The 10,000 Steps of Leopold Bloom
Lisa Simpson: “Oh, it must be Bloomsday. Every June 16, lovers of James Joyce follow the route traveled by Leopold Bloom in the novel Ulysses.”
Bart Simpson: “What you’re saying is, we’ve run out of fun things to do.”
Even if the Irish family vacation planned by that other Homer, the dim one, failed to entirely deliver the goods, daughter Lisa is right: tons of people will merrily descend on Dublin this month to re-enact the most famous urban stroll in literary history. On a fictional June 16, 1904, Leopold Bloom meandered the streets of Dublin like a modern-day Odysseus, if Odysseus was an absentminded nebbish a little bit scared of his wife.
For pilgrims, the day typically unfolds like this: You set out at 8:45 am from Bloom’s house at No. 7 Eccles Street, with the novel in one hand and a Dublin street map in the other. You dutifully work your way through Bloom’s destinations: Dlugacz’s butcher shop for some breakfast mutton kidney; Sweny’s drugstore for lemon soap; Davy Byrne’s pub for a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy. (Only the especially dedicated will replicate the souvenir Bloom conjured for himself at Sandymount beach.) It's a sweet ritual, a celebration of small moments that’s a fine antidote to the heavy burdens of modern life. But it’s not to be taken lightly. This is one Big Day of walking.
All of which got Jeff McClung wondering.
An associate professor of physical education at Berea College in Kentucky, McClung posed a quirky question: Would Leopold Bloom actually have been up to this? Hoofing it for eighteen hours, man: would he have been fit enough to pull that off?
McClung sought to sleuth out the answer, eventually publishing his results in a special issue of the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. (You can read it here.)
McClung’s first task was to determine how far Bloom actually walked on Bloomsday. He flew to Dublin and retraced Bloom’s steps with a handheld Garmin GPS device. He concluded that Bloom covered a seemingly manageable 8.99 miles.
But then came the trickier questions of Bloom’s stamina and determination. Based on clues from the text, McClung assembled a kind of physiological portrait of of the man.
Bloom was 38 – young by today’s standards but late-middle-aged for an Irishman at the turn of the 20th century, when the average life expectancy was only 48. Bloom was by no means a jock. He had a wee bit of a belly. He knew he was edging toward 40, when health tended to start cratering for men back then. Bloom stood five nine and a half and weighed 158 pounds. McClung figures his Body Mass Index (BMI) to be 23: fairly decent. Fitnesswise, and staturewise, Bloom was basically an “Everyman.” With a little training he could have pulled this Big Day off no problem. Of course, Bloom hadn’t actually trained. "He appeared to lack the discipline" to make daily exercise part of his lifestyle, McClung notes.
McClung takes a stab at Bloom’s maxVO2 score. That’s a measure of oxygen uptake, essentially how aerobically fit you are. For his age, Bloom probably fell around the 40th percentile on this measure, McClung reckons – so a little below average. Remember, though, that Bloom isn’t running a marathon. It's a walk.
“Though he had little anaerobic endurance, as seen by his sprinting difficulties, he had plenty of stamina to live successfully in early 20th century Ireland,” McClung concludes. You could hail a horse carriage back then, but most people walked. So it wouldn’t have been a particularly unusual day for Bloom – just a long one. On Bloomsday, he kept up a reasonably brisk pace, averaging around 4.2 kilometres an hour.
If Bloom had been wearing a Fitbit, the device would have registered his 10,000th step around the time he fetched up at the Ormond hotel for dinner. He still had almost six hours of walking ahead of him. He’d have been knackered by the time he arrived home to his wife, Molly, who was better rested, having spent part of the day in bed cheating on Bloom with her lover, Hugh Boylan. Bloom would have slept like a brick.
The takeaway, perhaps, is this: If you’re thinking of joining the pilgrim hordes in Dublin next week, good on you. If Leopold Bloom could do it, you can do it too.
But be prepared. Running shoes are a better idea than the leather Oxford brogues Bloom probably wore. Bring snacks: Bloom burned 3,009 calories on that warm June day.
And drink plenty of water — if only to wash out the taste of the mutton kidney.
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