Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A very long post about running and the eighteenth century

In my mind almost everything harks back sooner or later to the eighteenth century, it is a hobby-horse of sorts; last week it was Uncle Toby and groin injuries, and last night I steeped myself in a muscle-softening bath of Epsom Salts and had reflections on Smollett. This is Matthew Bramble writing to Dr. Lewis about Bath, in one of my particularly favorite eighteenth-century novels:

Two days ago, I went into the King’s Bath, by the advice of our friend Ch----, in order to clear the strainer of the skin, for the benefit of a free perspiration; and the first object that saluted my eye, was a child full of scrophulous ulcers, carried in the arms of one of the guides, under the very noses of the bathers. I was so shocked at the sight, that I retired immediately with indignation and disgust—Suppose the matter of those ulcers, floating on the water, comes in contact with my skin, when the pores are all open, I would ask you what must be the consequence?—Good Heaven, the very thought makes my blood run cold! We know not what sores may be running into the water while we are bathing, and what sort of matter we may thus imbibe; the king’s evil, the scurvy, the cancer, and the pox; and, no doubt, the heat will render the virus the more volatile and penetrating…

After all, if the intention is no more than to wash the skin, I am convinced that simple element is more effectual than any water impregnated with salt and iron; which, being astringent, will certainly contract the pores, and leave a kind of crust upon the surface of the body. But I am now as much afraid of drinking, as of bathing; for, after a long conversation with the Doctor, about the construction of the pump and the cistern, it is very far from being clear with me, that the patients in the Pump-room don’t swallow the scourings of the bathers. I can’t help suspecting, that there is, or may be, some regurgitation from the bath into the cistern of the pump. In that case, what a delicate beveridge is every day quaffed by the drinkers; medicated with the sweat, and dirt, and dandriff; and the abominable discharges of various kinds, from twenty different diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below. In order to avoid this filthy composition, I had recourse to the spring that supplies the private baths on the Abbey-green; but I at once perceived something extraordinary in the taste and smell; and upon inquiry, I find that the Roman baths in this quarter, were found covered by an old burying ground, belonging to the Abbey; thro’ which, in all probability, the water drains in its passage: so that as we drink the decoction of living bodies at the Pump-room, we swallow the strainings of rotten bones and carcasses at the private bath—I vow to God, the very idea turns my stomach!

On an only obliquely related note, it seems to me that theories of nutrition and running must have been developed first for animals and only later for people: a few weeks ago my friend L. and I had a very good evening run around the full Central Park loop & found ourselves overtaken by a horse and carriage. I foolishly suggested that we might race it up the hill (it wasn’t going very fast, although of course seeing a carriage like that sort of lumbering up a hill makes you feel like you’re in a Dracula movie); L. sensibly observed that such creatures have been bred for millennia to run up hills with carriages and that we should do no such thing; I said that since we weren’t pulling carriages it might even things out; by that point we were at the top of the hill and we had overtaken it after all.

But it made me think about the way that in Tom Jones and such-like the ostlers at inns always cheat on giving the horses oats and then they lose steam halfway up a hill and the passengers in the coach don’t understand because they mistakenly believe the horses were given the oats that were paid for at the last stop; but you never see discussions in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century literature of a person losing energy in a similar way, though surely it happened all the time (descriptions of heroines like Lucy Snowe fainting are sometimes attributed to lack of food but more often to some kind of neurasthenic cause)…

On a more serious and rewarding note, I’ve snagged a great running-related guest post from a dear friend and former student of mine, Wei Keen Sung. Wei was one of the very first students I taught at Columbia (it was Literature Humanities, September 2000) and in the interim we have had many years of good conversation about various matters intellectual and otherwise; and now he is going to be my running mentor, because he just ran the New York Marathon and we share a devotion to the sport of running! Seriously, Wei’s marathon commitment has involved fundraising for Team For Kids, a very worthy organization (a branch of the NYRR) that provides fitness programs for 15,000 New York City schoolchildren who would otherwise lack access to physical education, and I thought it would be fun to post his narrative about the race here and to urge you to donate a few dollars—even five or ten dollars will add up, if a few people choose to give.

To contribute, go here and click on "Contribute," where you will need Wei’s entry number, 38554 (the foundation will inform him of all contributions made in his name).

Here is Wei’s story (the last two paragraphs are the best of all, make sure you scroll down and read them--also I make a brief cameo appearance at mile 23):

Dear Friends and Family,

Thank all of you all the support. I have successfully raised up to $2,100 dollars for the kids. Sorry for taking so long to send you the final update of the NYC marathon last week. This marathon was the toughest and most unforgettable experience I ever had. The result of this triumph was 10 minutes of hyperventilation and 20 minutes of severe muscle cramming. Despite the agonizing pain I experienced, I am really inclined to run more marathons. In my opinion, all marathoners were winners by completing the formidable physical challenge: 26.2 mile run.

