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Once, on a wet fall afternoon 16 years ago, a three-hour training run took me along a lonely ridge between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. Ahead was a farmhouse and an elderly woman making her way against the wind to the mailbox beside the road. Once she reached her destination, she crouched, watching me approach.
"Where do you come from?" she called. I couldn't read her tone.
She regarded me stonily. "You're on the right road to the loony bin," she said, and drew back as I passed.
In 1969, Bruce Tulloh, who won the 1962 European 5,000-meter championship for Great Britain, ran from Los Angeles to New York in 65 days, accompanied by his wife and son with a car and trailer. Tulloh wrote a detailed, analytical book called Four Million Footsteps about the adventure, during which he averaged 44 miles per day. Others had made similar runs before, among them Don Shepard of South Africa, who ran without aid and whose book, My Run Across the U.S.A., is as loose and chatty as Tulloh's is precise.
But these reports didn't alter this runner's conviction that such a journey by its nature could appeal only to the seriously different. I was sure I never wanted to do it. Now James E. Shapiro has done it, and written about it, and I'm not so sure anymore.
Shapiro has distilled the 80 days and 3,026 miles of his 1980 crossing from Dillon Beach, Calif. (up the coast from San Francisco) to New York's Central Park into Meditations from the Breakdown Lane: Running Across America ( Random House, 237 pages, $12.50). He describes his own sensations and judgments with as much care and gift as he recalls the land and people and labor that evoked them. Almost at once, he has a sympathetic narrative flowing that will lead to the opposite coast. He's not a nut. He's not a driven soul. He's me, or close enough so the differences don't matter.
I was made to share something of Shapiro's panic over the immensity that faced him and to recall that, as he puts it, "The dimension of the feat does not necessarily still the homey chatter of the mind." And I have given my own voice to that most mortal of laments (as he writes on passing though the Sierras): "finding within an anticipatory sorrow that I cannot run through here forever."
It's this ranging, experienced mind, tuned and colored by the 10 and 12 hours a day of five mph running that Shapiro maintained, that lights this book. His descriptions of vistas, food (the good and the rotten) and women (kind waitresses and fragrant nymphets, passing with a glance) are all hungrily vivid.