So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen

Jimmy Robert

Jimmy Robert. Feel Nothing, 2005, archival inkjet print. Courtesy of Stighter Van Doesburg, Amsterdam.

Efficiency is a battle waged against time. The runner’s only enemy is time, and his only tactic against time is perpetual onward movement. The legendary nineteenth-century pedestrian, Mensen Ernst, who reportedly ran 5,000 miles from Constantinople to Calcutta (and back) offered: “To move is to live, to stand still is to die.” Faithful to his mantra, during a run from Cairo to Capetown, he propped himself against a palm tree, put a handkerchief over his eyes, and was found dead the next day.

A confession: I can’t stop watching videos of marathon runners expiring at the finish line. I can watch athletes expiring in other endurance events too—cross-country skiing, channel swims, the Tour de France—but their goggles and specialized gear obscure the face and body, providing a measure of privacy against the camera’s eye.

Runners don’t have this luxury. Their faces are open to the cameras and sadly imploring, even as their bodies pummel on. They seem to me the picture of productivity at maximum capacity.

So marathoners keep moving. We can’t imagine how they are still running at such a furious pace, but there they are. They run faster than I can pedal comfortably on my bike. And then when they cross the finish line everything falls apart. Legs that had been pumping as fast as pistons are suddenly as wobbly as noodles. A Kenyan marathoner runs feverishly up to the finish line and immediately upon crossing, a spurt of white fluid flies out of his mouth. What is that? Milk? The comments section offers no explanation. Spent, the marathoner staggers and falls to his knees, the white fluid dribbling down the front of his jersey. A volunteer hands him a towel, which he mindlessly throws aside. I click back in the clip. I am looking at a person running with such a look of determination, then seeing that person’s mask stripped off! You can almost isolate the precise moment when the transformation occurs, the moment when he acknowledges that he has fulfilled his goal and finally lets go.

Meanwhile, an aged father pushes his palsied son in a wheelchair toward the Ironman finish line. They have done it. To get here, the father pulled his son along in a raft for the open-water section, and pedaled for miles with his son in a side carriage specially soldered to his racing bike—the two of them race attached to one another like conjoined twins. Now, the father, hunched over, his elbows resting on his son’s wheelchair, runs through the gauntlet of a million blinding flashes, while his son smiles the smile of a million smiles, throwing his head from side to side. The hairs on the father’s tan, wrinkled chest are as white as champagne foam.

I suppose I am trying to teach myself something about devotion. One can (and plenty of people do) endure years of training and monotony and hardship and unhappiness for the fulfillment of this one, deeply meaningful goal, if that is where meaning lies.

Isn’t sport more or less an antidote to dying? Sport is on one end of the spectrum: the voluntary attempt to expend effort for no other reason than for its own sake. Suicide is on the other end: the refusal to exert energy for any reason.

There’s a cocktail meet and greet going on in the hotel ballroom. I find myself drifting over to the television in the lobby, mutely watching. Why did they schedule an academic conference on sports in conflict with the Olympics? Was it meant to provide a nice ambient backdrop to these otherwise meaningless proceedings?

What I am doing right now: purposefully eating cubes of cheese and supermarket cookies with a determined expression on my face. Two men standing nearby discuss the recent suicide of the German goalkeeper, Robert Enke. One asks the other: Don’t you think the psychological burden of being a professional goalie is too much to ask a person to bear? The other shrugs: Well, some goalies bear it very well.

There is a theory floating around in our field that sport is nothing more than a ritual sacrifice of energy, a flesh offering to the gods. Because our hunting and gathering ancestors had been so used to expending energy during the chase, when the chase went away, they sought to expend energy in another way, as a show of devotion. Whoever squanders the most tried the hardest, and therefore deserves to eat.

After networking, with the numbers written inside my palm as a reminder of my task, I escape to my room and turn on the television. Then I go back downstairs to buy wine.

