Men, Today we Die a Little

Emil Zatopek spoke those words to his rivals at the starting line of the Olympic Marathon, in Melbourne in 1956. Throughout his career Zatopek regarded every other runner as a comrade. He talked to everyone everywhere he went. He befriended everyone, including his opponents, chatting with them as they raced. In this respect Emil and I are brothers.

On that marathon day, a Saturday in early December 1956, I was nearly twelve. I had worshipped Zatopek for some time. Later generations do not recognise that name but aficionados – among them Australia’s Ron Clark – remember Emil Zatopek as the greatest Olympic distance runner of all. (What? You don’t know who Ron Clark was?) The marathon course took runners from the stadium, out along Dandenong Road to Dandenong, where they turned for the run back to the MCG. Standing with my mother at the foot of my street in suburban Oakleigh, I picked out Zatopek as he approached, short, balding, a ball of muscular effort. He was not among the first three or so. I ran alongside my hero, racing him from the nature strip. I beat Zatopek over one hundred metres then left him to his devices. Long past his best, injured, unwell, he completed the marathon, finishing in sixth place. 

Sixty years later, in Malta, I was prepared to die a little. Malta was hilly, the roads uneven and hard, the weather brutally clement. Add to that my very late decision to run, and my token training, and I deserved to die more than a little.

I set my alarm for 0445 hours. I booked my cab for 0545. I lay down and sweet sleep enfolded me. My alarm never rang; sleep abruptly forsook me at 0300, leaving me to wrestle with a now hostile pillow and futility. At 0330 I gave up, got up and switched off the redundant alarm. I contemplated the coming day sourly. If you run a marathon with a sleep debt the late miles will claim settlement; effectively you fall asleep on your feet, concentration falters and resolution slumbers.

So I did what any drug addict does. I brewed and drank a thunderbolt coffee. Then I recited my dawn prayers. Then I did what any drug cheat does. I drank some more strong coffee. It was a thoughtful cheat who drained that second cup. There would be no more caffeine until after the race. In every other marathon runners deposit their personalized drinks before the start. These drinks are marked with the runner’s name and the relevant kilometer mark. As we approach every 5K mark we know our drinks await us. My drinks always contain Coca Cola, which, so the label informs me, contains only natural ingredients. The natural ingredients that interest me in a marathon are water (check) sugar (double check) and caffeine (check, check, check). Malta has no provision for personalised drinks – water and a sports drink only – and as I was to learn, even these might fail. So there’d be no further euphoriant chemicals to carry me through Zatopek’s valley of the shadow.

Being awake so early I bolted a slug of sustaining bircher muesli I had prepared a couple of days earlier. Over the couple of days my bircher had set into the consistency of drying cement. The cement sat in my gullet, a solid and present companion that would keep me company well after the coffee stopped working.

The cab dropped me at the ferry terminal in Sliema. From there our prepaid buses would take us to the start in Mdina. (Have you been to Mdina? You must. Around the Mediterranean, ‘mdina’ – derived from the semitic word ‘medina’ – signifies the old city. This particular old city sits atop hills, a fortress from its inception, its honeyed stone walls shining in the sun. I have visited and loved and gone mad time and time again in Jerusalem’s old city, a city most particular to me; and yet I have to declare, by narrow aesthetic criteria, I find Malta’s Mdina Jerusalem’s equal. And in both cases, the city’s geography is its history. Situated at strategic geopolitical crossroads, both have been loved, contended, changed hands again and again, and remain beautiful, beloved and blood drenched.)

Before the Marathon


The bus slid through the dying night. Runners from everywhere chatted in the dimness. I heard African accents, Asian, singsong Italian, German, and Eastern European tongues heavy in consonant and intensity. Regional British accents all around, French too, somehow always a whispering music. Four thousand would run, but only 900 of these would run the full 42.195 kilometre event. Of these Maltans are a small proportion. I suspected Pheidipides Goldenberg constituted the entire Australian contingent. 

The race information booklet advised the oldest male in the full marathon was one Giuseppe Balzarini. At 78 this fellow would be seven years my senior. A skeleton in a bright yellow shirt stood suddenly before me. His face of olive skin hung in deep stubbled folds. He had some teeth, not many, but all of them flashed me a brilliant grin. His right forefinger extended, nearly touching my own yellow shirt: You. How many?

