Tuesday, August 04, 2015

A Long Walk

Still feeling good at this point!
I guess Greg felt guilty, which is why he’d come all the way from Colorado to “crew” me. After all it was he who’d gotten me into this mess in the first place.

Greg is Greg Salvesen, a 28-year-old graduate student in astronomy at the University of Colorado and an elite ultra marathoner. In June 2014, Greg won a 200-mile trail race in Vermont in 61 hours, 46 minutes.

Then he read my book. 

“Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport” is my non-bestseller about a long-distance walking craze in the 19th century. Huge crowds filled arenas like the first Madison Square Garden to watch men and women walk on dirt tracks in races that lasted as long as six days. The winner often covered more than 500 miles. 

Greg sent me an email telling me he’d enjoyed the book and enquiring, almost innocuously, whether I’d ever competed in a long-distance event.

I answered no.

Greg suggested I give one a try, just “for the ‘fun’ of it” and to “get a flavor of just how amazing these pedestrians were.” Specifically he suggested the 24-hour race at Three Days at the Fair, an ultra event held every May at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in northern New Jersey.

I proffered that, while I’d run cross country in high school three decades earlier, I’d never competed in anything more strenuous than a 5K since then. I was 49, not in the best shape in the world, extremely busy, and…

Greg was persistent. “Please don't take this the wrong way or as a challenge,” he emailed. “I just wish to suggest that, in this case, I think experiencing the difficulties that come with traveling a long distance on foot can far outweigh imagining what these pedestrians were going through.”

He was right. Besides, it only seemed fair that I subject myself to a taste of the rigors of old time pedestrians. 

I agreed to give it a try, though I pledged to walk “fair heel and toe,” just like the pedestrians of yore. No running for me! My goal would be 50 miles—about half the distance an elite nineteenth-century walker could cover in a day. 

To my surprise, Greg even offered to crew me. It was like Joe Torre offering to manage a Little League team. A very bad Little League team.

In the meantime, I had to get in shape. I began jogging for the first time in years. In March I ran a 5K. My time was a less-than-blistering 35 minutes, and afterwards I was spent.

It was with great trepidation that I drove up to Jersey from my home in Washington for the event in late May.

Three Days at the Fair is, well, a three-day affair that encompasses 72-, 48-, and 24-hour races. The 72 began on Thursday, the 48 on Friday, and the 24 on Saturday. So when I started my race at 9 a.m., there were competitors already on the mile-long course who’d been at it for two days. Some of them did not look well. It made me fear for my future.

For the first 20 miles or so, however, I felt fresh as a daisy. Greg was stationed in a lawn chair near the quarter-mile mark, and each time I passed him he offered me bananas, or peanut butter sandwiches, or salt pills. Mostly, though, his support was moral: his encouragement was constant. 

For a while I felt like a pitcher with a no-hitter in the sixth inning. I felt like I could walk forever. 

Then I jinxed it by telling Greg that.  

Around Mile 25, my body began to rebel. My gluteus were sore. My calves were sunburned. It started to rain. I suggested to Greg that it might be worthwhile for me to go back to my hotel room, take a nice hot shower, change into nice dry clothes, and resume the race bright eyed and bushy tailed.

“No,” he said, “I think it’s better to stay on the course.” His tone implied that I had no choice in the matter. I stayed.

My shoes were squishy. Blisters began to form on the bottom of my feet. My stride, once spry, grew lumbering. In the 30s, my mind began to wander. I’d suddenly find myself a half-mile along with no memory of getting there.

By now it was evening. To keep my spirits up, Greg would occasionally walk with me for a lap. There was a rodeo at the fairgrounds that night. Greg asked me if I’d ever been to one. I told him I hadn’t. In my stupor I’d walked right into his trap: “So,” he said, “this is your first rodeo.”

A plane dipped low overhead and dropped two skydivers into the fairgrounds. The grandstands erupted in cheers. Things were starting to feel a little surreal. 

Around 11 o’clock that night, when I finished Mile 40, Greg finally went to sleep in the back of his van, leaving me to reach my goal alone. I wished I could go to sleep, too. The rain returned. The time it took me to complete each mile grew longer and longer: 22 minutes, 25 minutes, 28 minutes… 

Around three a.m. I completed my 50th mile. I added a 51st, a tribute to Greg, Then I slumped into Greg’s lawn chair. I intended to continue walking after a short break, but instead fell sound asleep. 

When I awoke a few hours later I could barely move. I struggled to climb the small hill up to Greg’s van. I tapped on the window but he didn’t rouse. I didn’t have the heart to wake him up, so I went back to my hotel.

A week later, Greg won an 888-km (551-mile) race in Vermont, finishing in just under nine days.

I, meanwhile, was back home, content to resume my sedentary life, but grateful for having experienced just a small taste of the pedestrian life.