A Portrait of the Runner as a Literary Activist

The Otherworldly Passion of the James Joyce Ramble: Where Literature and Theatre Combine with Activism to Form a Very Unique Road Race

As you cross into your 9th kilometer, exhaustedly trudging along the banks of the Charles River with thousands of other runners, you just might hear an actor reciting prose. The actor might be dressed in period garb common to the early twentieth century. And the prose being recited, from a work by James Joyce, could include the following observation: “Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

If all of these seemingly unrelated circumstances were to occur simultaneously, you would indeed have passed boldly into another world. The world of the James Joyce Ramble.

Now over a quarter century old, the James Joyce Ramble just may be the most unique annual road race run anywhere in the world. At various points along the Ramble’s 10k route, actors read selections from various works of Joyce as athletes run by, somehow perfectly combining the similar efforts of running a long distance race with reading a challenging work of literature.

This alone would be an intriguing enough amalgamation. But The Ramble doesn’t stop there. It is also a charitable non-profit, having donated a quarter-million dollars for cancer research, and has long been an active advocate of human rights.

Born and raised and having lived for much of my life in and around Boston, I was surprised that I had never heard of such a remarkable event. Who are these runners, and actors, and non-profit organizers who so easily combine community activism and intellectual literacy with vigorous athleticism? How is it that an Irish expatriate can be the inspiration for a little-known road race run each year in the suburbs of Boston? How did the James Joyce Ramble progress from an idea, to a race, to a multi-dimensional charitable organization?

Last spring, I headed to the Ramble to find out.

—–

“I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning.” – James Joyce

Last year’s Ramble was held in late April, but it felt like mid-July. Unseasonably high temperatures lured thousands of New Englanders out of hibernation. Traffic was ubiquitous. Every Sunday Driver on the road seemed destined for downtown Dedham. While police, posted at random intersections, directed the standstill traffic this way and that, apparently with as little logic as employed by Joyce himself in writing Finnegans Wake.

As I negotiated the traffic maze as best I could, my mind spun with visions of what a “literary road race” might look like. I imagined hipsters in tight jeans and horned-rimmed glasses, spraying graffiti all over the street, visions of the 1968 Paris uprisings, or tweed-jacketed professors seemingly running without moving, balancing their café lattes

as they paused to gain sustenance from the words of Ulysses, or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But as I arrived finally at the great lawn of The Endicott Estate, home base for The James Joyce Ramble, I was greeted, instead, by what seemed to be a big, raucous, celebratory party. A mid-summer sun shone down upon the runners and their families as children and dogs ran in every direction. A live performance by local rock ‘n’ roll band Ernie And The Automatics was center stage. Giant weather balloons swayed back and forth under a blue sky. Tented stands sold t-shirts, posted race results, poured pints of locally-brewed beer, and encouraged ramblers to sign up for Amnesty International. With a generous offering of Red Sox caps, Celtics jerseys and specially-made “Thirsty Irish Runners” race team shirts, it was a gathering not unlike many in the traditionally Irish, sport-centric hub of Boston. And yet, completely different.

Was there an elusive essence that I was missing? Looking about in a state of amazement and wonder, I realized I needed to do more exploring. Possibly Joyce himself could provide some perspective. Walking up Main Street from the finish line, I went in search of some costumed reciting of Joyce’s works.

One of the actors, a woman nearing retirement age, was seated on a rock wall, about half a mile from the finish line. Wearing a vintage sleeved dress and a large flowing hat to keep the sun off her face, she held a copy of Dubliners in her hand, from which she was reading “The Dead,” the most famous work of the short story collection.

“Oh, it is wonderful,” she says, in response to my question about what she is reading.

“Have you read at many Rambles?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” she replies enthusiastically. “This is my tenth in a row. I would never miss it.”

She continues her dedicated reading as more runners stagger by. They look to be struggling under the mid-day heat, but still manage to clap in appreciation of the readers. Even though it seems uncertain that they can hear what she is saying.

Still trying to make sense of it all, I head back to the main tent, trying to connect James Joyce the man, with the sport of running, let alone the practice of activism.

—–

“‘History,’ Stephen said, ‘is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.’” – James Joyce

James Joyce was born in 1882. Just over a hundred years later, the first annual James Joyce Ramble was run.

