Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
Birthday
December 31
Bio
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at robertisenberg.net.

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MAY 10, 2012 7:51PM

On Running a Half-Marathon and Finishing "Ulysses"

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 Marathon

My Mom and me, just past the finish line. Photo credit Richard Isenberg.

The year 2012 has already been a landmark year for Doing Stuff I Always Hoped To Do—starting with January 1, when I jumped in the frigid Monongahela with the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Club. Followed by the Frigid Five race. Followed by eating alligator and hanging out with Hare Krishnas. And so on.

            But two of the biggest feats happened in the same week: I ran a half-marathon, and I finished reading the novel Ulysses by James Joyce. I purchased my copy of Ulysses in 1997 from the Vermont Book Shop, with the intention of reading all its 778 pages. Since then, I have attempted to the book at least a dozen times (no exaggeration), and have never passed page 150. And even when I reached page 150, and I hadn’t the vaguest fucking clue what was happening or even who the principal characters were.

            As for running 13.1 miles, I never even bothered to dream. When I started jogging last summer, I had never run farther than a single mile—back in sixth grade, when I had to.

            I found two separate solutions to these challenges: (1) Listen to Ulysses on audiobook, as interpreted by a Joyce scholar and performer, and (2) run the half-marathon with my Mom, who, at age 58, runs at the same pace that I do.

            Because I completed months of toil all at once, I can’t help but pair these two pursuits, and I’ve noticed some similarities between them. Here are some things I’ve learned on my—shall we say—Odyssey.

 

1.    1. I thought I knew what patience was. I had no idea what patience was.

2.     2. You cannot force muscles to work. On the racecourse, the legs will buckle. In the midst of avant-garde Modernist literature, the brain will fail to compute.

3.    3.  Instead of excitement, people often get morose when you bring up your ambitions. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” they say distantly. “Wow,” others murmur, “good for you.”

4.     4. Sometimes, it’s okay to feel delirious. After running for three hours in the baking sun, I got a little loopy. (I won’t speak for my Mom). In the middle of Ulysses’ Red Light District scene, which is written like a hallucinatory stage play, I started to seriously zone out.

5.     5. It’s okay to take breaks. Mom’s knee started acting up, so we walked for some stretches. With nine hours of listening to go, I stopped listening to Ulysses for the entire month of March.

6.     6. You will not win. Only the most seasoned elite runner will ever win a marathon, and nobody even cares who wins the half. And finishing Ulysses is supposed to be its own reward. I’ll buy that.

7.     7. To paraphrase what a bunch of Polish mountaineers said to National Geographic: “This is the right kind of pain.”

8.     8. The finish line is triumphant, yet sad. One feels grateful to cross it. One embraces Martha Bloom’s final “yes.” But now it’s over. Months of work, ended. One can only sigh.

9.     9. Memories resurface right away. All those cups scattered around the water stations—a great sea of crushed paper cylinders. As for Ulysses, this passage always makes me smile:

 

PAR—I was down there for the Cork park races on Easter Monday, Ned Lambert said. Same old six and eightpence. Stopped with Dick Tivy.

PAR—And how is Dick, the solid man?

PARNothing between himself and heaven, Ned Lambert answered.

PAR—By the holy Paul! Mr Dedalus said in subdued wonder. Dick Tivy bald?

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