One foot in front of the other. That’s how you do it, this running business. It’s not complicated, it’s not even hard, so long as you don’t do it too quickly or too many times. In the marathon I need to do it 42,185 times. My car finds that distance tiring and so do I. But Traralgon is where I ran my first marathon and – on a later occasion – where I ran my quickest. I try to run Traralgon every year. One of the many things I like about the event is the small field, which allows me to boast, ‘O, Traralgon, yeah, I finished in the first one hundred’.
In 2017 injury saw me miss the fiftieth running of the Traralgon Marathon. I was sorry my legs would miss out on history. The event is Australia’s oldest and it’s also The Victorian Country Marathon Championship. In 2018 I trained, I paid my registration and I injured my knee again. Once again I missed out. But last Sunday saw me fit, I was new again, keen, and running faster than I have for five years. I had lost weight, I’d trained hard and consistently, I felt invincible.
The marathon taught me something I should have known: I am vincible.
I brought my own support team along. Philbert Kayumba from Rwanda is a natural runner. Being on the run from genocide brought him to Australia as a refugee, and Australia grabbed him, and my family grabbed him. Toby Wundheiler is my skinny grandson. He loves running almost as much as he loves his Saba, Pheidipides Goldenberg. The two believed in me, I believed in me, what could go wrong?
The lady at Registration peered at her spreadsheet and answered my enquiry: there are 105 starters in the full Marathon, she said. This was the first augury: I would have to beat five, or they’d have to get lost, or pull out or expire, if I were to finish in the first one hundred finishers. I looked around me at the start and I did not sight anyone who looked slow enough for me to beat.
At the start I heard a couple of blokes speaking in refined accents, their English correct, grammatical. Must be foreigners, I deduced, and indeed they were. They were veterans of many Comrades Marathons. The Comrades is an event run over an appalling ninety (90!) hilly kilometres in South Africa. Respect! These boys looked stronger than their estimated fifty-odd years. We fell into conversation and the kilometres flew beneath my feet. A sparrow flying with eagles, I ran surprisingly fast, fatally fast. By the time I reached the 11-kilometre mark, the Comrades were well ahead, still in sight, if out of earshot, my breathing was hard and my legs felt tired. Only a quarter of the distance run and I had shot my bolt and I was not Usain.
Afraid I’d ruined my marathon, I took stock and nourishment. My nourishers on this occasion brought Coca Cola and belief. The nourishing duo were Toby and Philbert. I blessed them and heaved my frame into motion. Now the marathon looked better and felt better, as the route left the paved roadways grey and followed the rail trail. The trail is paved with gravel that springs the tired leg and cushions the sore foot. It runs through the native bushland that fringes the pastures. Amiable cows watch and munch and splatter as the runners pass. A lone human now, I spent some time running steadily in bovine company; the cows and I established a comfortable fellowship, no words needed.
An apparition in red, a young woman, announced herself: ‘Hello, I’m your sweeper.’ The voice was sweet, the smile friendly, but I knew dread. The sweeper is the official who sweeps clean the Marathon Course of runners, once their allowed time has expired. Her arrival meant I was running in last place. She would keep me company until the fatal hour. I’d need to reach the Finish before 1.00 pm or I’d be swept. Sweep Lady introduced herself: I’m Vera. I told Vera I was Pheidipides. Vera looked at me jogging along. You’re running well, she said. Would it be rude if she asked me my age? I told her my age. You’re amazing, she said. In my turn I questioned Vera. She’d run Traralgon a number of times, finishing around three-and-a half hours. Today she’d volunteered, giving away her own swifter marathon in favour of the slowest.
Vera spoke proudly of her daughters, aged 17, 14 and her boy, 11. All were mad about sports, the elder two being elite junior netballers. Vera drove the eldest to training in Melbourne two days a week. She didn’t mind spending four hours on the road. She was happy to keep doing it, until the day she says, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. Then we’ll stop, no pressure.