Americans have long held a fascination with Ireland’s most notable author. Just six years after his death, The James Joyce Society was founded in New York City’s Gotham Book Market in 1947. Its first official member was T.S. Eliot.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin bought an extensive collection of James Joyce manuscripts. It continues to house one of the world’s leading Joyce collections to this day. (The largest collection is held by the University of Buffalo.)

And over a quarter century ago, the influence of Joyce produced a new road race run just outside of Boston. “Over the long cold winter of 1983-1984, avid runner and James Joyce fan Martin Hanley of Dedham was struggling through Finnegans Wake when a thought occurred to him that this was as tough as training for a race,” recounts New England road race Historian Tom Hurley. “Thus, 244 runners gathered on the banks of the Charles at the Riverside section of Dedham on Sunday, March 26, 1984 and the Ramble was rolling.”

“Back in the Eighties, every pub seemed to be sponsoring a road race,” remembers Hanley, who had originally approached the nearby Olde Irish Ale House for funding. “I wanted to try to bring more to the table, create a more compelling event.”

The idea of having actors read from the works of Joyce came during The Ramble’s second race, when one of its runners, carrying a copy of Finnegans Wake, stopped periodically, of his own accord, and read parts of the literary classic to the other racers. “I never did find out who he was,” Hanley notes with amusement.

Today over 5,000 runners and more than 30 reading actors participate in the race “known throughout the world for its uniqueness and theatrical flair.” On race day there are separate race categories of Writer, and Artist, in addition to Men, and Women, and the handing out of various books (none by Joyce that I saw) with different medals and race awards. Indeed, The Ramble is justified in claiming to be the race “where the prose meets the road.” But it is (still) more than (just) that.

—–

I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday, or some previous day.” – James Joyce

The Ramble does more than combine literature, theatre, and athletic sport. It is also a charitable organization and state-registered non-profit. In addition to raising over $250,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, The Ramble is active “in the areas of fitness, athletic competition, cancer research, literacy, the arts, human rights and community — all values of a vibrant democracy.”

“These days,” explains Hanley, “everyone is under assault from the silliness of our pop culture. I don’t have a talk show, so this is it.”

Since 1989, The Ramble has incorporated a Human Rights Dedication into its mission, largely concerning itself with the oppression of journalists worldwide. “The killing, torturing and imprisoning of journalists contribute to the inevitable erosion of freedom of speech and expression,” notes Hanley, “[their] safety all over the world has become a great concern for those who believe in and practice democracy.”

The concept of practice, whether in relation to a healthy democracy or a healthy jog, appears to be essential for those dedicated to The Ramble. As is the protection of the right to freedom of speech, the defense of which is fitting for a race named after an author whose most notable work, Ulysses, today considered one of the greatest works of literature ever written, required the decision of the Supreme Court to allow its publication in this country.

“The James Joyce Ramble takes the position that human rights are central to the sustenance of … democratic values,” states Martin Hanley, noting that freedom of expression is “protected in the USA by the First Amendment, and internationally, by Article 19 of The Declaration Of Human Rights.”

The connection between the three various aspects of The Ramble, literature, running and intentional charitable work are undeniable. Though on race day there is little evidence, save for the Amnesty International tent, that The Ramble’s non-profit mission carries over to the race itself.

—–

“Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” – James Joyce

I am exhausted from the day’s heat and the mental journey on which I have been rambling along all day, in the attempt to define The James Joyce Ramble. Only those who train by reading incomprehensible classics of literature and spend their New England winters outside running would have the stamina to put forth such a multi-dimensional effort.

I need clarity. I need explanation. I need understanding. I head for the beer stand.

As I sit on the grand lawn of the Endicott Estate, enjoying the shade of a grand oak tree as I look out over the crowd, the Ramble community chats away happily, despite the activist focus of the event. Or, I think, maybe because of it. For how often do we get to play a key role in such an unusual event, and to share that responsibility with so many others? How often do we get to hear inspirational words recited for us as we battle fatigue and exhaustion, mental and physical?

The James Joyce Ramble is an event of unique ambition. Not only does it successfully combine elements of theatre, activism, merriment, literature, and athleticism, but it also passionately continues to “pass boldly into that other world” of which Joyce spoke. More than a quarter century into its history, The Ramble seems far from withering “dismally with age.” And for that, its honored author would be proud.

(Originally appeared in Preview Massachusetts.)

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