RECENTLY I ran the Baystate Marathon in Lowell. Tired, hurt, castigating myself for yet again not training more diligently, I had reached the point in the ordeal at which I felt a deep sense of brotherhood with the dead snakes on the road along the river. They were little greenish-black ones, tire-flattened into a gory mess on the pavement. Because the marathon course forms a double loop, I passed each snake twice, and by the second time around I had begun to envy them their lack of legs and the abrupt cancellation by a passing car of their obligation to keep moving.
At this familiar stage of woe — far enough into the race to have begun to suffer and retroactively hate myself for starting it, yet far enough from the finish that the thought of running the rest of it is an additional source of suffering and a cause to proactively hate myself for insisting on finishing it — the snakes and everything else become freighted with sinister resonances of meaning. The road signs speak new truths. Slow down, they warn. Watch your speed. I should have done that earlier in the race, and now I was paying for it. Marathon on Sunday; Expect Significant Delays. As I seized up and faded, I felt that the signs were talking to me.
Right about then, I heard an actual voice from the side of the road calling, “Come on, Kah-lo, you got this.’’ This year, the race organizers printed each runner’s first name just above his or her number. There aren’t many spectators on most of the Lowell course, which is one reason I like that marathon. There’s something private, even shameful, about trudging through a marathon when you’re not very good at it, and I’ve always felt that it’s best done without any rah-rah fuss. I had resented the printing of the names, which struck me as mawkish and intrusive. But I found myself strangely buoyed by the next voice: “Cwah-los! Lookin’ good.’’ I looked awful, no doubt, but I began to appreciate the goodwill of strangers who would make the effort to lie to me about it.
I even began to appreciate the mess that a strong local accent makes of my name. Many people around here can’t say “Carlo’’ properly, and in my weakened, morose state I found it oddly touching that they were doing their best with it.
The next roadside assistance — “OK, Koala; three miles to go!’’ — came from a guy who was batting his hands together and barking out exhortations, coach-like. He was a perfect specimen of a local type: fiftyish, blocky, wearing a jersey and a ball cap with a curved brim, and with a thick soup-strainer mustache set off by a close shave. So: a Mustache Man. I have a longstanding anthropological interest in the Mustache Men of New England. I’ve made an informal study of their habits, especially their dominance struggles, conducted via competitive jokiness and the citing of sports statistics. Whenever two or more Mustache Men meet, they must determine who is the Greater and who is the Lesser Mustache Man, and it’s entertaining to watch them do it.
But my reaction to this Mustache Man was strangely unmixed gratitude. If you’re not from here you will never be a local, no matter how long you stay. That’s fine with me. I’m proudly from somewhere else — Chicago — and I wouldn’t ever want to give up my non-local’s perspective on this peculiar corner of the world in which I have settled. But, even so, over the years you gradually work your way into the place where you live. Neighbors, kids, schools, work, nights out on the town and routine trips to the grocery store, habits and rituals from taking out the trash to Thanksgiving dinners - the pieces of a sense of belonging assemble themselves. Running helps, too. Varying and repeating your routes like the pattern of a stitch, you bind yourself to a place in lasting ways.
So, thank you, Mustache Man of Lowell, and the rest of you no-r-pronouncing Samaritans along the race route. You said my name, badly, when I badly needed to hear it.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.