A second red blur appeared in my lateral field. The blur rode a bicycle. She introduced herself: I’m Lucy. Lucy too had given up her marathon to share the sweeping duties. Had Lucy run Traralgon before? Sure have. I won it seven times. My interrogation of Lucy revealed she held her Age Group World Record for a 200 kilometre race. A few of my records have been beaten, but I still hold the two hundred. Like Vera, Lucy taught at a local school. The two chatted about mutual friends. Maxine was doing better now her daughter was recovering. Therapy had made all the difference. Madeline was running today, the 10 K, not the marathon. She’d given that up to referee the hockey. Young Robert had been stood down by his school. Despite warnings, he was out. You couldn’t push a classmate into the urinal, you couldn’t pull his pants up while he was taking a pee. No respect. It didn’t make it better that the urinating victim was African. You need to have respect.
Kilometres passed pleasantly. So and so had a new job, closer to town. Such and such was working night shift at the hospital which allowed her to help the littlies at school with their reading. A third friend ran the Fire Brigade Coffee Truck. He gets up early Saturdays and Sundays and drives the truck to the local footy – both sexes, to the local soccer – girls and boys – to the netball, the basketball, then the AFL in the afternoons. The profits from the coffee truck go to buy musical instruments form the town Junior Band. The cows and I listened and learned.
Even tired old legs retain some pride. My legs were tiring, certainly they were old, but here were Lucy and Vera, a pair of runners who’d dedicated their day to the slowest of all. Fleet-footed and vital, these two would recognise my flaccid morals if I stopped. I kept going, sustained by pride, bemused by gossip that spoke only good of their fellows.
A noise up ahead, a flash of black flesh, cries of Saba! Saba! You’re awesome, Saba! And Saba was me and the noises were Toby’s and the flash was Philbert. More Coke, more embraces, more sunshine pumped up my bum, and here we were at the turn, at the halfway point.
Phil and Toby saw me around the turn, where the Marshall cried, Pheidipides! Pheidipides Goldenberg! I recognised Barry Higgins, this marathon’s historian. His splendid book, ‘In the Long Run’, records the history of this event and its fifty famous years.
Toby loped and leaped at one side, Philbert glided at the other. I knew no pain. The halfway mark signals good tidings to the runner; the mind realises every step now leads shortens the road to the Finish; the legs know they can do it. The reality of twenty-one kilometres remaining somehow weighs less simply for having turned for home.
Toby announced: I’m going to run with you to the three-quarter mark, Saba. It’s only ten kilometres. He darted ahead. Vera observed, you’ve got a lovely grandson there, Howard. Lucy remarked, not quite beneath her breath, and your son Philbert’s hot! ‘Yes, they are’, I agreed. Hot Philbert left the gravel to retrieve the car. Lovely Toby ran on until, one kilometre later, he sighted the car and decided he’d keep Philbert company.
More of the same. Step followed step, perhaps a little slower. The sun shone palely, I discarded gloves, then a shirt, then a singlet. The legs found a rhythm they could tolerate, my brain separated itself from pain; I was spending time in pleasant company, passing though the wintry green. At some stage I must have fallen silent.
I heard a question. Someone was asking, are you retired, Howard? I answered Lucy, who then asked, so you know all about the heart, then?
Lucy pressed on: Have you heard of arrhythmia?
We had a long chat about arrhythmias, how a runner’s heart muscle might be strong enough to run two hundred kilometres in record time one day, but beat so irregularly the next that running was impossible. But arrhythmias could be treated.
Vera spoke of her youngest, a boy born dangerously premature. They’d prayed for the little mite. He was too sick for the local hospital and ambo’s speeded him to the Monash Children’s Hospital where he pulled through. Ever since, the little fellow had lived his lively life in a body small and frail; it never occurs to him he has a disability. Never mind he has to spend periods at home, never mind that he too is prey to a parlous heart irregularity – all the other kids played sport, so would he. The reality of a brave boy, running the marathon that is his life, made my own marathon a small affair. I was a child, running was my play; Vera’s child on the other hand, runs to the ‘Wall’ every day.
I listened to Vera and to Lucy and thoughts of fatigue never broke through. What was tiredness? Some petty experience, not admissible, lacking substance. Assuredly I was slowing all the time, but the sweepers assured me I remained a legend, I was certainly awesome, thoroughly amazing. You’ll easily arrive before they close the course. You’re way ahead, said Vera. I looked at my watch, but by this stage I was incapable of computation.
