So what? I mean what’s the big deal? Another marathon (my fifty-fifth), another marathon story: to the reader, yet one more story about the same tedious event, meaningless, surely. But to me, runner and recorder of fifty-five runs? That I bother obsessively to count them suggests they count for something, if only to me.
Thirty years ago, Helena Mann, the elderly mother-in-law of my sister, challenged me: Howard, this marathon running you do, it is disordered somehow.
Helena survived Belsen and emerged without hatred. I held her in the highest esteem. Her words had a weight and a heft and I thought on them and I think on them still. And yet, and yet, there’s that fugitive line from Malamud’s ‘The Fixer’…
It all starts in the year 1954 in the small town of Leeton, New South Wales, where a small boy reads the story of Pheidippides, an ancient Athenian who ran long distances in the service of his countrymen and died in their service with the word “Joy” on his lips. The boy reads and absorbs the story of lonely endurance, of courage and glorious death. The boy is transfixed, transformed and inspired.
The boy realises these storied events took place a long, long time ago. That boy, raised on Bible stories, lives fully in stories, untroubled by the small matter of antiquity. It never occurs to the boy the story might not be History but myth. If it had occurred to him, knowing already how a story can be true without being factual, he’d still be moved. For him all story is formative. The story of the runner crystallises within the boy. Thirty years after reading the tale he enters a marathon in Traralgon. He completes the entry form: Family Name: Goldenberg. First name: Pheidippides. He declares the admixture of solid fact and true romance which is his identity.
From the first, the runner sees the marathon as the field of heroes. There’s a majesty, a grandeur to the event. Blessed in the spirit, cursed in the flesh by history, a marathon is apotheosis, the elevation of the pedestrian to the immortal. But Traralgon, this small town, where cows graze in the shade of the chimneys of doom? An unlikely location, surely, for the heroic. But Pheidippides is old enough to remember Derek Clayton, the Aussie marathoner who ran the 1969 Fukuoka Marathon in 2 hours and nine minutes, the first in the world to beat two hours and ten minutes. As the world hails Kipchoge today for beating two hours, Clayton astonished the world for smashing the barrier of the day. Just one year later he ran Traralgon, setting a local record time, a record that still stands at the time of writing.
Pheidippides Goldenberg has long known the glory. By the year 1956 he has been translated from his country town to Oakleigh, in the mystifying metropolis of Melbourne. Here heroes run past the bottom of his street. Those heroes include Emil Zatopek, perhaps the greatest distance runner of modern times. At the Start of the Olympic Marathon, Zatopek, now past his best, addresses his peers: Men, today we die a little. By the time Zatopek passes Atkinson Street in Oakleigh, he’s trailing the leaders. The boy sights the champion, leaps into the field and runs at the side of his hero. Fifty yards on the boy declares the race a tie and he leaves Emil to complete the distance.
On this warm day the heat will defeat many of the proven great; these will drop out, but Zatopek will not. He’ll finish in sixth place, utterly vanquished but hailed at the Line by the crowd. Alain Mimoun of France, thrice beaten by Zatopek for gold, has today triumphed. He seeks out Zatopek at the finish to salute him. Bodies of men who have died a little are animated by an elevated spirit that does not escape the boy.
And so it is in the year 1980, in Traralgon, of one hundred and eighty-one runners who enter the marathon, one hundred and forty-one finish. Listed 141st is Pheidippides Goldenberg, who preserves the printout of the results. That marathon in Traralgon is a mighty struggle, which is, of course, the point. Early in the event Pheidippides runs far too fast. At 32 kilometres he hits the Wall. There remain a further ten and the runner learns the hard truth that 32K is just half the race in spiritual terms.
At this point, all energy spent, Pheidippides’ right calf is struck by a mighty cramp. He cannot run a single step. He turns around and tries running backwards. Now the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thigh seize each other, a quartet of muscle shrieking in pain. Pheidippides cannot run a backward step. He stops and walks and gives thanks.
Traralgon is a midwinter event. By 4.00 PM, the shadows lengthen, the day chills, no runners are in sight. An ambulance approaches, slows, and a concerned voice asks the walker who earlier was a runner if he’s alright. He says he is. The voice asks, Would you like a blanket? Somehow this makes the runner laugh. Reassured, the ambos drive on, but they circle and at intervals they return.
A long time later the walker sights the Traralgon Football Ground. He has to complete only a single circuit of the oval, then he can cross the Line and finish. He tests the calf with a diffident jog; no complaint. He breaks into a shuffling run. Half way around the oval, movement on his left disturbs his reverie; appalled, he sees a crowd emerging from the footy clubhouse. More and more people, one hundred and forty finishers, together with all the non-finishers, and all their spouses and children and all the volunteers, gather on the verandah to witness the runner’s mortification. Now the hundreds begin to clap. Cheering breaks out, the applause grows louder. Pheidippides crosses the line. He weeps, all shame washed away, never to return.
