The Alice Springs Marathon takes place on the third Sunday in August. Forgetting how cold the nights are in the desert Melbourne people marvel: ‘Oh, how can you bear to run in that heat?’
The temperature at 0630 this morning is three degrees. I manage that terrible heat rather well. But by the time I finish the day is warm, gloriously warm. Is there a more lustrous town in winter than Alice? The skies are blue – I am searching for an adjective – a blue to banish the blues. In winter, no haze, just light. The Macdonell Ranges dominate every prospect. Rugged, richly red-brown, frequently blanketed heavily in green, the colours mutating with the changing light. From one side colossal heaps of burning honeycomb, from the far side purples mauving to pinks, greens to slake a thirsting soul.
You look up and up, the walls of colour so close, so steep above you; you feel like singing praises; you shake your head at these ridges that dominate a town. Such immensity, such liberality, so close!
We runners set off in the last of the dark. The rock still black and near-blacks that will kaleidoscope and explode as we run.
As ever, on marathon eve, I made plans, plotted strategy, devised tactics. I wrote of these to John, my illustrious runner-in-law in New York: ‘This time I’m not running for survival, not running passively, aiming merely to finish. I’ll attack the marathon. I’ll run for a time: after my worsening Personal Worsts of Boston (five hours and nine minutes) and Traralgon (5.14), I want to beat five hours.’ I laid out my plans: dividing the 42.2 kilometres into four quarters, I would run as follows: first 11 kms in 70 minutes; second 11 km in 70 minutes; the next 10 kms in 75 minutes; and the final ten in 80 minutes. I concluded my letter to John with the words, ‘Man tracht, Gott lacht’ – ‘Man plans, God laughs.’
As in all my forty-six previous marathons I gave God a good chuckle today. He might have smiled as early as 2.48 AM, when sleep died and, with an excitable bladder, I arose early for early, and my day began.
My younger daughter Naomi invariably issues two instructions on the eve of my marathons: ‘Have a good run Dad, and don’t come back dead.’ This year she adds, ‘Know with every step how I love you.’ Her anxiety peeps out and shows itself as I age.
I knew I’d have to harden myself against pain and fatigue. I would remind myself, whenever the going got hard, ‘It’s meant to be hard. That’s why we do marathons.’
As usual the field was rich in tattered and scarred males, blokes weathered and tempered by marathons run all over the country; and young women, girls really, all looking too tender to be serious. Yet I knew from experience these girls from Alice, outwardly delicate, are inwardly wrought of gristle and gut; I knew of old how they’d whip me. And today the Army turned out. A contingent of soldiers entered the race.
Last year I was injured. In my absence from the race they changed the course. Too deaf to follow this morning’s briefing, I know I’ll be in trouble if I find myself leading. Prudently I avoid that pitfall. After the Race Director finishes whispering his instructions, he raises his pistol. Bang! I’m not too deaf to hear that and I set off near the tail of the bunch to attack the Alice Springs Marathon.
After only two hundred metres, my breaths come fast and hard. I recall my mantra: ‘It’s supposed to be hard. It’s a marathon.’ One after another, runners pass me, as they should. My place is at the tail of the field. But I keep up my attack. In the course of my first two ‘quarters’ it will not be my watch that guides me but my breathing. I resolve to run hard enough to remain always short of breath.
And so I do.
Have I mentioned the beauty of this place? After only six winding kilometres we have left behind the town of Alice and run through Emily’s Gap. Like Honeymoon Gap, the name sounds rude, but the rich deep chocolate rocks grab my spirit and I have no thought for anatomy, none even for respiration; it is glory that transports me.
Past the ten km mark, I search for the end of my first ‘quarter’. I say to myself – I conduct lots of self-conversations during a marathon – ‘That’s a quarter of the distance done.’ But I reckon I’ve spent much more than that fraction of my strength. I find no comfort in these calculations.
Around the 20 km mark a blur approaches at speed from the opposite direction. Is this a duststorm? A willy-willy? No it’s my midget colleague and new friend Roxi, motoring fast on the homeward leg. This kid can run. She completed the famed Comrades run in South Africa while pregnant. Now lactating, she carries her biology lightly.