A small black car peeped between the bushes, and here, in a flurry and a roaring were Toby and Philbert bearing love and belief and Coke and a Mars bar. We’d reach the three-quarter mark. Numb in the brain, sugared into foolish cheerfulness, I picked up my feet and plodded on. At every road crossing and at every aid station, we found volunteers. I’d salute them and the sweepers would dismiss them: You’ve done your job. Thank you, thank you all. This man here is the last runner. I might have wept for thankfulness.
Off the gravel now and onto those pavements grey, as Yeats called them. Up a hillock, down another, head down, a dour business. Abruptly a pretty lady in blue burst into my threesome. She flung herself into the arms of my companions. Boadicea! How did you go, Bo?
You’re kidding! Boadicea, meet Philopities! Or Howard. He’s a legend. Ask him how many marathons he’s done.
The young lady in blue asked me how many.
Fifty two. This will be fifty three.
Boadicea affirmed I was a legend. I knew she had that back to front. I concentrated on not falling over and I said nothing.
We ran on. Four kilometres to go, four nasty, mean kilometres, each one of them longer than the one before.
When a man’s afraid
A beautiful maid’s
A cheering sight to see.
The lines from The Mikado bypassed my brain and came to my lips and I heard myself singing in the empty back streets of Traralgon. The ladies looked at each other. Charitable souls all, they said nothing.
Thus inspired I ran on. I knew I’d find Toby and Philbert in the final kilometre. We twisted and turned in empty back streets that quite befuddled me. Sandwiched between my colourful escorts, I followed wherever they led. I was a dumb machine, a mechanism of bone and gristle and muscle, an automaton untroubled by thought or pain. One limb faithfully followed its fellow, mine was a body as free of volition as if I were falling. I might easily have been asleep.
But here was familiar territory. Parkland, a creek, Traralgon’s sporting precinct must be somewhere near. A skinny stick figure in black tights and top materialised, a great grin flashed, a boy mad with love and joy flung his arms about me, imperilling my dodgy balance. The boy ran at my side, in front of me, across me, then sprinted away into the distance, shouting: See you at the Finish, Saba! Vera said, Toby’s gone the wrong way.
Philbert, smooth, quiet calming, ran at my side. He looked emotional. Next time I want to run this with you – the whole distance.
A minute later the sports ground loomed. We turned a weary corner and there, two hundred metres ahead, was the Finish. Go, Howard, said Phil’s quiet voice.
Go Howard, cried Vera and Lucy.
Go Philopities, screamed Boadicea.
So I went. I went fast. EmpIoying bundles of fast-twitch muscle fibres that I hadn’t used in the 42 slow-twitch kilometres that lay behind, I sprinted.
I felt fast. I felt liberty, release, the knowledge of an ending. I pumped my arms, I waved them, I flew and I crossed the Line and I fell into Toby’s arms. The clock read, 5 hours and 52 seconds. Two women in red and another in blue told me I was a legend, I was amazing, I was awesome, as they clapped my back and kissed my face.
Later Philbert sent me footage of the final sixty metres or so. I looked and I laughed. The video camera catches me in profile. Had I not known otherwise, I’d have taken the spavined biped in the picture as some strange clockwork creature in green tights. I invite the reader to view the footage and share my mirth.
On the way home Philbert drove and I stretched out and ate and drank. Philbert said, that will be my event. I’ll run Traralgon next year with you, Howard. I’ll run it every year. Toby said, You’re my inspiration, Saba. I’ll run it too. I’ll bring Mancha, I’ll bring Mami and Papi, I’ll bring Nana. Savta will come, my bothers too. We’ll all run.
1. Five hours and 52 seconds is not a fast time. It is, however, 30 minutes faster than my previous five or six marathons. By way of comparison, my first Traralgon (in which I ran last) took four hours, thirty-one minutes and thirty-one seconds. My best Traralgon took three hours and fifteen minutes. Today I finished last but I was the first runner over 73 years to cross the line. I am happy to claim the title, Victorian Marathon Champion (male), (over 73). And I have duly added that title to my CV.
2. Mancha is a Border Collie.
3. Savta is my wife, a walker, not a runner. Nana is her 92 year old mother, a Yogi, not a runner.