The sweat is beginning to bead up on your brow. You can hear in your head the reverberation of each foot as it pounds the pavement - left, right, left, right. You look up for a break, a water station, any kind of distraction. As your eyes focus in front of you, what do you see?
Welcome to the 14th annual James Joyce Ramble, an artful mix of street theater and road race, where each of the 6.2 miles is named after a famous work of Joyce's (the final mile has been dubbed "The Dead"). Along the Ramble's route yesterday, actors clad in 19th-century Irish garb read from "Ulysses," "Dubliners," and other Joyce greats. There was even a trivia quiz post-finish line for those with those with more literary than long-distance prowess.
While the race isn't your everyday pin-on-a-number-and-go event, it couldn't be more reflective of Boston - a city with more PhDs than traffic rotaries and a gossip column that regularly features Harvard professors (not to mention a greater than average population of Irish).
That, in itself, is indicative of a shift gradually taking hold in the sport of running. All across the nation, as running has grown in popularity, road races have become much more than an opportunity to cross the finish line before hundreds of others - they've become family outings, charity fund-raisers, and a way for cities to showcase their personalities.
"There's a 10K in Boulder called the Boulder Boulder," says Ryan Lamppa at the USA Track and Field road running information center. "They get over 30,000 finishers in the event, but it's not just a race. It's a social event, too. It's part of the city's social calendar. It's been built up into that."
Road races have become more creative as they've attracted a wider audience, and that creativity often echoes a city's particular flavor.
Where else, but amid the towering glass and steel of downtown Manhattan would work carry over into pleasure to such a degree that runners would don business suits for a 4.01K (2.5 miles) as they do in the Wall Street Rat Race? In Memphis, there's the Elvis Presley International 5K, where runners often complete the course in full King regalia - white jumpsuit, sequins and all - despite the August heat.
But these days, offbeat races may be a product of too much success. USA Track and Field says running's growth rate has been between 3 and 5 percent for the past several years, and more runners mean more races (more than 12,000 in 1996). As a result, race planners may include a kids' fun run, an inline skating component, an elaborate post-race meal, or an unusual theme as a way to attract runners to a their race.
"It's all marketing," says Walt Walston, head of W2 Promotions, the company that hosts the L.A. Dog Jog and the Backlot Run at Universal Studios, among others. "Every given weekend, there are two or three runs that people can choose from. Having a theme is a way to draw people to our particular run."
The James Joyce race is a bit of a special case, in that it is almost exclusively the vision of Martin Hanley, whose motive was to weave together his dual interests in art and athletics more than to pick a theme that would attract runners.
"Fourteen years back, I was looking to start something a little bit more theatrical than I've seen ever put on before," Mr. Hanley says. "I regard this event as performance art. It's also in every sense an athletic contest, but I'm trying to approach this like a Broadway show."
For Jack Fultz, winner of the 1976 Boston Marathon and frequent runner of the Ramble, Hanley has reached an unusual balance between competition and recreation. The performers "add an element of levity ... that makes for a more complete experience," he says. "It kind of reminds you to keep the racing aspect of the run in perspective."