Sunday. I want very badly to stay another night at the hotel just so I can keep watching the Olympics. Outside: the pale, salt-bleached streets. I don’t know what I’m supposed to want out there—a taxi?

I take a taxi, an airplane, a train, another train, then walk .21 miles back to my apartment. It’s exhausting to have to ferry around a body, a suitcase, and a head.

The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence Race is 3,100 miles long but the whole thing is run on a .5488 mile block in Queens. Runners must run the equivalent of two marathons a day for two months straight around this single city block. Unlike most marathons where you have the satisfaction of going from point A to point B, this course can crush the uninitiated with boredom. Sights are isolated to a chain-link fence, a high school, a few scraggly urban trees, parked cars, and a reflective green freeway sign for the Queens Utopia Parkway. The race is less a sporting event than a radical spiritual exercise. “The mind says it’s stupid to go around and around,” a Sri Chinmoy disciple explains. “But it’s not stupid on a higher plane.” I try to remember this.

“I was so looking forward to the end. Dying, dying, dying. Then on the last lap—it all fell away… There was no goal. It didn’t exist. I realized that my mind had been playing this trick. It was just another lap, same as all the other laps.”

The reincarnation metaphor is not lost on the runners of the Badwater Ultramarathon, the “toughest footrace in the world.” The 135-mile race is held in Death Valley, Nevada, an arid salt pan in the hottest and driest place in North America. It is so hot that only a certain kind of snail can live there. On a normal day, the heat radiating off of the asphalt road can exceed 186 degrees, but if you run along the road’s white lines the heat is a more tolerable 168 degrees. Runners teeter along these markings as though afraid to fall off into a chasm of molten rock.

There is a lot of information about training for the Badwater Marathon on record holder Deena Kastor’s blog. I just briefly entertained the idea that I might one day run this marathon. But even Deena is not quite willing. She is only part of the crew assisting her friend. According to her, the only way to survive is to spend a lot of time doing “vigorous sauna-training.” Then there are other challenges: heat, hills, hot wind, cramps, sunburn, blood, puking, crying, chafing, blisters, loss of both big toenails. In summary, “People out there look as close to death as I have ever seen.”

The marathoner’s face coming down the final stretch of road. Sometimes riding the subway I’ll see faces looking similarly beleaguered. I wonder how many more days, or years, or decades this person’s marathon will go on for.

Oh, here is a runner who refused to think metaphorically: During the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Japanese marathonist Shizo Kanakuri became so overheated he began lapsing in and out of consciousness. As he staggered on, he suddenly noticed an inviting garden party just off the road. He stopped to ask them for a glass of orange juice, but enjoyed himself so much that he inadvertently spent an entire hour. Knowing there was no point in trying to finish, he simply took a train back to Stockholm and got on a boat back to Japan. He didn’t tell anyone. Race officials assumed he had died. Then, in 1966, a Swedish newspaper discovered he was still alive and invited him to return to Sweden to finish his race. Kanakuri’s official time at the finish: 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes, 20.379 seconds. “It was a long trip,” he laughed. “Along the way, I got married, had 6 children and 16 grandchildren.”

That is a rare story, and I think it ends happily enough. See? Kanakuri quit the race and nothing bad happened.

Take the example of another Japanese runner, Kokichi Tsuburaya, who was favored to win the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Having been told from a young age that one should never look back but only forward, he ran the last length in the stadium oblivious that another runner was about to overtake him. After the last-minute surge, Tsuburaya was unable to respond, so he ended up with the bronze instead of the silver. A few years later, while staying in a training dormitory for the Mexico City games, he committed suicide, holding his bronze medal in his hand. His note read: “Cannot run anymore.”

Every few minutes I have to restrain the urge to call Paul. But now that I can no longer speak to him, every new piece of information that drifts through my landscape is a message I could potentially forward to him. Hi, Paul, How are you? Fitzgerald writes in The Crack Up that any intelligent person ought to have the ability to grasp two opposing ideas at once. Everything is hopeless, and we just have to keep going. Not that it helps, but we just have to keep going.