I finished running the marathon at the 8:30 pace or in 3 hours and 44 minutes or 45 minutes slower than Lance Armstrong except that I didn't vomit. The NYC marathon was my second marathon and is by far the hardest run. The NYC marathon started from Staten Island to Brooklyn, to Queens, then to the Bronx, and ended up in Central Park for the distance of 26.2 miles. My team, Team for Kids, was the nation's largest marathon team with 1,000 members with the totally 37,000 runners.

Our team members met up on 51st. Street between 6th and 7th avenue to ride the academy buses to Staten Island. Because of the large quantity of people, each pace group stayed in a separate bus. I was on the 8:30 pace group bus. Team for kids buses were being escorted by a few police cars all the way to Staten Island. The bus ride was about an hour long. Every runner was wearing the green team for kids' singlet. Mario, Oscar, Jeff, Melanie, and I were planning to run as a group. Our strategy was to run 16 miles of commute/jogging pace, 4 miles of warm up pace, and 6.2 miles of race pace. We would keep track of our pace and speed for 16 miles before we'd separate for the race.

An hour passed by, we reached Staten Island. 52 degree & sunny. It was the perfect weather for the marathon. During the NYC marathon last year, I thought that I was in a French speaking country since I was surrounded by French people. This year was different. My previous alienated feeling dissipated. The marathon seemed very familiar to me, partly because it was my second marathon. Also, I was with the people I struggled over training for the marathon in the last 2 months. Simply put, we had spent time running, training hard, and partying. It was very comforting to have half a dozen people I knew running with me. Further more, 1 out of every 37 marathon runners would be a team for kids member.

At 10:10, it was the moment we waited for months. The gun went off and everyone started strolling forward. First we ran through the Verrizano bridge. It was a bit of an uphill, but it wasn't a challenge. We were constantly trying to slow speed down since it was still too early into the race. We talked and made jokes while running to ensure that we were at the jogging/commuting pace. The bridge seemed to be vibrating by thousands of runners' feet pounding on the ground. The first 5k of the marathon was much slower because of the traffic of people from the start line. As we were exiting the bridge and running on 86th street, a huge crowd of Brooklyn people cheered on 4th Avenue. Jeff claimed that he used to live Brooklyn so he knew many people there. "Come on Jeff. People were just calling out the name printed on you shirt" I said. As the race continued in Brooklyn, more and more people called "Jeff", but there wasn't a single person who called my name. Though puzzled, I then realized that people didn't call my name because they couldn't pronounce "Wei". Jeff is a generic name. Some people who managed to say my name called me "we" instead of Wei. So that was closed enough. Mostly, people screamed "Mario", "Marty, and "Jeff" out loud as we ran in Brooklyn. Suddenly, I heard "Wei" coming from Mario and Jeff. Well, I am really glad to be in the team. Our team remained slow and steady for 13 miles in Brooklyn. We stopped every 3-4 miles to quench our thirst for water and Gatorade. Marathon was a mind game. As much as we felt great on mile 13, we could fall apart in the following mile. We were still sticking with our game plan and ran 1 minute/mile slower than our race pace.

After mile 13, we passed Brooklyn's Greenpoint and entered my hometown- Queens. We ran passed Long Island City, the neighborhood of my high school. For some peculiar reasons, I started to hear people calling my name out. I looked back and saw some familiar faces but really couldn't make out whether or not I knew them. "Wei" I heard my name again. It was my friend Ivan who came to see me in the run. I waved my arm and continued to look strong and moved forward. That was incredible. I would think anybody would come to see me in the race. Then we arrived in Queensboro Bridge at mile 15, one of the hilliest parts of the race. The bridge consists of a half mile uphill. It was so challenging that some people walked through the first half of the bridge. I did walk the Queensboro Bridge in the last year's marathon. After the first half of the bridge, all runners started picking up speed downhill. Upon exiting the bridge to Manhattan, we heard a fanfare of cheering. There were hundreds of zealous fans cheering and screaming by the sides. We ran on 1st avenue from 59th street all the way 125th street to enter the Triboro Bridge. It was a very exciting moment. There were thousands and thousands of people cheering by the sides of the road. We started our warm up pace, 8:10 pace at mile 16. At this point, our team started to split up, leaving only Jeff and me running together. The vociferous spectators were frantic, screaming and cheering the runners every moment they could. There were more people calling out my name during the 30 minutes on the course than my last 2 hours of running. I felt so motivated that I was tempted to sprint the rest of the race and showed off my best performance. Thus, I did not notice that I was running faster than I should have. Fortunately, Jeff was my proponent for pacing; slowing me down every time I got excited by the crowd.

