We Race American

0.1 We race distinctly American.

.2 The run in itself is familiarized as 26.2 miles—a half 13.1. Here, we change to meters as the distances shrink: a 10K is more impressive than 6.2 miles in the same way that a 5K sounds further than 3.1. And yet with the marathon, there is something less glamorous when stated as 42.195 kilometers—we do the conversions in our heads to spite ourselves. For something that seems archaic, predating the cities in which I have lived, there is something distinctly American about the whole endeavor—of how large and sprawling it is, of how we run in the streets paved with gold.

.3 In the 1908 Summer Olympics, Irish-American Johnny Hayes took home the gold medal for the marathon race. This was not without controversy: Dorando Pietri of Italy entered White City Stadium and turned the wrong way. Exhausted, Pietri collapsed from dehydration a total of five times as he attempted to make it to the finish line—the last 0.2 miles taking over ten minutes. Race officials ran over to help Pietri up each time he stumbled, essentially dragging him across the finish line. Hayes finished the race shortly afterward, thirty-two seconds off of the lead. However, due to Pietri receiving outside assistance, Pietri was disqualified. As a result of the dramatic nature of the race, there was a new interest in distance running in the United States: head-to-head races between Pietri and Hayes were scheduled in New York, with Pietri winning both times. The Boston Marathon, only ten years prior with a total of twenty-one participants, now boasted over 160 runners by 1909. One has to wonder, if Hayes had rightfully received silver, whether there would have been the same amount of excitement about long-distance running—we would still claim Johnny Hayes as “American,” yet we would put more emphasis on the “Irish” part; an Olympian forever hyphenated. There is something about second-place that seems so anti-American; the streets were not rumored to be paved with silver.

There is something about second-place that seems so anti-American; the streets were not rumored to be paved with silver.

.4 I was born in New Jersey. My father, too, was born in New Jersey—the first of his siblings to be born in the United States, although my grandparents traveled extensively when he was growing up: to Barcelona and back again; to Germany. When people ask me about the origins of my last name, I always lead with Catalan and work my way down—I typically follow up with a line about, My family is from Barcelona, to which a typical response is, So, Spanish. I have family members who refuse to speak Castellano. I have aunts that cross themselves when they hear the name “Franco;” those who balk at even the mention of the word rey. For the sake of argument, I say, Yes, from Spain, and shove my name and all of its vowels into my pocket, as if the ghosts an ocean away can hear me.

.5 In 1977, my grandfather brought five Catalan runners to the United States to run in the New York City Marathon—this was a common occurrence throughout my childhood, as we would always have visitors from Catalunya come stay with my grandparents, until, after six or seven days of take-out and cheeseburgers, my grandmother would cook a paella to try to drive the homesickness away. A newspaper article from the Asbury Park Press mentions these runners staying in people’s houses all throughout my grandparents’ neighborhood—how families in New Jersey would be rooting for the runners “from Spain.” My mother’s side is distinctly American, distinctly Brooklyn, although there are distinctions there, too: of city blocks and bars, of Scots-Irish last names. My other grandfather’s name, too, contains an I and a U, though it is through foreignness that I got to know the boroughs. It is through the visitors how I got to know my own country: tracing my grandparents’ names on Ellis Island, climbing halfway up the Statue of Liberty before my legs would give.

.6 While running there are moments when I feel as if I am a tourist in my own body—still exploring what will always be unfamiliar; how, despite knowing that a particular hill will be difficult, I am still surprised at how shallow my breaths are, as if the air hits something solid before entering my lungs. This is true of my surroundings: I run the same route with slight deviations, yet there is something new to be seen, always—I do not stop to see the refurbished boat on the Riverwalk; I do not buy a peach from the farmer’s market. During races, I travel to towns I have never been and see none of them but the time spent on the course; my body too tired to notice the nuances, my legs broken down at the end of the day to the point where the only thing I see is the inside of a hotel room and episodes of a television show I have seen far too many times before. I ask friends who are locals for recommendations of bars, of places to eat, of things to do, yet I know that there is no way my feet will carry me to these landmarks at the end of the day. Instead, I order a pizza from a chain that I am familiar with. Instead, I hit the road back home in the morning, stopping for breakfast on the way out of town.

I ‘pass’ as American in the same way that Hayes could but my grandfather and millions of others could not.

.7 The idea behind running is to transport yourself somewhere that does not exist at that moment. I am not a runner who is constantly thinking about the next stride, or how my breathing matches up with my cadence. I am one who tries to forget the moment—to focus on hypotheticals: what I will eat when I am done, how the rest of my day will go. I ascribe to magical thinking—the day before my football team plays, I picture how the game will go; who will score first, what big play will put us ahead. The day of the 2016 election I did this as well—I imagined the victory speech with the repetition of the phrase “stronger together;” I imagined the space I would inhabit. In the days afterward, I imagined an alternate route—a recounting of steps, a way to feel less alien in a country where I was born, despite the fact that I speak the language without an accent, despite the fact that I do not need to explain to strangers where I come from unless they ask me to spell my last name. I “pass” as American in the same way that Hayes could but my grandfather and millions of others could not. Yet, even in this reimagining, I am simply visiting—the world will end well before my stopwatch does. How I feel in any world does not make others feel any less out of breath.

.8 When my grandparents first moved to this country, my grandmother spoke three languages, though none of them was English. She learned the language through talk radio and through the walls of their apartment, where the landlord would yell and curse about lord knows what. A photographer came by one day selling his services; for a fee, he would take a family photo as well as give them a United States government savings bond. My grandmother, hearing the words “United States Government,” let the photographer take the photo, for fear of some semblance of repercussion. Many years later, after my grandmother had passed her citizenship test, my grandparents’ household was known as “the Puerto Rican family,” as if there were no other plausible reasons for using a language foreign to suburban ears—as if there is only one place where our families could possibly be from.

.9 After settling in New Jersey, my grandfather ran for the Shore Athletic Club—the same club that houses all of Johnny Hayes’s accolades: his Boston Marathon second place trophy, his Olympic gold. Shore A.C. was Hayes’s adopted club in the same way that it was my grandfather’s—Hayes ran Boston under the umbrella of the Irish American Athletic Club, whereas my grandfather ran New York with A.C. Catalunya, a group he helped found. There is a statue of Hayes in his home county of Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland. There is a monument to my grandfather at the base of Montjuïc in Barcelona, Catalunya. There are no monuments of either of these men in the United States—instead, they exist only as trivial anecdotes: Do you know the story of the 1908 London Marathon? Did you know that my grandfather founded the Barcelona Marathon? Small items that are concrete only in that they are facts. However, the truth grows old and fleeting—we replace old with new to the point where we forget where we came from, but we are remiss to remember the middle parts; the ninetieth mile in a life of thousands, until all of the breaths seem to blur together.


Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Enter Your Initials for Record Keeping (Cobalt Press), a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long-distance running to professional wrestling appear in The Collagist, Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner’s World, and elsewhere.