In Ulysses, James Joyce depicted the mundane tasks and peregrinations of a day in the life of protagonist Leopold Bloom. Bloom wanders the streets of Dublin—doing errands, encountering friends and enemies—before finally returning home and crawling into bed. Great literature, yes, but it was not an inspiring day.
For Martin Hanley. a 40-something actor and runner from Dedham, Mass., Bloom's day was a lot like the humdrum road races in which he participated during the early 1980s. "You would show up, get your number, run—usually to some trite theme music—and maybe get a T-shirt," Hanley says. "I wanted to do a race that would be fun."
He has. On Sunday April 27, some 3,000 runners from around the world will take part in the 14th James Joyce Ramble, a 10K race that is an eclectic mix of high art and hard running through the winding streets of Hanley's quaint hometown.
Hanley, who had previously completed the Boston Marathon, wanted a race with a literary tie-in (because he has always seen a connection between culture and sports) and an Irish theme (because he's a second generation Irish-American). At the time he was struggling through Finnegans Wake, and because he felt Joyce's works capture Irish culture so keenly he decided to name his race after the writer, who had poor eyesight, a bookworm's physique and no known athletic prowess. Joyce did write in the short story After the Race that "Rapid motion through space elates one," perhaps signaling that he had once experienced a runner's high. The connection nonetheless seems tenuous.
Still, the Ramble blends the seemingly disparate worlds of running and modernist literature. Each mile of the race's rolling course is named for a Joyce work; the route's final leg, for example, is called The Dead. At a postrace party the bibulous Joyce no doubt would have approved of, a trivia challenge is held so runners who are slow of foot can win prizes for their literary astuteness.
A bit of street theater accentuates the Ramble's Joycean theme. Bagpipers serenade the runners along the way, and every year Hanley recruits a few dozen acting colleagues to stand along the racecourse clad in period costumes and read aloud passages from Joyce's works as competitors pass by. "Running is inherently a silly activity," says actor Jim Cooke, who has performed at three Rambles and last year read from Dubliners in Mile 4. "It's great encouragement for the runners to see someone doing something even sillier than they are."
But the Ramble is also a serious race. In 1995 it was the site of USA Track & Field's New England 10K Championships. The men's and women's course records are 29:20 and 33:37, held, respectively, by Andy Ronan, a 1992 Irish Olympian, and Lorraine Moller, a New Zealander who was the marathon bronze medalist at the same Games. Last year's Ramble ended in heartbreak for Maria Servin, who won the women's race in 33:41 but fell short of the time she needed to qualify for the Mexican Olympic team.
Competition is not the only thing taken seriously at the Ramble. All proceeds from sponsors and entry fees are donated to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston; last year's race raised $22,000. In 1989 Hanley also began using the Ramble to draw attention to human rights violations around the world. Runners and spectators have been asked to sign petitions and observe moments of silence on behalf of such authors as Wei Jinsheng, an imprisoned Chinese dissident and editor of an underground journal, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Noble laureate who was under house arrest in Burma.
Joyce would certainly have sympathized with such a gesture. And he might even have enjoyed the idea of a road race in his honor. Joyce's grandnephew Bob Joyce, director of the James Joyce Cultural Centre in Dublin, ran last year's Ramble (72:29, 1,692nd place) and will be back this year to help celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Ulysses. "It's special to be in a race in which the body is stretched as Joyce stretches the mind," Bob Joyce said last year over a postrace libation. "And I think James would be amazed and amused, too."