Half Persian, half Irish, Roxi is all speed as she buzzes past with a wave and a what me worry grin, on her way to a new Race Record. She calls out, ‘You’re going well, Howard!’, a cheering lie of kindly intent.
Still, onward at my breakbreath pace, I drive powerful legs to torment hardworking lungs. Twenty kms, twenty-one, twenty-two – where is the turn? I permit myself a peek at my watch. Here I am, ‘halfway’ there, in only 133 minutes. I have kilometres and minutes in the bank.
It’s time to make a deposit in that account. I open a foil container of ‘gel’. Pineapple flavoured, it contains glucose and electrolytes in a special medium concocted for easy digestion by a stomach starved of blood supply. I suck hard then stop in sudden amazement. With its mucoid consistency the gel raises insistent echoes of a body fluid. Proverbially, human semen must be flavoured with pineapple to render it palatable. If this is semen, the gentleman should have eaten a lot more of the fruit. No, not semen but human snot is this substance – recycled, sweetened and cooled and fruited. And horrible. Horrible!
It comes to me that the turn has been placed well past the halfway mark. And so it is: we turn at 23.5 kms. And as I round that small red marker a sudden nausea strikes. My breathing goes from hard to desperate, my chest becomes a place of torment and a fatigue like death seizes me. All this in the space of five metres.
You, reading this, picture a man of sixty-nine, gripped by chest pain brought on by exertion. You summon ambulances of the mind. You know I must stop. Quicker than your apprehensions, my body knows it and acts. And I do stop dead. But acutely alive, unpleasantly so. Body memory of similar episodes that go back to my thirties, medical memory of legion negative heart tests, nothing new here, nothing to make me withdraw. Regrettably. In this extremity of fatigue, overdrawn on my bank balance of energy, my blood pressure drops and I come to a physiological fullstop. Perhaps a semi-colon, for, only ten miserable seconds later I am able to raise one leaden limb, to advance it before my torso, to raise the opposite member and advance it, and so to proceed at a pathetic shuffle that cannot possibly look as bad as it feels. And that is how I run my third ‘quarter’. Too weakened even to remind myself, ‘It’s supposed to be hard; that’s why we do it.’ What I experience here is the operation of De Castella’s Law. De Castella wrote a guide to marathon running. He predicted, ‘For every minute a runner completes the first half too fast, he’ll lose ten minutes in the second.’ I know this Law too well. By De Castella’s reckoning I will lose thirty five minutes. I have to laugh – at myself.
After a short time I ponder this marathon running of mine, this absurdly ambitious enterprise that will surely come to finality today. And a strange joy, almost a delirium, floods my being. I review so many of the forty-six marathons before today’s… That first marathon in Traralgon when I ran last and when the entire field of the one hundred and forty runners who’d vanquished me stepped out of the clubhouse to applaud my final four hundred metres… The hockey players a decade later, who held their raised sticks above my head, shouting, ‘Guard of Honour! Guard of Honour!’
Then I was back in the Gold Coast in the Pauline Hanson days, overtaking a lean runner, younger, his hair cut shorter than a soldier’s, a skinhead cut. Hanson memorably warns Australia we are becoming a KKK country – ‘Kosher, Koran, Konitchiwa. And here, at every vantage thousands of well wishers, among them many Japanese, scream their support.
I wanted badly not to run behind this man, not to feel the ugly thud of Hansonite ill-will in the words written on his t-shirt: ONE NATION.
My Alice Springs Marathons – twelve of them, – more? – flooded back. It might have been my third here, when, running alone for a long period, I sighted in the distance a solitary man walking in the just-past dawn. Wearing a cream hat and an earth- red shirt, his dark skin completed an Aboriginal flag. I bethought myself of the absurdity of our marathon heroism, doing for glory what this man’s people have always done, for utility and for the spirit, simply being in country.