Ironman champion Paula Newby-Fraser is finally “hitting the wall.” She has swum 2.4 miles and biked 112 miles and run almost an entire marathon. She is in the lead but dehydrated, and in her delirium she has begun rummaging through the trash bins along the road. Then she sits down and takes off her shoes and socks. As she sprawls out on the asphalt, the spectators continue, idiotically, to cheer. “Come on! You can do it!” She yells back, “I think I’m going to die. I’m about to die.” She rolls around on the ground, moaning into the black space behind her eyes. The spectators dump buckets of water on her and squeeze water bottles on her head as though she were a beached, emaciated whale.

Except I really can’t help not calling someone. So I call Louis. “I’m sorry,” I say tentatively. “I just feel so bad…” Right away I feel Louis tense up. “Oh my god I’m crying now. I’m so sorry.” “It’s not your fault,” he says quickly. “It’s not my fault.” I repeated. “Don’t feel guilty.” “I won’t feel guilty.” “No, you don’t feel guilty,” I said to him. “No, I won’t feel guilty,” he said back. I hear traffic whizzing by, like he was in a tunnel or along a shoulder of the highway. I am touched that he might have pulled over for my sake. “Did you know he was in pain? Did it make sense to you?” I ask over and over.

Do you know why cross-country skiiers always look like they’re slipping on banana peels at the finish line? Why they tend to cross the line and immediately fling themselves face first into the snow? It’s because for the duration of the race, their muscles have been “swimming” in lactic acid. Accumulation of lactic acid is the feeling we get in our thighs after climbing three or four flights of stairs. In psychology experiments that test the mental toughness of athletes versus non-athletes, scientists will actually burn the test subject with a hot laser. This is meant to stimulate the feeling of “burning muscles.” The athletes win the pain test every time. Take this as a dyad: there are those who can endure pain and those who cannot. Those in the first category are sanguine and indestructible, like Apolo Ohno, who jumps up and down multiple flights of stairs on one leg while crouched in a speed skating position. Those in the latter category lose something, say, a grant, a job, self-respect, a set of keys, a friend, and must remain lying in a prone position for many hours.

It’s not easy to find footage of marathoners quitting. But here’s one, if you’re curious:

During the 2004 Athens Olympics, Paula Radcliffe gave up in the middle of the race. This was broadcast live on national television. She was running her signature lopsided, bobblehead run. But the commentators noted that her pace seemed to be slowing, that she looked to be in pain. She looked back once, twice, then she put her hands on her knees. Even behind her shades it’s clear she’s crying. She limps slowly toward a bush on the traffic median, waving the cameras away.

I go online to order Radcliffe’s autobiography, curious about what happened to her in Athens. It turns out that in the months leading up to the Olympics, she had suffered one injury after another. She also suffered from gastritis. She had lost a lot of weight. But she had gotten so used to ignoring danger signs that she even managed to convince her coach, husband, and whole team that she was totally fine. Her team watched her quit on the big screen in the stadium. They had no idea.

The public would not forgive Paula until the following year, when she redeemed herself by winning the London Marathon. To win, she had had to crouch on the side of the road to relieve herself—fecally—in front of all the cameras, because she couldn’t afford to lose her lead by using a portable toilet.

Where does this contempt for quitters come from? I suppose that every young athlete must learn the golden rule of sport: Never quit. But why?

Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens: “The cheat and the hypocrite have always had an easier time of it than the spoilsports.” I wonder. Perhaps it’s that when someone quits, the illusion of order breaks down. Paul Valéry: “Skepticism is impossible when the rules of a game are concerned, for the principle underlying them is an unshakable truth.” When the rules are violated, the magic circle shatters. People blink open their eyes, fall out of enchantment, become “dis-illusioned” (illusion comes from Latin illudere, which means “to play a joke” on someone).

