangers lurking out there strike.

When I was training for my first triathlon and rode nearly sixty-two miles at a stretch, I ran right into a metal post—one of those stakes set up to prevent cars and motorcycles from using the recreational lane along a river. I was tired, my mind elsewhere, and I neglected to keep my face forward. The front wheel of the bike got all bent out of shape, and I was flung head first to the ground. I suddenly found myself literally flying through the air. Fortunately, my helmet protected my head; otherwise I would have been badly injured. My arms were scraped pretty badly against the concrete, but I was lucky to get away with just that. I know a few other cyclists who’ve suffered injuries much worse.

Once you have a scary incident like that, you really take it to heart. In most cases learning something essential in life requires physical pain. Since that incident on the bike, no matter how tired I might be I always keep my head up and my eyes on the road ahead.

Naturally all this attention taxes my overworked muscles, but even in this August heat I’m not sweating. Actually, I probably am, but the strong headwind makes it evaporate. Instead, I’m thirsty. If I leave it too long I’ll get dehydrated, and if that happens my mind will get all blurry. I never go cycling without a water bottle. As I’m cycling along, I take the bottle from its rack, gulp down some water, and return it. I’ve trained myself to do this series of actions smoothly, automatically, always making sure to face forward.

When I first began I had no idea what I was doing, so I asked a person who knows a lot about bike racing to coach me. On holidays the two of us would load our bikes in a station wagon and set out for Oi Pier. Delivery trucks don’t come to the pier on holidays, and the wide road that goes past all the warehouses makes a fantastic cycling course. A lot of cyclists gather there. The two of us would decide how many circuits we’d make, in how long, and set off. He accompanied me on long-distance rides—the kind I got into an accident on—as well.

Cycling training alone is, truthfully, pretty tough. Long runs done to prepare for marathons are definitely lonely, but hanging on to the handlebars of a bike all by yourself and pedaling on and on is a much more solitary undertaking. It’s the same movements repeated over and over. You go up slopes, on level ground, and down slopes. Sometimes the wind’s with you, sometimes against you. You switch gears as needed, change your position, check your speed, pedal harder, let up a bit, check your speed, drink water, change gears, change your position…Sometimes it strikes me as an intricate form of torture. In his book the triathlete Dave Scott wrote that of all the sports man has invented, cycling has got to be the most unpleasant of all. I totally agree.

Still, in the few months before the triathlon, no matter how illogical it may be, this is what I must do. Desperately humming the riff from “18 Til I Die,” sometimes cursing the world, I push down on the pedals, pull up on them, forcing my legs to remember the right rhythm. A hot wind from the Pacific rushes past, grazing my cheeks and making them sting.

My time at Harvard was over at the end of June, which meant the end of my stay in Cambridge. (Farewell, Sam Adams draft beer! Good-bye, Dunkin’ Donuts!) I gathered all my luggage together and returned to Japan at the beginning of July. What were the main things I did while in Cambridge? Basically, I confess, I bought a ton of LPs. In the Boston area there are still a lot of high-quality used record stores. When I had the time I also checked out record stores in New York and Maine. Seventy percent of the records I bought were jazz, the rest classical, plus a few rock records. I’m a very (or perhaps I should say extremely) enthusiastic record collector. Shipping all these records back to Japan was no mean feat.

I’m not really sure how many records I have in my home right now. I’ve never counted them, and it’s too scary to try. Ever since I was fifteen I’ve bought a huge number of records, and gotten rid of a huge number. The turnover is so fast I can’t keep track of the total. They come, they go. But the total number of records is most definitely increasing. The number, though, is not the issue. If somebody asks me how many records I have, all I can say is, “Seems like I have a whole lot. But still not enough.” In Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, one of the characters, Tom Buchanan, a rich man who’s also a well-known polo player, says, “I’ve heard of making a garage out of a stable, but I’m the first man who ever made a stable out of a garage.” Not to brag, but I’m doing the same thing. Whenever I find a quality LP recording of a piece I have on CD, I don’t hesitate to sell the CD and buy the LP. And when I find a better-quality recording, something closer to the original, I don’t hesitate to trade in the old LP for a new one. It takes a lot of time to pursue this, not to mention a considerable investment of cash. Most people would, I am pretty sure, label me obsessed.

