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Book Review: The Back Road to Boston by Bill Mares 

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In 2002, when Bill Mares of Burlington was 61, he decided he could sing a three-hour performance of Bach’s emotionally draining St. Matthew Passion on a Sunday afternoon and then run the Boston Marathon at noon the next day. That he not only did so but published a book about the experience a decade later — titled The Bach Road to Boston — is proof of an extraordinary optimism.

Here is a regular guy — Mares taught high school science, served as a representative in the Vermont Statehouse, and is a beekeeper and a homebrewer — who truly gets a kick out of life. His attitude brings to mind the words of the aging minister in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead: “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

In The Bach Road to Boston, Mares freely admits to having failed to follow his father’s advice: “Do as many different things as you want, but be expert in something!” He certainly got the catholic interests part down. Or perhaps Mares is an expert in doing many different things. The author has already written books about Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and U.S. presidents’ fishing habits, among other interests. He has issued a collection of his eclectic Vermont Public Radio commentaries and coauthored three books about Vermont with Frank Bryan, including the hilarious The Vermont Owner’s Manual. Bach, Mares’ lighthearted and funny 13th book, focuses on the parallel development of two of his “thousand thousand” hobbies: running and choral singing.

Mares writes that he was introduced to singing through Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. These reached his backyard in the small Texas town where he grew up via a radio balanced on the windowsill. Remarkably, his father convinced the neighbors not to mow their lawns during that “sacred time.”

Mares developed his bass voice as an undergraduate in the Harvard Glee Club. After he moved to Burlington, he made it into the selective early-music choir Oriana Singers. “Is the Pope a Catholic?” was his excited response when director Bill Metcalfe called to ask if he wanted to join.

Mares began running long distances during high school, partly as a way to cope with the sudden death of his brother. Later in life, he discovered running not only put his mind at ease but occasioned great conversations with fellow runners. On Saturday mornings in Burlington, he writes, he regularly ran with three other men. The Four Horsemen, they called themselves, with one nicknamed “High Plains Drifter” for his habit of straying into the middle of the road.

Burlington’s running community is a tight one, so local readers may well recognize the runners Mares gets to know, enhancing the appeal of this locally grounded book. (To my surprise, my own occasional running partner showed up in one anecdote.)

The author generally devotes alternating sections of the book to his marathoner’s regimen and his meticulous rehearsals of St. Matthew Passion, a piece that is among the most moving ever composed. Each endeavor required three months of preparation, and each involved its own setbacks — hearing loss, a torn hamstring. Along the way, Mares detours through a history of “Boston,” as insiders refer to the marathon; a mini-biography of Bach; and conversations with numerous fellow runners and Oriana singers (all quoted verbatim, as if he were running a recorder at the time, though that’s unlikely). Burlington’s longtime musical fixtures pop up regularly, such as voice teacher and soprano Jill Levis, who advises Mares to “do your warm-ups in the car. That’s the Vermont studio.”

Mares, something of a goof, warms up at full throttle in one passage, causing the driver behind him to sign him the international gesture for insanity. He says things like “Hot damn!” and, after an angiogram, serenades the nurses with a song about morphine.

But the author is also a meditative individual — not surprising in a runner — and a Protestant who occasionally reveals a genuine religious devotion. In one passage, he mentions spending the hour between one and two in the morning doing “my share of the Easter vigil at church” — that is, sitting alone, silently, in a pew and bearing witness to Christ’s suffering, which is the subject of the Passion. Atheists need not moan, however. Mares is primarily concerned with Christianity’s directive to devote oneself to others.

It’s a theme that perhaps deserved deeper exploration in the book; instead, Mares often opts to quote the secular version of the precept, E.M. Forster’s “Only connect!” His conclusions justify the repeated exhortation. The book may end with the marathon, which he completed in 4:23:35, but its climax is Oriana’s performance of the Passion. In ardent prose, Mares retells the drama of Christ’s final days in Bach’s version using generous excerpts from the libretto (translated from the German by fellow singer Phil Ambrose).

In the end, Mares writes, the two equally demanding events, Bach and Boston, “represent the two parts of who I am as a human — both an individual and a member of a group, self-absorbed and selfless.”

Reading The Bach Road to Boston in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings is an eerie experience; its historical moment seems to belong to a distant, halcyon past. But combating those fresh images of destruction is Bach’s lasting afterimage of a buoyant, funny, reverent view of life. Contrary to his belief, Bill Mares did become expert in something: infectious good cheer.

"The Bach Road to Boston" by Bill Mares, Red Barn Books of Vermont, 134 pages. $16.95. Mares reads at Phoenix Books Burlington on Thursday, May 16, at 7 p.m.

The original print version of this story was headlined “Twin Feats”

From The Bach Road to Boston

By the next weekend I’m ready again for a good run. We gather at Ralph [Swenson]’s house at 7:30 a.m. Today, in early March, it’s 20 degrees with a moderate wind from the north. Snowflakes leave a gauzy covering on the ground. These Saturday morning runs are the physical and intellectual core of my marathon training. Without the long preparatory runs, my body wouldn’t be ready. Without the company of buddies, I wouldn’t have the interest to persist. Today we will do 15 miles through the countryside, all of it on paved road except for a stretch of dirt around Shelburne Pond. The complaining begins as we stretch. While I lie down on Ralph’s driveway to loosen my back, I groan about my fall and the lost time. Phil [Coleman] moans that he hasn’t run in four days. Not to be outdone, Rick [Peyser] grumbles that he hasn’t run either because he was on the West Coast all week. Ralph looks bemused. He never complains. I think his pain threshold is somewhere up in the Milky Way. No one complains about the weather. Twenty degrees is quite comfortable for mid-winter in northern Vermont.

Runners are an odd breed. Healthier than 99 percent of the rest of humanity, we moan as if we were covered with Job’s boils. Occasionally, there are real ailments or injuries. But much of our complaining is a mélange of excuses, self-pity, and one-upmanship, an athletic version of “Can You Top This?” It’s always bad form to brag, but on the road you can complain anytime. Indeed, you flaunt your temporary disabilities. My wife [Chris Hadsel], who considers runners a bunch of hypochondriacs,once gave me a cap from Spanish Peaks Brewing Company, the back of which reads “No Whiners.” Ralph has dubbed our running group the “Road Worriers” with a motto of “Rise and Whine!”

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Amy Lilly

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Amy Lilly has been a contributing arts writer for Seven Days since 2007.

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