"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
For exactly 21 minutes, it was nostalgic. We padded past the same cane fields and pastures of red cows and snowy egrets that we'd known three years before. This was the second Great Hawaiian Footrace, commencing last April on Oahu's north shore. It would take the 46 entrants of assorted ability, sex and motive a lap and a half around that island, then (and this was new) conclude with a lap of Maui, 18 days of running in all, a total of 500,000 meters or 312 miles.
Every day we would camp in beach parks, except for the four nights we hit Honolulu, when we would be lodged at the venerable Moana Hotel. Every morning we would load our tent city into vans and run from 10 to 23 miles to the next chosen stand of ironwoods or palms, the next sapphire bay.
But rumination on these blessings or even my smug recollection of actually having won the race in 1979, ended for good after three miles. John McCormack, 32, a fireman from Brooklyn, took the pace from seven minutes per mile, which had been our average throughout the first race, to 6:30, and a couple of miles later to 6:00, and then 5:50. I ran a step behind him, the others falling away, and surreptitiously checked the times between mileposts. It is a long race. So even though the day was cool at 70° and the wind was at our backs, the pace seemed an extravagant risk. The eighth mile was 5:43. I eased and McCormack went smoothly on to win the 18½-mile first leg in 1:55:38. I was a minute back, feeling mildly betrayed. McCormack had run 15½ minutes faster than my old friend Leon Henderson and I had over the same first leg in 1979. In fact, Henderson and I had controlled much of the pace in the inaugural adventure. As a result, those weeks, in memory at least, were colored less by competition than by discovery. We had marveled at Hawaii's varied landscape and at vivid characters among the participants, not least of which was the race's originator, Dr. Jack Scaff. Competition is alien to Scaff. His joy is not to vanquish but to teach, to astonish, even if he has to make something up to do it. Scaff was running with us, talking a great race. The real organizer of the trek was his wife, Donna, who during the running parts of our days directed a loyal crew in handing out drinks and ice from our accompanying vans every 3½ miles.
I'd felt a childish relief at returning the rental car I'd had for a week of acclimation. I didn't even have to drive any more now, only run and be given catered dinners, entertainment and free electrocardiograms. Well, not quite free. The entry fee of $1,200 covered the food and lodging. The electrocardiograms were for those of us who were subjects in a research study on the effect of our mileage on heart enzymes. On four mornings we surrendered 25 cc of blood to Rudy Dressendorfer, Ph.D. of the William Beaumont Hospital near Detroit. As well, there were less painful nutrition and urine studies.
But the main worry now was McCormack. "I'm going to win it," he had said in a letter to Donna Scaff. "I was third in the first one, and that race showed me my potential for this day-after-day running. I've trained hard, and I'm going to take it to him."
On the first day McCormack had slowed slightly as it grew warmer, but he seemed to recover well, putting on a blue rain suit after finishing and staying out of the sun. My thoughts were more of myself. I had found that when McCormack was out in front and racing, no matter if it was the first day, I was incapable of not trying to stay close. This was nostalgia of a sort, too. I had run in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic marathons. In recent years, because of lingering injuries and the press of travel, I had raced little, beginning to imagine it a phase I had departed. Now I was sound and in fair condition. And, it seemed, the battle reflexes were still there.
Yet fitness and competitiveness wouldn't be enough. Unlike almost any other event since the transcontinental Bunion Derby of the '20s, the Great Hawaiian Footrace calls for hard running every day (an average of 17.5 miles). Thus its structure (to the chagrin of Jack Scaff, who hadn't imagined that what he'd conceived as a three-week running vacation would turn out this way) resembles bicycle races such as the Tour de France. But running is absolutely not like cycling in one crucial respect. Runners pound the roads. Cyclists do not. The shock fatigue that accumulates from absorbing about 2½ times one's own weight with every footfall prevents runners from being able to do the five-to eight-hour daily grinds of cycling tours. It is also why runners can train only about 40% as long as swimmers, rowers or other athletes who don't constantly slam parts of themselves against the ground.
Many runners, including this one, need one or two or three days of easy jogging after every hard or long run to recover fully from the pounding. The Great Hawaiian Footrace, because it allows no such days, presents a clear problem of managing one's own disintegration. "Our results from the 1979 race," said Dressendorfer, who has found the event an unsurpassed opportunity to study the biochemistry of fatigue, "show that once someone's legs are sore, they stay sore the rest of the way. There is no recovery from any breakdown." Even the two-day rest we would get after 10 days of racing, before we flew to Maui, wouldn't be enough to restore road-pounded muscle.
Every day was a race, but a race that couldn't be run so hard that it jeopardized future days.