At mile 19, I was about to race the marathon after another mile of running. Mile 20 was what I trained one and a half month for. We ran all the way up to 125th Street and entered the Triboro Bridge to the Bronx. This part was one of the most physically challenging courses of the race. The bridge is elevated 35 degrees upward. The floor of the steel bridge did not give very good support to our feet since the floor was hollowed. Defeated by this heart-break hill, many runners preferred walking up the bridge. The runners' physical limit is usually the 18th or 19th mile. At this distance, every part of our bodies felt heavier. The exhausted runners were dragging their legs like a couple anchors. As a more experienced runner, I was able to overcome this obstacle and ran through the bridge to the Bronx with ease.

We had to run in the Bronx from mile 20 to mile 21. Mile 21 was the moment waited for a whole year, the marathon race has begun. I started picking up speed and completely left Jeff behind my sight. My goal was to sprint through the last 6.2 miles of the race. The run felt very good to me as I raced in 6:50 minutes/mile speed. My moment of glory was short-lived. After my record-breaking run, my legs started to feel stiff and heavy. I tapered off my pace to 8 minutes/mile as I entered Harlem, where most people were walking and struggling to finish the race. Between mile 22 to mile 24, the runners were running on the 5th avenue Street. This very last part of the race was the most challenging feat. I continued to slow my pace as every part of my muscles hurt. My thighs were crammed up, back stiffened, and joints ached; I was falling apart. Some one called out "Wei," and I saw Professor Jenny Davidson. I was glad she came to support my run when I most needed. Barely turn my head to look back, I slightly waved to her and returned to my run. At Mile 23, I were literally dragging my legs, moving one leg in front of another. Step by step, I hoped to get to the finish line. Cheering became much louder as I ran slower and slower. The crowd was usually a great source of motivation. But with my current fatigue condition, I would rather not respond to people in order to husband the every last bit of my energy. Hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, I tried to grab a drink of water and few slices of oranges at every water stop.

3 painful hours and 32 dreadful minutes into the race, I entered the very last course of the battle, with one mile left to the race. My legs felt like they were being stitched up by strings. If I ran any faster, I might break the strings and tear my legs apart. My vision became blurry, losing concentration gradually. Every step I made caused me a great deal of agonizing sharp pain. It was too late to give up now. I had worked too hard to stop running! I had to finish the race even if I were to become incapacitated afterward. I slowly regained some energy as I saw a sign stated "100 yards to go". Fuel by my excitement, I ignored the pain and dashed through the finish line. I did it. I finished the marathon in 3 hours and 44 minutes with one month of training. It was a miracle. My therapist was skeptical that I could run a marathon with my bad ankle.

Training for the marathon has changed my life forever. This greatest physical feat made me humbled. I have a great respect for running and all serious runners. Some zealous runners might say running is fun. But I don't consider running fun. Fun doesn't involve with intense pain. Watching a movie, taking a stroll in the park, or reading a book is considered fun. Running is a discipline one has to master. It takes hours and hours of tedious stepping movements. It is painful! There isn't a real runner who hasn't had some kind of pain that is directly resulted from running. In that case, running is painful and boring! However, many runners like myself find satisfaction in running. Through running, I've learned a great deal about myself. I know how and when to push my limit. I stay with a healthy diet in order to enhance my performance. Running keeps me motivated, energetic, and confident. I know that every time I feel down, running will help clear my head. Running a marathon is the ultimate way to satisfy my life and quench my thirst for challenge. The conclusion of this marathon is the next chapter of my venture. I will run more and more as long as I can.


  1. This reminds me so much of my last marathon, where I also was fine for the first half (though, running alone, I succumbed to the urge to run too fast), and then fell apart around mile 21. I wonder, though, if it inspires me to do another... Since I did one at 30 and one at 40, my plan has been to do my next at 50, when I really will be too old to worry about time, and M will be a big teenager and wants to do it with me, or so she said at the finish line of the last one. Hmm... Glad you are so excited about running: it is really one of the great pleasures of my existence (when not one of the great pains, though often both at once).

  2. It is fanstatic that you did a couple marathons. If you are really into it, you should do another one. I met a guy a couple months ago, 60 years old, and he runs one marathon every couple months. If you want to do run a marathon, do it now.