Now I was in Boston, my first Boston, bonking. At least that’s the term I was given to explain my confusion on Heartbreak Hill, where I could see the sloping rooflines, but for the life of me I was unable to work out whether I was running uphill or down. In a hypoglycaemic state, I’d gone ‘bonkers’, hence bonking. Bonking should be better fun that that, I thought. An hour later, running thirty minutes behind my target time, I heard the man exhort the crowd over the public address: ‘Cheer these runners, folks, help them race to the line. They are the last who’ll break four hours.’ Surfing huge waves of love and goodwill, transcending the wreckage of muscle and hope, I flew. And crossed the line in four hours and one second.
And running in the World’s Veteran Games in Melbourne, when I burst into crazed singing and danced in wild uncoordination to a roadside jazz band. ‘Stop that! Conserve your energy!’, snapped a severe onlooker.’ Conserve energy for what? For what better than to dance and to sing, to gambol like the giddy lamb that is a human in his play?
During my first Melbourne Marathon I found myself running behind a woman with a missing half-calf. A deep and broad surgical excision had reduced a shapely leg. For twenty kilometres I followed that leg, hoping they’d removed the melanoma entirely and in time. In a dozen subsequent marathons over more than a decade I was to chase that calf; they had got it in time.
Another Boston, my third. Chilled by my cooling sweat in the slowing homeward plod, I am, once again in Boylston Street, running down to the Finish in Copley Square. Photos taken as I cross the Line show my face set in grim ecstasy, the precise copy of my Mother’s as, afflicted by her strokes, she yet managed to dance at her grandson’s wedding.
Here I am in Alice but I am back in a past rich in experiences, my being resounding in glories, tiny glories, absurd, yet mighty withal. In physical distress with every short pace, yet my passage, this hour, this long, long hour is one of great joy.
I address my wife, deserted for decades of marathons, reassuring her. ‘It’s not my heart, darling, it’s just intense fatigue. It’s supposed to be hard, that’s why we do it.’ And Annette, my ever decorous wife, delights me with my confected rejoinder. Her face sparking, appetitive, she confides, ‘I know it’s supposed to be hard, darling. I like it hard.’
And so I arrive at the thirty-two km mark, the start of my last ‘quarter.’ A marathon runner learns the psychological burden of the last ten kilometres is the equal of the first thirty-two. Half way there, half way. I know I can do it; that knowledge came to me at the 18 km: I’ll finish today. I can and I will. Terrible knowledge, no excuses.
My watch says I must run these last ten kilometres in 75 minutes if I wish to beat five hours. Imperceptibly my legs have gathered strength. Those legs certainly wish to beat five hours. Cautiously I lengthen my pace. No cramp, no pain at all, not in the limbs, not in my chest. I am running. And enjoying it.
Chastened by my recent experience, I run just short of breathlessness. My breathing accelerates tolerably, I regain a certain rhythm and I run. At every drink station I stop, I sit and rest and drink my leisurely fill. I converse with volunteers who seem taken aback by this old gent who’s taking his sabbatical. I take my leave of these new friends and I run again. Every so often the thought arises, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to stop?’ My head resists this but my will is soft. I take a short walk, then raise guilty legs back to a canter and run on.
It was back at the turn that I realised I was not coming last. Rounding the fatal mark I saw quite a few trailing me. One after another these pass me and I salute them, wishing them well, as if they run as my champions, my vanguard, vicarious bearers of an energy I lack.
Eventually the passers have all passed. I follow their disappearing forms in the brightness of late morning. For the next ten kilometres my remaining companions are drink givers and the Sports Medicine people who circle me like anxious vultures. One of these slows and checks me out so often we exchange first names. Younger than me by decades, nonetheless she mothers me. This is agreeable: my own mother and I have not spoken for years – not since Mum died.
A whispering, a human half sound, an answering murmur, reach my hard ears from behind. Two persons, behind me, usurping last spot! Whoever they are they appear determined to not to catch up, for although I sit and chat at every drink stop, yet they do not pass. A backward glance and I sight a young woman plodding and her support person pedalling ever so slowly at her side.
At thirty-five kms, the drink station is manned by a family of kindly persons clad in the ugliest regalia in Australian sport. I refer to the shitbrown and icterus- yellow of the Hawthorn Football Club. Father, three teenage siblings and Barnaby, an exchange student from France. ‘Barnaby? Une nomme francaise? Certainement non!’ The five play kick-to kick along the highway, untroubled, little interrupted by foot or wheeled traffic. This is the Centre. As I depart one says, ‘See you at lunch! You are our inspiration.’
