Usain Bolt, Marcel Proust and the Race Across America

There is more than one thing that Usain Bolt and I don’t have in common, but around about the time that he was false-starting at the World Championships on Saturday, James Adams was crossing the finish-line on Day 70 of the Race Across America. Many of us have followed every day of James’s race, but, blame it on the Portuguese sun if you like, I’ve been slower off the mark than I should have been in filing this post.

I think James knew in his soul what to expect when, almost without noticing, he crossed the finish line in New York. He had been warned of the ‘two-week funk’ that has already set in as he tries to digest what he has done. And there is no way the significance of 3,000 miles of running – 800 hours in all – can be replicated in a single moment. As for the rest of us, we are just in complete awe.

But, as normal life resumes – you can’t disappear from your day job for 70 days straight too often – then the story of this adventure will solidify and the narrative will take its natural course. In quiet moments he’ll be able to trace his finger over the map of the US down in the basement of the Serpentine Running Club and say ‘I did that’. As for Bolt, all he can do now is wait for the next race.

Marcel Proust would seem like an unlikely voice to turn to for clarity on the internalisation of this experience. However, the man who spent almost a lifetime behind thick purple curtains in the middle of Paris said that the greatest stories were those he imagined taking place as he sat in the train following the familiar station names on the map day-dreaming his way into the lives of strangers he was running his fingers over. Entire worlds were created in the blink of an eye, profound memories drawn up from the water of history with a single place-name. Carthage (Day 39) or West Orange (Day 70) in James’s case, Combray and Cabourg in Proust’s.

Ode to solitude

Mrs H insisted that before the summer was out, and before I started at Aurum Press we took a family holiday, even if only for a week. This is out first holiday since we were in Devon nine months ago, but the family routine is now firmly established. What this has meant is that there is far less time to head off on a whim for a couple of hours, although I did manage 14 miles last Saturday. But with one eye on the boy, I have at least managed to read one book so far, Teju Cole‘s magnificent ode to solitude and night walking, Open City. It’s always a pleasure to read about the pouring rain in Brussels in 30 degree heat. It reminded me of the intensely pleasurable depression I felt watching Extension de Domaine de la Lutte (translated as ‘Whatever‘ for the book by Michel Houllebecq) on our wedding anniversary in June. It is the kind of book you underline passages from that correspond to exact emotions you have felt without having been able to put them into words.

No household is complete without the latest edition

One of the pleasures of these kind of holiday places is rifling through the communal bookshelves and seeing what the people who came before brought with them. Along with the obligatory battered copies of Martina Cole (no relation to Teju) and Steig Larsson in Portuguese was my favourite ‘Book of Successful Fireplaces: How to Build, Decorate and Use Them’. The 19th edition no less, by R. J. Lytle and Marie-Jeanne Lytle. And tucked away behind the massive Jean Auel was a heavily thumbed and annotated ‘London: Street by Street’. While the boy has had his afternoon nap, I have made a cup of tea and leafed through the pages imagining someone here, not long ago, taking this book on holiday to re-ignite the memories of a journey taken through these streets, the thought only broken off to take a young child paddling or pull a beer from the fridge. Which reminds me…

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About Robin Harvie

I have been running marathons for ten years. But when I couldn't around faster than 3 hours 12 minutes, I decided to see how far I could run before I keeled over. Turns out pretty far. In September 2009 I took on the Spartathlon - 152 miles from Athens to Sparta. Non stop. Why We Run is about that journey and about why we run at all.
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One Response to Usain Bolt, Marcel Proust and the Race Across America

  1. badgerdaddy says:

    James’s achievement is amazing. Sounds like a really, really well organised race too. You’re dead right though – I remember thinking, after months of training then completing (just about kind of) a race, only to think ‘What now?’ the second I crossed the line. And that was just a shitty marathon.

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