Seventy one. My own index finger came into play: Which country?

The face showed incomprehension. His palms opened interrogatively: How much?

I showed the man seven fingers, then a single digit.

Ahh! Huge smile. The man indicated himself: Me…he showed me seven fingers then eight. His teeth were overjoyed. Then the man – the name on his shirt read not Giuseppe but Edouardo – did something unexpected. He extended his right hand once again, and brought it close to my cheek. Once, twice, Edouardo soft palm patted my cheek. An uncle could not have touched me more tenderly. Of course, my own hand rose to Edouardo’s face and did the same. Chest to chest, smile to crooked smile, we were two Zatopeks. We stood for a moment, then he was gone. I hoped I’d see him again.
Naturally we had arrived at the Start an hour before starting time. Naturally we all used the Portapotties. Mildly grotesque and richly comic are these lines of runners waiting to discharge some of the surplus we have so purposefully taken in. We stand or jiggle or dance, all of us declaring publicly a quite private intention. We wait and we wait, none of us knowing in what condition we will find the accommodation. (Beyond silently thanking my obsessive precursor I forbear here to report.)

But I can tell you on emerging I found it pretty cold up there on that hilltop, the wind rising from the Valetta plain, coaxing gooseflesh from my limbs. I found the numbered van corresponding to my race number and deposited my bag of possessions in the back. Then, sneaking around the front I let myself into the driver’s cabin, tried to make myself invisible, and let my flesh thaw.

The race was to start at 0730 hours. At 0710 my solitude was disturbed: You alright?

It was the driver. Yes I was alright, thanks.

Is OK. Next time you ask?

Yes. Next time. Thank you.

At 0720 my bladder had an afterthought. Back at the Portapotty queues a fair-haired runner named Michelle provided entertainment for us latecomers. A stocky young person, Michelle did not look African lean. I doubted she’d last the distance. (I was wrong.) But as a sprinter she was quite good. As soon as a Portapotty door swung open Michelle would race forward, only to find opportunity snatched from her. This open door was for males only, that open door was the same, this other one opened all right – exposing the buttocks of an occupant who wasn’t expecting company. Michelle danced on the spot, whether to warm up or to maintain continence, the effect was to divert us from our private concerns.

At 0725 the Public Address summoned us to the Start. At 0729 and fifty seconds the PA voice said ten seconds to go. Let’s all count down! Nine hundred voices complied. Zero! – cried the nine hundred. Go! – cried the PA. And we did. Tragically the first kilometres downhill from the citadel of Mdina were downhill. Utterly seduced, my legs flew. For the time being my body, cement bircher included, was weightless. Of course I could not catch my breath. And my sanity fled far away, not to be overtaken for twenty kilometres.

 

What followed in the next five hours will not hold your interest. I recall it all, of course, but wish to forget it. The marathon organisers warned runners the event would conclude at 1300 hours – fully five and a half hours after the start. After that, runners would receive no medal, their finishing times would go unrecorded and unreported. I thought five-and-a-half hours long enough to have a birthday: surely I’d beat the deadline. I had drawn up my plans, dividing the 42.195 kilometres into hopeful ‘quarters’ of 11 kms, 11 kms, 10 and 10.195 kms. I allowed these splits 70, 75, 80 and 90 minutes respectively, totalling five hours and fifteen minutes. A finishing time that would rank with my Personal Blushful Worst.

Of course everything transpired otherwise. Too fast in the first stanza, too undigesting in the second, too beaten up in the legs by Malta’s rocky roadways in the third, too thirsty in the fourth. Thus reads my list of excuses. 

It is true that the shabby mobile kiosk at 28 kms was emblazoned with the sacred words: Coca Cola. But the bewhiskered vendor had no change of my twenty Euro note. He offered me the drink gratis, but I waved his offer away. Even an addict would not rob the poor. It is true too that the water stations at 30 and 35 kilometres ran dry before my arrival at the tail of the field. I felt grumpy for a bit, a new sensation in a marathon. My uncharitable feelings quickly evaporated in the glorious sunshine – unseasonable, given Malta’s weather patterns for late winter. From the five kilometer mark onward I ran bare-chested, bare-bulging-bellied too – not a flattering look but a practical one.