At thirty-five kilometres I am weak enough to try my Wild Berry Gel. Ghastly. All the berries of Arabia cannot redeem cold snot.
Emily Gap rises up before me. Forgotten are my protesting body, my leaden legs, my stiff breathing mechanism. This mighty ridge, this one great fact consumes my consciousness. The Finish lies thirty – who knows? – forty minutes away. But I am, in a deep sense, home.
The Gap falls away behind me. I discover I am running and there remain five kilometres to run. It is hard, but as I remind myself, it’s meant to be hard. That is the why, the meaning.
The words of Helenka, my mother-in-law-in-law come to me across the decades since her passing: ‘This marathon running, it is somehow disordered’ – she meant the triviality, the mind-numbing banality of placing one foot before another 42,200 times. ‘Better Howard should devote himself to Helenka’s own mission, her fight to educate children worldwide to fight racism.’ Then comes the answering voice of De Castella when I interviewed him in Boulder: ‘If we humans were to stop trying just when the task becomes difficult we’d never achieve much as a species, would we?’ Helenka’s life was her marathon; this passage through time and space, these encounters in flesh, in memory, in mind; these connections – with comrades and volunteers, with my loved ones – these furnish my life, these enrich my marathon.
Memories older still. From Second Class at Leeton Primary School the story of Pheidipides who ran as plenipotentiary for his people, all the way from Athens to Sparta – three days and nights; then from Sparta back to Athens – a further three days and nights; who marched then with the Athenian army to its expected doom at Marathon Field; and following victory, who ran the twenty-four miles back to Athens with the good news. The scouts and the old men on the city walls sighted the lone runner, unarmed, approaching. They threw open the gates. Pheidipides cried, ‘Rejoice my brothers! Ours is the victory.’ And fell and died. I read that story when I was seven. In every marathon, in every fun run, I run as Pheidipides Goldenberg.
“40 Km.” The letters and digits in yellow paint at the roadside should encourage me. Instead they appall. No excuses now, no walking. These are my moments of truth, inescapable. I lift legs, I swing arms, cautiously, and ever so slightly I speed up. There follows a contest. My shadow, the young woman who refuses to overtake, now passes me. I chase her. Drawing alongside at 41 km I have her measure. But no, she draws away. I’d cry but I’m too dry for tears.
At the forty-two kilometer mark, I pass Jenny (we’ve been together so long we’ve swapped names) and then I sprint. This is not Jesse Owens, not Carl Lewis. This is the mastodon, moving as fast as his aeons will allow. I round a bend and enter the chute and plunge towards the line. ‘Rejoice my brothers, ours is the victory.’ A crowd – there must be tens of them – applauds as Mister Public Address instructs them to do. I cross the line, embarrassed by the fuss, embarrassed by the interview with the media man from Melbourne who pokes a black phallus of microphone into my face. He calls me Mister Goldenberg. An earnest and kindly young man, evidently known to all who listen to Eddie McGuire’s radio show. My son would know the name, the face. I apologise that I do not.
Moments later a tender creature approaches. She finished in four hours thirty-two minutes, precisely thirty minutes ahead of me. Beaming, her smile of milk teeth, she wants to congratulate me, and – I fear – to worship. I recall the softness of the child, her unconvincing gait as she and her mountainous companion drew alongside at 24 kilometres; how the two saluted me, pumped sunshine up my backside and ran unconvincingly ahead into the distance. The mountain too congratulates me, his gentle manner belying his mass. I look at his upper arm, muscled more heavily than my (still excellent) thighs. Like his comrade the pink-cheeked girl, he is a soldier, presently serving the Aboriginal community of Titjikala. Our army is building a water treatment plant there. The girl is a nurse, the bloke is with the engineers. I look at these children and I sigh, praying they find no ISIS in Titjikala. Or anywhere.
I search for Roxi, a genuine hero, but she is not to be found. Too many believers here, too ready to see my mere accretion of years as something heroic. I know it can be so, but only in others. I jump onto the bike and I flee.