More marathons follow, all following the same pattern. In Alice Springs (nine times), in the Gold Coast (thrice), in New York (five times), in Boston (five times), in the Melbourne Marathon (eighteen or so), back in Traralgon (about nine more), in Malta, at the World’s Veteran Games, in the Sydney Marathon – in all these marathons, Pheidippides, enters, suffers, is humbled, manages to finish and feels enormously pleased with himself. Here he has overcome deep fatigue, here injury, there undertraining, the next time overtraining; in his first Boston he experiences hypoglycaemia, becoming deranged with hypomania; in a later Boston he evades the bombs; in Sydney he survives a viral infection; once in Boston and once in Melbourne, he runs underdressed, becomes quickly chilled, then soaked, then lashed by winds that afflict him further in his hypothermic misery. In crisis after crisis, Pheidippides says to himself, this is foolishness. I won’t do this again.
The worse the ordeal, the richer the laurels. His very mediocrity feeds Pheidippides’ vanity. Here he is, one who has conquered adversity, one who has conquered himself. In all the high regard in which he holds his true heroes – the Australians De Castella, Monaghetti, Clayton; Juma Ikaanga of Tanzania; Gelindo Bordin of Tuscany, Zatopek himself, and the original Pheidippides of Marathon Field – every time he crosses the Line, the boy from Leeton feels himself as one with these greats. And he writes a chapter in his own legend.
In July 2019 in Broome, on the pink sands of Cable Beach something changes: Pheidippides starts to run, he continues to run, he keeps on running, he reaches the Line and he finishes. No agony, no crisis, no ‘Wall’, no wrestling with doubt. The element of struggle absent, what story can there be to record? Instead he feels simple joy, unalloyed, sustained through the forty-two kilometres. He recalls the first Pheidippides who finished with joy on his lips.
A couple of months pass. Back home in Melbourne, October approaches and Pheidippides realizes he hasn’t registered for the local event, Australia’s biggest marathon. In truth he’s never loved the Melbourne Marathon. He lives in that city, it holds the concrete reality of his rich life but it glows with none of the unreality that enhances his magical sites – Boston, Alice Springs, Malta, Athens. Melbourne is ordinary, and in the marathon Pheidippides looks for the sublime. So no, he won’t enter Melbourne this year. As if to solidify his resolution, he doesn’t train.
But then he remembers Manny. Long before Manny Karageorgiou became Pheidippides’ friend he was a celebrated marathoner. He was one of the very few who ran the first Melbourne Marathon and every one that followed. By the time he ran his fortieth and final Melbourne in 2017, Manny was one of the eight Official Legends. Manny paid a high price for his devotion to the event. Proudly Greek, he dreamed long of running the Athens Marathon, but it clashed with Melbourne and Manny would not grant himself leave from the event he helped to found. He would not forsake his seven peers.
In 2014 Manny developed sore ribs. X-rays showed why his bones hurt: they were invaded by cancer. Manny subjected himself to quite hideous chemotherapy, arising between treatments in hospital to train and to run Melbourne. In those years Pheidippides, his doctor, ran at Manny’s side. Through 2017, Manny had scarcely left hospital. Training was impossible. Came October, and Manny joined the Legends at the Start. He wouldn’t run but he’d walk as far as he could. Who knew, perhaps he’d even finish. So Manny set out, his devoted son at his side, relatives and friends and Pheidippides in his shadow. Some in the crowd hailed him, they knew him, they knew his legend. At four kilometres Manny’s foot caught the edge of a tramline and he fell heavily. At length he managed to get to his feet, blood oozing from his grazed face and his skinned shoulder and knee. Medics crowded around him, but Manny waved them away and walked on.
The medics were troubled: Let’s dress those injuries, sir…
I’m alright, said Manny.
You don’t look alright, mate.
Manny’s doctor cut in: He’ll be okay.
But he wasn’t. A kilometer further on, standing in the crowd at the roadside, Manny’s wife Demitra sighted him. She strode into the field and enfolded him and led him away.
Manny died not many months later. In 2018 his son, Pana, ran Athens in his father’s honour. In 2019 Pheidippides Goldenberg entered the event and ran in memory and celebration of the man who embodied the spirit of the ancient Pheidippides.
In Vienna the previous day a modest Kenyan named Eliud Kipchoge completed the marathon distance under the two-hour barrier that sports scientists regarded as impregnable. After his run he predicted greater things for his species: No human being is limited, he said: I’m expecting more people to do it after me. He went on to speak of building peace in the world. If one person could break two hours, what might we do collectively?
In Melbourne, on his way to a staggeringly slow finish, Pheidippides recalled Helena Mann: this is your answer, Helena. This ‘disordered’ marathon business is small, like all our human effort. Ultimately it is meaningless, of course. But look, see among us, how the human spirit flickers but burns on.
And as he ran, he remembered those lines from Malamud’s ‘Fixer’: I am a man. That is not very much. But it is a great deal more than nothing.
There was a second who ran that day in Melbourne, a boy who escorted his Saba over the final eight kilometres of the course. The boy had been with Pheidippides at Traralgon. He’d seen the agony of that day, he’d felt the glory, he hungered to have it for himself. He said, I’m going to run marathons. I’m going to run marathons with you, Saba.
By the time you’re old enough to run a whole marathon, darling, I might be deadybones.
You’ll never be deadybones, Saba.
Everybody dies, darling.
You won’t Saba. I won’t let you. I love you Saba.