As planned, in November 2005 I ran the New York City Marathon. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day, the kind of wonderful day when you expect to see the late Mel Tormé appear out of nowhere, leaning against a grand piano as he croons out a verse from “Autumn in New York.” That morning, along with tens of thousands of other runners, I started the race at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on Staten Island; moved through Brooklyn, where the writer Mary Morris is always waiting to cheer me on; then, through Queens; through Harlem and the Bronx; and several hours and bridges later arrived at the finish line, near the Tavern on the Green in Central Park.

And how was my time? Truth be told, not so great. At least, not as good as I’d been secretly hoping for. If possible, I was hoping to be able to wind up this book with a powerful statement like, “Thanks to all the hard training I did, I was able to post a great time at the New York City Marathon. When I finished I was really moved,” and casually stroll off into the sunset with the theme song from Rocky blaring in the background. Until I actually ran the race I still clung to the hope that things would turn out that way, and was looking forward to this dramatic finale. That was my Plan A. A really great plan, I figured.

But in real life things don’t go so smoothly. At certain points in our lives, when we really need a clear-cut solution, the person who knocks at our door is, more likely than not, a messenger bearing bad news. It isn’t always the case, but from experience I’d say the gloomy reports far outnumber the others. The messenger touches his hand to his cap and looks apologetic, but that does nothing to improve the contents of the message. It isn’t the messenger’s fault. No good to blame him, no good to grab him by the collar and shake him. The messenger is just conscientiously doing the job his boss assigned him. And this boss? That would be none other than our old friend Reality.

Before the race I was in great shape, I thought, and well rested. The strange sensation I’d had on the inside of my knee had vanished. My legs, especially around my calves, still felt a bit tired, but it wasn’t something I needed to worry about (or so I thought). My training schedule had gone smoothly, better than for any other race before. So I had this hope (or moderate conviction) that I’d post the best time I’d run in recent years. All I needed to do now was cash in my chips.

At the start line I followed the pace leader with the 3 hours 45 minutes placard. I was sure I could definitely make that time. That might have been a mistake. Looking back on it, I should have followed the three-hour-and-fifty-five-minute pace leader, and picked up the pace later, and only if I was sure I could handle it. That sort of sensible approach was probably what I needed. But something else was pushing me on: You practiced as hard as you could in all that heat, didn’t you? If you can’t make this time, then what’s the point? You’re a man, aren’t you? Start acting like one! This voice whispered in my ear, just like the voices of the cunning cat and fox that tempted Pinocchio on his way to school. Up until not too long ago a time of three hours and forty-five minutes had been, for me, just business as usual.

Up to mile sixteen I was able to keep up with the pace leader, but after that it was impossible. It was hard to admit this to myself, but gradually my legs wouldn’t move, so my speed started to fall off. The 3 hours 50 minutes banner passed me by. This was the worst possible scenario. No matter what, I couldn’t let the four-hour pace leader pass me. After I crossed the Madison Avenue Bridge and started down the wide, straight path from Uptown to Central Park, I began to feel a little better and had a faint hope that I was getting back on track, but this was short lived, for right when I entered Central Park and was facing the infamous gradual slope, I started getting a cramp in my right calf. It wasn’t so awful that I had to stop, but the pain forced me to run at nearly a walking pace. The crowd around me kept urging me on, shouting, “Go! Go!,” and I wanted nothing more than to keep on running, but I couldn’t control my legs anymore.

So in the end I missed the four-hour mark by just a little. I did complete the run, after a fashion, which means I maintained my record of completing every marathon I’ve been in (a total of twenty-four now). I was able to do the bare minimum, but it was a frustrating result after all my hard training and meticulous planning. It felt like a remnant of a dark cloud had wormed its way into my stomach. No matter what, I couldn’t accept this. I’d trained so hard, so why did I get cramps? I’m not trying to argue that all effort is fairly rewarded, but if there is a God in heaven, was it asking too much to let me glimpse a sign? Was it too much to expect a little kindness?

