Running in the footsteps of Hemingway

It seems that everyone and his or her brother or sister has written an article or book about walking in the footsteps of American writer Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, in Key West.

Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, in Key West.

So I decided to kick it up a notch. Literally.

I registered to run in the Key West, Florida 5-kilometer race this January 17.  Leaving Paris in 1928 with a newly pregnant second wife, Hemingway stopped in Key West and grew to love the down at the heels coral fly speck so much that he made it his home base for the next decade.  It was in Key West that he fished and wrote; caroused and wrote; fought and wrote, and despite suffering long bouts of severe depression, wrote, wrote and wrote:  A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, The Green Hills of Africa, To Have and Have Not, dozens of short stories and a series of essays for Esquire Magazine.

Thus, when the Key West Half-Marathon and the 5k Race came around, how I could pass up the opportunity to both visit the great writer’s haunts and run in a competitive race? The answer is I couldn’t.

The Key West 5k delayed start

The Key West 5k delayed start

And for my sins, I wound up also competing in a marathon. I left my Connecticut home at 4: 15 a.m. but what was to have been an easy trip was cruelly interrupted by a severe tropical storm. The storm spawned tornados on neighboring Marathon Key and halted all air and ground traffic in and out of Key West, forcing myself and a group of fellow runners to cool our heels for hours in the Ft. Lauderdale Airport, hoping the weather would clear enough for the 45-minute prop flight to Key West.  Finally, we catch a break in the storm system and we are on our way. I reach my hotel at around 10 p.m., tired, hungry and cramped.

I sleep late the next morning and then take the shuttle bus over to the Hemingway House to pay the obligatory homage. I relax on a bench in the gardens, observing the famous six-toed cats that live there.

Relaxing in the shade of the gardens of the Hemingway House, Whitehead and Olivia Streets.

Relaxing in the shade of the gardens of the Hemingway House, Whitehead and Olivia Streets.

Refreshed, I head down to the docks to pick up my race package and then take the shuttle bus back to the hotel for a crab cake sandwich and mineral water. I try to sleep but I am too restless from fatigue and daylight. So I buy a Cuban café con leche and read a couple of stories from James Joyce’s The Dubliners.

The morning of the race I awaken to another line of dangerous squalls passing through Key West, whipping up gale force winds. The race is postponed an hour and we huddle in whatever shelter we can find. I edge against the lee side of a kiosk, next to a tall fellow who introduces himself as Rink Post. Rink, who is from Appelscha, Netherlands, is a far more experienced runner than I am and who by happenstance was in Florida and entered the 5k race on a whim.

Waiting out the storm: Third-place finisher Rink Post (l) and the author.

Waiting out the storm: Third-place finisher Rink Post (l) and the author.

Before the race, runners huddle against the gale force winds and lashing rain.

Before the race, runners huddle against the gale force winds and lashing rain.

The rain tapers to a drizzle and Rink and I make our way down the street to watch the first of the 3471-strong group of half-marathon runners go by, then we head to the starting line for the 5k. There are 871 entrants and we part as he wends through the pack to the front while I remain in the middle.

Finally, the starter’s gun sounds.  After a hundred meters, I am still in the middle of the pack but I know this race is not going to be a personal best for me. Two days earlier, I had been bursting with energy, ready to annihilate time. Now, my legs feel like a pair of anchors holding me back as I force each step. The horrendous trip down had done its damage and I am still far from fully recovered. I pass a man on the sidewalk playing a boogie-woogie tune on an upright piano and I try to pick up my pace to match the rhythm. It works.  I speed by a small store advertising “$2 Beers to Go!” Despite the sudden urge to stop, I keep on. Soon, I reach Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Duval Street, one of Hemingway’s more raucus haunts.

Sloppy Joe's Bar, 201 Duval Street. Josie Russell also owned another speakeasy closer to the docks so it is arguable which bar Hemingway frequented.

Mile 1: Sloppy Joe’s Bar, 201 Duval Street. Josie Russell also owned another speakeasy closer to the docks so it is arguable which bar Hemingway frequented.

Sloppy Joe’s was owned by rum-runner Josie Russell, one of the first people Hemingway met when he arrived in 1928.   It was at Sloppy Joe’s that Hemingway met and drank with many of the locals and it was Russell who may have well been the model for the character Frank Morgan in To Have and Have Not, Hemingway’s volume of short stories that centered on Key West and Havana, Cuba.

It was also to Sloppy Joe’s that Hemingway brought his “mob”, as he called a group of friends that included his Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, writer John Dos Passos and his wife Katie, Hemingway’s teen-age love. It was also on the street outside that an inebriated Hemingway got into one of his more notorious punch-ups, decking poet Vachel Lindsay. But not before an even more inebriated Lindsay landed an overhand right to Hemingway’s head.

I pass Sloppy Joe’s and continue running on down Duval Street. I am now on the second mile of the race and feeling stronger. I turn the corner of Truman Street and pass by rows of shotgun houses and two-story homes masqued by lush tropical vegetation. When Hemingway had arrived in 1928, the buildings had been little more than dilapidated shacks with broken screen doors and windows. Now, like everything else in Key West, they are overpriced; asymptotic to a million dollars. Or more. “Manhattan prices and West Virginia wages,” said a taxi-driver. “That’s our life.”