I think of the runner who stops just short of the finish line and walks off the course, like the juvenile delinquent in Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” Forced to run, he exacts revenge in the only way he can—by refusing to finish.

Perhaps some illusion has already shattered for me. What is a stadium after everyone has gone? The hollow clanging of brooms hitting against the bleachers, the swish of empty cups being tossed into the trash. The tarps have all been pulled and the cleaning crew have turned off their radios and gone home. This feeling of leaves scurrying across an empty parking lot, first this way, then that, with nowhere to end up.

What is fear? When I ask for the non-scientific explanation, the doctor grinds his fists together to symbolize gears in the brain. People with a lot of anxiety have their fear gear in overdrive. The fear triggers the brain to produce hormones like adrenaline that cause your heart to pound and sweat glands to activate. When there is no evident threat, the anxious brain scrambles to locate other triggers. In this video tutorial that I am watching now, an intelligent young woman is experiencing a panic attack while a well-groomed, sympathetic young man is sitting there next to her with one reassuring hand on her back, telling her that it’s okay, that there’s nothing to fear. The intelligent young woman is sitting there on the couch breathing into a paper bag like she is on an airplane about to pass out. If you’ve ever wanted to know how to get someone out of a panic attack, there are many video tutorials to show you how, and it looks as easy as learning how to install a rear wheel on your bicycle, or how to get rid of bathroom mold.

When I get home, I drink some wine and take the pills the doctor warned me never to take with alcohol. I sit down at my computer and begin searching. Why are there no videos of athletes giving up? Of matadors throwing their hands up and walking away from the bulls they have to kill? Oh well! Can’t do it anymore! Do these videos not exist because we can relate all too well with giving up? I take another half of a pill, not feeling any of the effects I am hoping for. “Displays of will” leads me to a slew of horrifying and gruesome videos of athletes getting seriously injured. I type “bone” and “breaking” into YouTube. Among the results, I see a thumbnail of a football player on the field, raising his lower leg. The shin looks boomerangish, a 90-degree angle protruding from a black tube sock. I click on the video. There is dramatic music playing from the Gladiator soundtrack. A football player rushes down the field to catch a pass. I pause the video. I click forward a few seconds. The player is on the ground. Medical personnel have surrounded him, handling his shin like a baby. I watch the video a few times this way, in stills. I drink more wine and take another half of a pill. The next video is of two hockey enforcers who have punched each other so hard that one enforcer’s cheek is sagging off his face, like melted wax. The cheek bone has been pulverized. I let the image recede and come forward, like a Magic Eye. If you detach yourself slightly, this sagging face looks like a piece of broken machinery, like a car with a caved-in fender. I click on another. Here a BMX biker falls on his head, his neck snapping at the spine. I drink some more, and wonder why there are so many of these injury videos online. Without exception, the more gruesome the video, the more times it has been watched. I click on a video that is a compilation of the ten most brutal knockouts ever, slowed down to a maelstrom of sweat and flying teeth. I click on a video of a speed skating crash, calves and thighs sliced open by a windmill of skating blades. I click on a video of a hockey goalie clutching his throat, a spurting fountain. I click back and watch the teammate collide into his throat, skates first. I click on a video of a ski jumper falling hundreds of feet from the air, skidding into a dead silent crowd. I click on the video of Monica Seles getting stabbed in the back by a deranged fan. I click on the video of Greg Louganis slamming his head into the diving board. I click on a video of a basketball player tearing his ACL. Then breaking his back. Then a knee out of socket. I watch a soccer player crumple to the ground, legs askew. I watch a strange video of a Saudi soccer player in the last throes of death, doing back flips, as if overjoyed.

Anelise Chen’s novel, So Many Olympic Exertions, from which the above is excerpted, is forthcoming from Kaya Press in Spring 2017. A former Open City fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, she is currently fiction editor of AAWW’s online publication The Margins.

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