Last Sunday I finished the Heidelberg Trail Marathon, a 42 kilometer romp through the hills that surround one of Germany’s most beautiful old cities. The course had a little bit of everything: grandeur (it started and finished in the justly famous Castle Gardens), charm, several long, moderate climbs up through old, dark forests, two trips across the Neckar River under luminous blue skies, and, as a climax, a lung-burning ascent up the Himmelsleiter, an ancient set of broken, blocky stairs (1,200 of them) carved out of the local red sandstone, leading straight up the hillside at a grade of 15 to 20 percent. The path’s name means “Heaven’s Ladder,” but most of the runners I passed on it were stooped low with effort and cursing all that was holy.
I hadn’t meant to do the run. My big event of the year was supposed to be the Sella Ronda Trail Race, a 61-kilometer circumnavigation of the Sella Group, a majestic massif of craggy, luminescent limestone peaks in the Tirolean Alps. My race-day performance in the Alps, though, was anything but majestic. Although I paced myself to finish the course within the overall time limit of 12 hours, I paid too little attention to an internal time cutoff at the 35-kilometer mark. I arrived 10 minutes late and got pulled from the course, 26 kilometers short of the finish line.
It was a failure on several levels. The most immediate was that I felt, at the time, like I could go on and finish. I still had gas in the tank. Most galling was the feeling that I hadn‘t been beaten in an all-out contest of athletic will; I could have lived with that kind of defeat. I had just made a simple mistake in preparation, the one thing I thought I was good at. Had I spent even an hour studying the route closely, I would have seen that I needed to speed up slightly for 10 kilometers or so during the first half of the course. Instead I dallied and saved myself for later.
At the deepest level, though, I felt the preparations I had made, including two training runs of 50 kilometers and several just shorter than that, most of them started in the dark at 4 o’clock in the morning with my headlamp on, ultra bag packed the night before, clothes set out so I wouldn’t wake my family rummaging for them in the predawn dark, had all gone to waste. My fraught running season was over, ended prematurely on what felt like a technicality.
For a week or so my thoughts were only of remonstrance. A friend reminded me that I had blogged optimistically about finishing Sella Ronda. All sportsmen know, of course, to avoid forecasting their own success, or, as he put it, a great pitcher does not talk about the no-hitter. It’s a sure jinx. Hemingway also counseled manly silence in matters of action: nothing ruined a good performance, he wrote, be it in soldiering, fishing, bullfighting, what have you, like “putting your mouth on it.” I had definitely broken the old man’s rule.
I even waxed scientific. Had I done anything that might be shown objectively to have slowed me down at Sella Ronda? Maybe.
Cognitive psychologists have long known that thinking or speaking certain words will awaken associations to “neighbor” words. If you think “chocolate,” for example, you will think “sweet,” “brown,” or “candy” faster and easier than you will think of unrelated words, like “tall” or “rhythmic.” Later, psychologists also discovered that words can even influence executive control, the brain’s instructions to the rest of the body. This instruction-giving is what makes us what Aristotle called “self-movers,” the most amazing thing in nature.
In the best known experiment that suggested this curious mind-body connection, a group of particpants completed word tasks connoting old age. Control groups did word tasks that were either random or connoted youth. All participants were instructed upon completing their word tasks to walk down a long hallway to complete an “unrelated” task. They were secretly timed as they walked. The result? The “old” group walked measurably slower, shuffling along to a pace apparently set by mere words about senescence.
Let’s jump to my trip to the Italian Alps. I always bring plenty to read when I travel, and this time I wanted something short and purely for diversion. So I brought the stinging wit of Kingsley Amis-one of his shorter efforts, Ending Up. I need hardly give more than a one-sentence summary to suggest how badly I might have erred with this choice. Ending Up tells a grimly sardonic story of five seventy-somethings pottering away their last years in a worn-down house in a drab part of England. They are alternately loopy, melancholy or bitter. Although the tale is crisply told, its subject is inevitably the slow human unwinding as we become finalists in the contest of life. Did my reading of two hundred-odd pages of torpitude dog my steps in the mountains the next day? Cognitive psychology says it might have.
The one thing my ruminations told me clearly was that I had to put a stop to them; I needed to punctuate my season properly rather than leaving it hanging on the ellipsis I had acquired at Sella Ronda. Just sitting back and “processing” the failure seemed like a betrayal of the sacrifices I had made, and which I had asked my family to make, throughout the spring and summer.
The rest of the story is brief. Heidelberg was everything I wanted it to be. Although I am not one of those people who think poetry descends on our random choices to consecrate them with harmony and meaning, I will say that everything about running the Heidelberg trails felt right. I applied myself from start to finish, never let up, and achieved an expiation of my sins at Sella Ronda. I finished four seconds under my goal of five hours.
It was also a sort of homecoming. On a July evening in 2015, the night before I was to have major back surgery in a Heidelberg clinic, I slipped out of my room and jogged sweatily up the Himmelsleiter to the top of the Königstuhl. The Königstuhl is a hilltop that drinks in a view of the ruby-red rooftops of old Heidelberg nestled below in the calico lime-jade of high-summer maples and junipers, stretching out to the hazy golden sweep of the Rhein-Neckar Valley beyond. In the summer it is intoxicating. I wanted to take in the same seductive sight that had stolen the hearts of Mark Twain and Sommerset Maugham, two of my favorite writers, just in case “anything happened” when I went under the knife the next day. It is not for nothing that we have such impulses. Somthing did happen the day after my surgery, and I achieved a state very close to clinical death. Going up the Himmelsleiter had nearly been my swan song.
Maugham recalls, very affectingly, in Of Human Bondage, how he arrived in Heidelberg as a young man on a spring morning, found his guesthouse on the slopes of the Königstuhl, arranged his books in his garret room overlooking the castle and, in so doing, felt for the first time like the master of his own life. He also discovered in Heidelberg that his own life was a thing of beauty, as magnificent as the glowing green trees and the red sandstone castle, bridges, and churches they embraced. I discovered much the same thing when I lived in Heidelberg, a long time ago, and it has never left me. For five hours last Sunday, I got to feel it all over again.