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Pace Maker

Health Wanted


Published November 5, 2003 at 5:00 p.m.

On a floodlit stage at Middlebury College's Dana Auditorium, Paul Matteson begins to dance. His breathing becomes labored and his blue T-shirt billows up to reveal the abdominal muscles of an athlete, stacked like pieces of a Jenga game. He falls to the stage and pulls himself up, sending tiny carpet fibers flying. This, his body suggests, is what it means to endure.

It is Devil's Night, October 30, when prank-sters' unsuspecting prey must endure toilet-papered trees and egg-smeared cars. The long, red curtains of the Northern lights are ablaze over the Green Mountains. And Middlebury is hosting a symposium on "Inspiration and Perspiration," the first in a series of forums that will explore the connection between the lives of the mind and the body. Tonight's theme is endurance, a subject that has long resonated with both athletes and academics. It continues to capture our attention even in the age of couch potatoes.

In April, a professor from Boring, Oregon, fueled by carbohydrates and caffeine, delivered the longest lecture to date: 51 hours, 44 minutes and 17 seconds. Last month, after a perplexing 44 days suspended in a glass box above the River Thames, David Blaine emerged 50 pounds lighter, dehydrated but enlightened. The endurance stunt, he told the crowd, "has been one of the most inspirational experiences of my life." And three days after this symposium, P. Diddy is running in the New York City Marathon after just eight weeks of training.

Maybe I'll see him. I'm also running 26.2 miles through the Big Apple; it's my 12th marathon, and I seem to have misplaced my reasons for undertaking the task yet again. While my running friends anticipate personal records, the joy of simply finishing for the first time or the sights they'll see along the way, I can't seem to envision the ending the way I once did. My training has been half-hearted; the race is like a deadline for a story I don't want to write. Call it runner's block.

It's definitely on my mind as I take in the Middlebury scene: The auditorium is filled to near capacity with dancers, students, cross-country runners and professors, including scholar-in-residence Bill McKibben, tonight's emcee. McKibben knows a thing or two about endurance. At age 37, he trained for a year as an elite Nordic skier and turned the experience into a book, Long Distance: The Year of Living Strenuously. But modest McKibben quickly cedes the podium to Middlebury English professor Jay Parini, a prolific writer of novels, poetry and biographies.

Parini speaks about two "endurance freak writers" who paced themselves through lifetimes of writing. France's Honore de Balzac would work from 1 a.m. through dawn, wearing a white nightgown and bathed in candle light. The hyper-prolific penman produced some 90 novels and novellas, filled with more than 2000 characters. England's Anthony Trollope, for his part, squeezed in three hours writing each day before his day job at the post office. He produced at an astonishing rate: 250 words every 15 minutes.

This was all fine and good during the 19th century, when life was perhaps less stimulating, but what about today, when distractions abound? "The great danger that all writers face, as do many athletes, is compulsion," says Parini, who begins each day writing poems at Steve's Park Diner in Middlebury. "A writer essentially has to be there, ready and willing to serve the Muse, should the Muse decide to put in an appearance that day," he says, noting, "I think of myself as something of a tortoise in a world of hares."

After the second of three dance interludes, Gary Margolis read two poems. Margolis played football and studied writing at Middlebury before returning to teach English and counsel students. His latest collection, Fire in the Orchard, includes "The Burning Bush of Basketball," which Michael Jordan signed and returned to the poet.

In "Slow Words for Shoreham in the Apple Blossom Derby," Margolis uses a road racing metaphor to evoke the different ways in which generations of Vermonters, connected by the land, have endured.

History tells them the first

hill is the quiet killer, a quarter down

and three quarters up to the Revolutionary

cemetery overlooking the unblistered lake.

… Down across the temporary finish line

to the only stone building nearby the water

holding its share of lead shot and blood --

which still runs over these bursting apple hills--

they run by and stop to remember who,

out of breath, shoeless and unnumbered

lay down and finished before them.

The symposium's final speaker is Bernd Heinrich, a biologist and nature writer with mind-blowing long-distance running records. He seems as flummoxed as the audience is by his accomplishments, claiming to remember -- but not necessarily understand -- running for 24 hours and 157 miles around a quarter-mile track. Is this normal? Perhaps, Heinrich reasons, considering our natural history as long-distance hunters.

We have become the most specialized endur-ance species in the world: Unlike other animals, we can sweat, we have lost most of our body hair, we can tailor our diets and fine-tune our minds to envision the future. But, Heinrich says, we've become like poodles in a New York City apartment, as opposed to wolves; domesticated geese in the barnyard, rather than the wild ones migrating 2000 miles.

Why, though, should we run or bike or lecture or suspend ourselves in a glass box when we could rest? To keep alive the primal enthusiasm, Heinrich reasons. To experience our defining moments. To find out who we are, beyond cogs in society. "You can't bullshit your way to the end of the marathon," he says.

The program ends with a screening of Endurance, which takes place thousands of miles from Vermont, in the sun-scorched fields of Ethiopia. The film tells the story of Haile Gebrselassie, who endured poverty by bolting through the dusty countryside and dreaming of the Olympics; in 1996, he won the gold medal at the Atlanta Centennial Games. While Gebrselassie is religious, his beliefs blend with Heinrich's anti-bullshit stance: "You hard work and the God help you," he says toward the beginning of Endurance. "If you no hard work, then the God -- nothing."

The northern lights have faded by the time I leave the auditorium and head home, thinking of Parini's point. "Athletes in the pursuit of endurance often drive themselves too hard, which is very true of writers as well," he said. "Endurance requires steadiness and discipline, yes, but it also demands an abundance of something you claim to love. Self-love, to be sure, but love of the dance as well, the process of making or playing or doing."

Those words will also help keep me going on Sunday when I complete the New York City marathon in 3:26 --my third-fastest time ever -- without running into a single rap star.