The Hemingway House, Whitehead and Olivia Streets.

Mile 2: The Hemingway House, Whitehead and Olivia Streets.

At the next corner, I turn north onto Whitehead Street and quickly find myself alongside the Hemingway House with its lovely writer’s studio, magnificent pool and its pack of six-toed cats. The Hemingways had lived in a series of rented flats until April, 1931, when, with the financial help of pregnant Pauline’s Uncle Gus, they purchased the run-down pre-Civil War “haunted house” on the large corner lot of Whitehead and Olivia Streets. Five days later, they were off to Spain via Havana. When they returned, it was first to Kansas City, where Pauline gave birth to their son, Gregory. The next year, back in Key West, Hemingway would finish his misunderstood and underappreciated treatise on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon.

Hemingway's writing studio and pool.

Hemingway’s writing studio and pool.

Continuing my run up Whitehead, the humidity starts to take its toll and as sweat pours off my brow and soaks my shirt, I imagine Hem hunched over his notebooks and typewriter in the small, cramped and airless flat above the Ford automobile agency, working furiously on his First World War novel, A Farewell to Arms.

Mile 2: Banyan tree outside the Banyan House on Whitehead Street.

Mile 2: Banyan tree outside the Banyan House on Whitehead Street.

Just before the second mile mark, I pass by a pair of Key West’s ubiquitous cackling chickens and then the Cornish Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, said to be the first organized African-American congregation in the State of Florida.

The Cornish Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, named after former slave Sandy Cornish who bought his freedom in 1839 for $3,500 and later became a successful farmer and one of Key West's wealthiest citizens. Cornish founded the congregation in 1864.

Mile 2: The Cornish Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, named after former slave Sandy Cornish who bought his freedom in 1839 for $3,500 and later became a successful farmer and one of Key West’s wealthiest citizens. Cornish founded the congregation in 1864.

Now into the third mile of the race, I near treasure hunter Mel Fisher’s museum and think of Hemingway’s short-story After the Storm, a tale about Key West salvagers and a sunken passenger ferry. At Mallory Square, I run smack into gale force winds and for several minutes I can barely make headway.

Finally, I turn south away from the wind and then west, picking speed again as I head for the finish line. I check my watch and curse my bad luck and then head directly for a pint of the local Pilsner beer.

The Finish Line

The Finish Line

I carry my beer and search for Rink but cannot find him in the crowd. He said he might run back to his hotel after the race. Later, I learn he had finished a well-run third, far ahead of me.  I finish the beer and chat with (not “chat up”) a pair line of flight attendants who were running their first 5k race. We laugh about the weather and laughingly promise to return next year and attack the half-marathon. I down a second pint, the bad trip and bad weather and bad running time all but forgotten. The short days of winter had been made a little longer and a lot more tolerable. And I knew that there would be other races in other Hemingway venues waiting for me.

Other races that have Hemingway locales:

Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania: Marathon, half-marathon and 5k races; Feb. 28, 2016. Visit: The mountain and Ngorongoro Crater and Conservation Area wildlife park described in The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Green Hills of Africa.

Oak Park, Illinois: Good Life 5k, April 20, 2016. Visit: Hemingway’s boyhood home and museum.  Suggested reading: The Young Hemingway by Michael Reynolds.

Madrid, Spain: Half and Full Rock and Roll Marathon, 10k races, April 24, 2016. Visit: The bullfights.  Suggested reading: Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Charlevoix, Michigan (near Horton’s Bay): Marathon, half-marathon, 5 and 10-k races; June 25, 2016. Visit: Hemingway family summer cottage, Horton’s Bay. Suggested reading: The Nick Adams stories in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Finca Vigia Edition.

Pamplona, Spain: Running of the Bulls, July 6-14, 2016. Visit: The entire feria of St. Firmin as described in The Sun Also Rises.

Key West Hemingway Days: July 19-24, 2016, 5k Sunset Run, July 23, 2016. Visits: See above article. Suggested reading: To Have and Have Not.

Kenya, The Amazing Maasai Marathon and Half-Marathon, July 30, 2016, in the heart of the Maasai homeland as described in The Green Hills of Africa.  Run through a Maasai community on trail in the remote village of Kimanjo and help raise money for girls education in Kenya.  Visit: Extend your stay and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Havana Marathon, Half-Marathon and 10k races; Nov. 20, 2016. Visit: The Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home outside Havana; Floridita Bar in Habana Vieja (order a Papa Doble). Suggested reading: Islands in the Stream.

Paris, France: 10k du 14ème, January, 2017. Visit: Montparnasse and its cafes as described in The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast.

Comments

  1. I smile as I read your post because I ventured to Key West to run the half marathon on the same day as you! Arriving at 2:00 am after our flight was canceled, our journey found us beginning a 13.1 mile race on little sleep and even less food. You see, we came on that West Virginia salary your cabbie mentioned.
    And I can not wait to do it all over again next year ! We returned fro Key West back to West Virginia for a 40inch blizzard!

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