About a half year later, in April 2006, I ran the Boston Marathon. As a rule I run only one marathon a year, but since the New York City Marathon left such a bad taste in my mouth I decided to give it another try. This time, though, I intentionally, and drastically, reduced the amount of training I did. Training hard for New York hadn’t helped much. Maybe I’d done too much training. This time I didn’t set a schedule, but instead just ran a bit more than usual every day, keeping my mind clear of abstruse thoughts, doing only what I felt like. I tried to have a casual attitude. It’s only a marathon, I told myself. I decided to just go with this and see what happened.

This was my seventh time running the Boston Marathon, so I knew the course well—how many slopes there were, what all the curves were like—not that this guaranteed I’d do a good job.

So, you’re asking, what was the result?

My time wasn’t much different from New York. Having learned my lesson there, I’d tried my best to keep things under control during the first half of the Boston race, maintaining my pace, holding some energy in reserve. I enjoyed running, watching the scenery go by, waiting for the point where I felt I could pick it up a notch. But that point never came. From mile twenty to mile twenty-two, the point where you pass Heartbreak Hill, I felt fine. No problem at all. My friends who were waiting at Heartbreak Hill to cheer me on later on said, “Haruki looks really good.” I ran up the hill smiling and waving. I was sure that at this rate I could pick up the pace and run a decent time. But after I passed Cleveland Circle and entered downtown Boston, my legs started to get heavy. Very quickly exhaustion overtook me. I didn’t get cramps, but in the last few miles of the race, after passing over Boston University Bridge, it was all I could do not to get left behind. Picking up the pace like I’d planned was impossible.

I was able to finish, of course. Under the partly cloudy sky I ran the full 26.2 miles without stopping and slipped past the finish line, which was set up in front of the Prudential Center. I wrapped myself in a silver thermal sheet to ward off the cold, and received a medal from one of the volunteers. A wave of relief washed over me—relief that I didn’t have to run anymore. It always feels wonderful to finish a marathon—it’s a beautiful achievement—but I wasn’t satisfied with the time. Usually I look forward to a cold Sam Adams draft beer after a race, but now I didn’t even feel like having one. Exhaustion had seeped into each and every organ.

“What in the world happened?” My wife, who had been waiting for me at the finish line, was baffled. “You’re still pretty strong, and I know you train enough.”

What indeed? I wondered, not having a clue. Maybe I’m simply getting older. Or perhaps the reason lies elsewhere, maybe something critical I’ve overlooked. At this point, anyway, any speculation has to remain just that: speculation. Like a small channel of water silently being sucked up into the desert.

There’s one thing, though, I can state with confidence: until the feeling that I’ve done a good job in a race returns, I’m going to keep running marathons, and not let it get me down. Even when I grow old and feeble, when people warn me it’s about time to throw in the towel, I won’t care. As long as my body allows, I’ll keep on running. Even if my time gets worse, I’ll keep on putting in as much effort—perhaps even more effort—toward my goal of finishing a marathon. I don’t care what others say—that’s just my nature, the way I am. Like scorpions sting, cicadas cling to trees, salmon swim upstream to where they were born, and wild ducks mate for life.

I may not hear the Rocky theme song, or see the sunset anywhere, but for me, and for this book, this may be a sort of conclusion. An understated, rainy-day-sneakers sort of conclusion. An anticlimax, if you will. Turn it into a screenplay, and the Hollywood producer would just glance at the last page and toss it back. But the long and the short of it is that this kind of conclusion fits who I am.

What I mean is, I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run—simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change.

I look up at the sky, wondering if I’ll catch a glimpse of kindness there, but I don’t. All I see are indifferent summer clouds drifting over the Pacific. And they have nothing to say to me. Clouds are always taciturn. I probably shouldn’t be looking up at them. What I should be looking at is inside of me. Like staring down into a deep well. Can I see kindness there? No, all I see is my own nature. My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centered nature that still doubts itself—that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation. I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I’m not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I’ve carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect.

So here I am training every day for the Murakami City Triathlon in Niigata Prefecture. In other words, I’m still lugging around that old suitcase, most likely headed toward another anticlimax. Toward a taciturn, unadorned maturity—or, to put it more modestly, toward an evolving dead end.

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