ONE OF THE DELIGHTS about distance running is that as a group runners tend to be better storytellers than other athletes. Only golfers are close to them. Their tales transcend the dullness of common jockdom stories of winning and losing by moving higher into the vagaries of human nature and the fragilities of the human body. During a 10 or 20 mile run, it is hard not to get a clear notion on either.
As proof--because I know the armchairs, barstools and other life-support systems of the sedentary are occupied by scoffers who can't abide runners much less runner-writers--I offer the polished prose of Dr. Roger Bannister, the first person to break the 4-minute mile, and the 1937 autobiography of Clarence H. DeMar, the seven-time winner of the Boston marathon and whose book was recently republished by The New England Press.
With those two forces behind him--the sport itself and a tradition of literary excellence-- James Shapiro would have had a hard time missing with his story of his cross-country run.
He didn't miss. Like the 3,026 miles he covered from a beach 40 miles north of San Francisco to Central Park in New York City, Shapiro goes far in bringing us close to the drama of his effort. He is as much a masterful travel writer--his senses alert to sudden surprises like the scent of hay bales in Nevada fields--as a near-tireless runner who ranged between 40 and 60 miles a day for more than 70 days.
Perhaps I should be more in awe of Shapiro's epic, but he is not much different in spirit and body from a number of others runners known as "the ultras." Some run in 100 mile ultramarathons on successive weekends, others compete in 24-hour races. A few years ago, many of them were marathoners. But now that 10-year-olds and grandpas and grandmas can go 26 miles in a breeze, the ultras feel compelled to take things a bit further.
They aren't mere distance runners. They are journey runners. In doing his "transcon," Shapiro trained by running 20 miles a day for eight weeks. That sounds like a large gulp of punishment but such regimens are common in the ranks of uncommon runners.
Like walking through a cemetery at night, "keep moving" is the message journey runners keep sending themselves. Crossing Nevada and Utah, and part of Wyoming, Shapiro had "a handler," a friend who drove along with fresh supplies of everything from socks and maps to water and encouragement. The moving was easier with a handler, but for most of the trip it was only Shapiro and the truckers--whom he found "unimpeachable in their road etiquette." Or Shapiro and the roadside trash--he found thousands of discarded Pampers, shoes, combs, shirts, porno books and a continental littering of wheel- crushed rabbits. Or Shapiro and the roadside eateries which, if his stomach wasn't as iron-like as his legs, would have flattened him sooner than the hills.
Of the food, he writes: "It was a hard thing, crossing America, never finding anyone who respected a potato. I say that with utmost seriousness. I was willing to settle for simple food, but it was hard to feel nourished on frozen, tasteless, deep-fried blah. Few owners or cooks could be bothered to do what I call honest food."
In his lightweight backpack, Shapiro kept a pad and pen. Jotting on the run, he kept an eye on the passing nonsense as much as on the mile signs: "Many people voiced a fear that by doing this run I was exposing myself to some sinister, not-easily-defined menace. No one would question my running ten miles in my own (New York) neighborhood, yet ten miles in a state like Nebraska, which for an East Coast person represents some impossibly foreign region, was where 'they' might get me. . . . Of course, people in Nebraska wondered how I would fare in Ohio, say. For everyone, 'out there' is simply not here. We are so tribal in our instincts. We cannot help but change into 'us' and 'them.' "
Shapiro, 36, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil, brought charm to his writing by going not only a long distance himself but by keeping a healthy distance from himself. I am ever refreshed by non-maniac runners who can keep their sport in perspective, who remember that at best it is only play. "I am reminded again," Shapiro writes someplace out West, "of how massive a self-indulgence I am launched on, devoting myself to something unnecessary. Other people are lucky to earn enough to eat. But there is no reason not to do something just because others cannot. It's impossible to judge the value of the run. It matters to me to do it. That's the only fixed point I have. All the same, I think of my grandfather who sold pencils and candy on the streets of New York as an immigrant child. What would he say if he could see his grandson running over the desert?"
I can guess: stop thinking of your relatives and run already.