As you cross into your ninth 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, which was held last weekend, just may be the most unique annual road race run anywhere in the world. At various points along the Ramble’s ten-kilometer 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.
“The James Joyce Ramble takes the position that human rights are central to the sustenance of … democratic values,” states the Ramble’s founder, Martin Hanley, noting that freedom of expression is “protected in the U.S.A. by the First Amendment, and internationally by Article 19 of the Declaration Of Human Rights.”
“The killing, torturing and imprisoning of journalists contribute to the inevitable erosion of freedom of speech and expression,” continues 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, a healthy read, or a healthy jog, appears to be an essential element of The Ramble.
“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.”
Today, the James Joyce Ramble continues its legacy as 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 the honored author would be proud.
(To learn more about the James Joyce Ramble, check out “A Portrait of the Runner as a Literary Artist,” which I wrote for Preview Massachusetts magazine.)