The 30km mark


The final stanza of the course passed through a light industrial estate, a place barren of cheer or cheering crowds. There were none of the uplifting musicians of the first stanza. Thirty-two bands were named in the race brochure. Of these most of the final sixteen were packing up by the time we of the tail reached them. The brochure promised clashing drums, blasting brass, oompahing tubae, and so there were initially. But I could see the matter from the viewpoint of the musicians. By the final kilometres individual runners were spread out, separated by up to 200 metres. A band numbering eight musos might feel a bit absurd playing to one struggling runner.

How different, how soul nourishing was the raven-haired beauty who sang to me at the thirty-seven kilometer mark. (Yes, I appreciate your scepticism here – had it been a veritable Gorgon playing a guitar and singing I’d have felt an uplift. But truly she was beautiful.) The young woman might have been about twenty. Seated alone in a wilderness of concrete, on an ordinary kitchen chair, long black hair falling heavy behind her, guitar on her knee and a mike in front, she gave voice. Sounds issued from her throat that soared upward to the heavens whence they surely came. A moment of joy. When I think of it now – sober, rested, replenished of fluids and foods, and yes – of caffeine, that joy returns. It remains, a treasure to which I can return, long after my week of days in Malta.

38 Kms, read the sign at the roadside. At sea level now, tracing the shoreline of the bay I could not wait for the finish. I shuffled past that sign alone. In the near distance ahead a stocky form and a fall of fair hair told me how wrong I had been in underestimating Michelle. Yet I knew I would overtake her. Surely. Light footsteps behind, a flash of bright yellow far to my left, and this was Edouardo, plowing on, on, looking neither right nor left. I decided I would sneak past Edouardo. I would be the first septuagenarian to cross the line. I moved to the far right of the course, where my rival might not notice my challenge. I drew ahead. Then I looked at my watch – I had 28 minutes for less than four kilometres. I could do that comfortably. Then comfort undid me. I stopped that loathesome running and I walked.

Now Edouardo drew abreast of me, now inching past, he left me behind, a moral ruin. I resumed running, without conviction, without really trying. Michelle receded. Edouardo flowed on. I plodded, I walked, I ran. I lacerated myself with self censure. Around a bend, I looked in vain for the finish. Around another bend, two bright figures, walking in the opposite direction, waved and cheered me on. I recognised the tall woman in her thirties and her male companion, she from Sweden, her husband British. Both wore Finisher’s Medals. I had made their acquaintance at the seven kilometre mark. This was their first marathon, their training had been nugatory. We’d exchanged hoped-for finishing times, we wished each other luck. And now the tyros had shown the veteran how it was done. The encounter lifted my spirits. From that point on – perhaps the 41Km mark – I mainly ran.

Around one more bend, I lacked the courage to look up for the Finish Line. But the crowd noises told me I was close. And the Public Address blaring: and here comes another runner, Ladies and Gentlemen. Cheer him on, help him beat the cut-off time.

I lifted my feet, raised my head, pumped my arms, achieving an ugly sprint. The crowd roared, quite deceived into thinking I had been trying my best. The numbers on the clock astonished me: five hours, 28 minutes. I plunged across the Line.

A banana and a bottle of water materialized in my hands, a foil blanket covered my too hot shoulders, and a medal – the medal – hung heavy from my neck. I shambled forward a hundred metres or so then settled down on a concrete kerb to negotiate nausea. A pair of brown legs approached, stopped within a metre. It was Edouardo. With all my heart I congratulated him. Once again I asked, From what country do you come?

Italia! – and that smile again. We shook hands. The better man had won and I loved him.             

And that was number fifty.
 

5 thoughts on “Men, Today we Die a Little

  1. Howard, you have no idea how enjoyable is to read your stories…it makes me feel that i was in malta too.
    And you are a hero of mine

    Like

  2. Congratulations on the 50th Marathon Howard, I have been wondering how you went, great account of the experience, naturally! from a fellow Malta traveller/brief companion from Melbourne, g

    Like

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