Running on Tilt
Ramping up the mileage, unholy odor, Tehching Hsieh
World class marathoners train about 120 miles per week. That’s twenty miles a day, if they give themselves a day off for recovery. So for them, a marathon isn’t much longer than a normal day’s routine. There are exceptions, of course. Paul Tergat, the 39 year old Kenyan legend who recently won the Lake Biwa Marathon in Japan, has trained upwards of 200 miles a week. So a marathon distance is a bit less than what he might run on an average day.
My first taste of absurd mileage came before my senior year in high school, at a weeklong pre-season running camp. There were about 60 runners at running camp, and we were led by a half dozen coaches, including the coach from my school and a coach from a rival school called Fairport. The Fairport coach had the one trait that my teammates and I couldn’t stand—and that most teenagers for that matter despise—he was uptight. Extremely so. His favorite expression was “intestinal fortitude” and he saw in the world boys who had it and those who didn’t. The Fairport runners had to live with this guy, so they adapted to his lessons, a few of them probably believing his every word and thinking him a sort of Vince Lombardi. We just saw him as ridiculous, and to boot, among the coaches, he was the least capable of running himself, though it didn’t prevent him from strutting around as if he had far more intestinal fortitude than any of the other coaches and certainly any of the boys.
The daily routine at the camp was a five-mile run in the morning followed by a 10-mile run in the afternoon, for a six-day total of 90 miles. The camp was located near Alfred, New York and most of the runs took place on little-used country roads. It was a bucolic late summer setting.
We brought our own tents, which we set up in an open field apart from the coach’s quarters in a nearby lodge. I shared a four-person tent the three of my teammates who had also been invited to the camp. Each morning a 6’6’’ mustachioed coach, whom we called Daddy Long Legs, would blow his whistle and rattle our tent to wake us up. The rest of the day would go something like this: eat oatmeal for breakfast; run five miles; eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch; pass out in the tent; wake up and run 10 miles; eat spaghetti for dinner; and fall asleep in the tent.
There were other things going on: A rival team set up a volleyball net, and in the early afternoon they would bump, set, and spike to the sound of REM’s “Losing My Religion” on a boom-box. We were too tired—and it was too hot in the afternoon sun—to join them. There were a handful of forgettable post-dinner lectures. I had some books with me that I had planned on reading, but my eyes would glaze over every time I tried. Whatever romance was percolating at the camp—there were 10 girls there—was nowhere near us.
Among the things I don’t remember doing that week is taking a shower. Nor did the three teammates I shared a tent with. The shower facility was located in the coaches’ quarters, and invading their space would have been weird. In fact, I believe the coaches vaguely discouraged it. It was fine, though—showering just wasn’t a high priority back then, even though we completed twelve distinct runs of five and ten miles in the sweltering heat and humidity. That’s many layers of dried sweat not to lather off one’s body. Given how bad a runner smells after a single run, that tent must have boasted an unholy odor.
On the third day of camp, about forty-five minutes into the afternoon’s 10-miler, I was passed by a group of Fairport runners, including the best high school runner in the Section at that time, a guy named Nate Ruder. I was wearing a white tee-shirt with blue lettering for an organization called Chemically Free Athletes, or CFA. Members of CFA pledged not to drink or use drugs during the season, and on the back of the tee-shirt was the all-too-earnest tagline “And Feeling Good.” Ruder asked as he and his teammates passed: “Feeling good?” Obviously I wasn’t—my shirt was soaked through with sweat and I was shuffling along at a considerably reduced pace. I don’t think Nate meant it maliciously, but the comment earned snickers from his teammates, all of whom were blessed no doubt, or at least so they thought, with intestinal fortitude.
It wasn’t the worst of the tee-shirts. A year earlier our intrepid if misguided captain insisted that our cross-country team tee-shirt say “real men do it” across the chest. The lettering was small, as if it were ashamed of itself or of our puny chests, but it was still legible to all of our classmates as we wore those tee-shirts, in a gesture of team unity, on days that we had a meet. The girls were not impressed.
The following year, my friend George and I were captains, and we had tee-shirts made with the slogan “You can run, but you cannot hide,” which may not have scared anybody, but at least it wasn’t so embarrassing.
That 90-mile week was an outlier—our high school coach had us running 30-40 miles a week during the season. I ran about 50 miles a week during cross-country in college, and logged a few 60 mile weeks when training for the New York City marathon in 2006. After a twenty mile run today, I’m on the verge of cracking the 60 barrier for this week. I hope to string together six weeks of 60+ miles before tapering for the race.
This type of mileage—marathon training, and the race itself may seem more than anything a physical challenge, but it is not. At the Guggenheim now is an exhibit of artifacts from Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh’s one-year performance, from April 11, 1980 to April 11, 1981 titled “Time Clock Piece.” Every hour on the hour Hsieh punched a card into a time clock and was photographed with the punched card at his second floor apartment on 111 Hudson Street. That’s twenty-four hours a day. This required him to be awake at every hour on the hour, certainly a physical challenge. In the photos he stands in the same place, wearing the same industrial outfit. The only thing that changes is his hair. Each of the time cards is signed by him and by a witness. The video of all the pictures strung together, and the artifacts of the timecards and his outfit, are grim. I left with thoughts of incarceration and the worst of office life. I was also reminded of running.
Hsieh’s ritualistic punching the time clock shares something with the practice of running and of runners documenting their mileage. Hsieh made a physical commitment for a set period of time, as a worker bee does to retain a job in a cubie, or as a marathoner does when he or she takes on a course of training. He signed each time card, and the machine’s stamp of each hour confirms that he existed there and at that time. I recorded in my running log that I ran twenty miles today. It is evidence of my existence, as are my certificates for finishing the New York City Marathons in 2002 and 2006. Hsieh’s performance, confirming his existence, is documented in the Guggenheim. Mine was documented, along with thirty thousand other runners, in tiny type in the New York Times.
Beyond the existence-affirming documentation for both Hsieh’s performance art and for marathoners, and more essential even than the physical training, is the psychic training. It is not fun to leave the comfort of one’s home to jog in freezing weather. It is not fun to wake up at 6am to schlep to a race in Central Park or the Bronx—in fact, it feels a bit crazy. It is far easier to watch television or to sleep in. But completing a run is always satisfying. It is having done something. Perhaps Hsieh was afforded satisfaction knowing that each time he punched that timeclock he knew he was closer to completing his work of performance art.