So What?

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.  

 

 

Doing the Cartesian Plod

The auguries are not favourable. In the cricket Australia has lost to the South Africans. In the footy Collingwood has lost to a bunch of nonentities. In the bedroom needed slumber has lost to an importuning bladder, that groans with pre-marathon hydration.

 

 

But truly my sleep has been under attack also from pre-race nerves. This particular marathon, in Broome, will be my first in the heat and my first on sand. I know I can run 42.2 kilometres, but I fear I’ll lack the moral strength to keep running in the sands as they deepen with the incoming tide, and the heat that will rise as surely as I slow.

 

 

 

At 5.00am it’s dark and cool down on Cable Beach, and wonderfully quiet. I stand beneath a crescent of moon, freshly born but days ago. The stars are few. The waves crash and the breakers break and I am a man alone in the vastness. At this moment, than this place there is nowhere I’d rather stand and nothing I’d rather do. How long I stand there watching the flashes of white foam light the darkness I cannot know. How do you measure the dimensions of enchantment?

 

 

 

 

The sky pinks slightly in the east. Time now to pray the Dawn Service. After I’ve finished those prayers and the Traveller’s Prayer, mandatory since the bombings in Boston, (Rescue us from any enemy, ambush or danger on the way, and from all afflictions that trouble the world), the beach starts to fill with runners, with fleeting flashes of light, with murmurs. All speak quietly, all discreet, decorous, in this, our secret convocation, as if noise were desecration. 

 

 

 

Thirty-two of us line up at the Start. The Race Director delivers his instructions and his directions, larded liberally with his benedictions: Have a good run, marathoners, enjoy yourselves, drink plenty, welcome, welcome, welcome, have fun. The event closes in six hours. Our sweeper will come by on a bike and tell you if you look like going over time… But you won’t. The tide is well out and will keep ebbing for the next 97 minutes. After that there’ll be a full six hours before high water. Go well, brothers and sisters, run well and enjoy yourselves.

 

 

 

 

The Broome Marathon might be the sole event in the running calendar whose date is governed by the moon. The organisers choose the Sunday closest in time to the winter neap. Today the sand is firm underfoot, while yielding. My racing feet love it. Our route takes us out five kilometres to the dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Rocks, before the turn which will bring us back to the Start, which will later be the Finish. 

 

 

 

 

I spend those ten kilometres deep in superficial thought: How do you pronounce Gantheame? Looks French, should follow the rules of French pronunciation. But I’ve no-one seems to pronounce it that way…

 

 

 

And of truer gravumen, the self-question, How fast can I prudently complete the first ten kilometres? I know I can do the distance in an hour, but that pace would be unsustainably fast.

 

 

 

I raise my head from these cogitations and regard the young buttocks speeding ahead of me. I look back. To my surprise a half dozen or so runners plod along behind me. An unfamiliar sight, a puzzlement. It takes less than one hour for me to realise these are tortoises and I am a foolish hare, for the ten kilometres have passed and sixty minutes are not yet up.

 

 

 

But who could take these pleasures at a languid jog – at my left shoulder the rising sun (the sun came up upon the left, out of the sea came he), at my right the rolling waves, overhead the arching blue, and beneath that blue the turquoise waters? 

 

 

 

And so I run, fast at first, more slowly later, but on I run, alone, and ever in earnest conversation. First I address Rene Descartes. Rene says, I think, therefore I am.  (At least that’s what they say he says.) Finding myself so steeped in running delight might I not say, I run, therefore I am?  Of course that would reduce me to a pair of stubborn legs. But does life offer anything sweeter than this, this delight beneath absent clouds? I can, therefore I run. Here I am, running early in the event, later plodding, ever ruminating, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

The Race Director directed us to run south all the way to the halfway mark at Coconut Wells. Here we’ll turn and head for home. I’ve never heard of Coconut Wells but I should know it once I arrive: there’ll surely be an oasis there; the entire marathon course is dotted by pop-up oases, where Staminade and water rest on trestle tables beneath shade. Here volunteers dole out encouragement and sustaining fluids. Each oasis is manned by members of a different local sporting team. The Jiu Jitsus water me first, then the Rugby Leaguers, followed by the Philatelists and here at the Halfway it’s the Water Poloists. Later, the Man Cave Vigoro Team, later still the elderly Chinese players of Mah Jong. Such patience, such good natures! 

 

 

 

 

In the five kilometres that stretch between the oases, all along the wide beach, people picnic or swim or cast their lines into the waves. Some sit beneath their portable shade and drink beer and gaze as inconspicuously as possible in the direction of unclad sunbathing women. The drinkers and the fishers and the swimmers and the picnickers look up as I pass and they assure me I am a champion and utter similar kindly falsehoods, so it’s roses, roses, all the way, roses strewn in my path like mad.

 

 

 

 

Just before the turn a voice breaks into my reveries: Howard! Howard! The voice is feminine; whose can it be? A slender figure approaches from the thicker sand high on the beach: Howard, it’s me, Mel. Ian’s partner. You’re doing so well! Is there anything I can give you, anything you need? I shake my grinning head. Sylph-like Mel, Mel who will join the orthopedic trade, Mel is what I needed without my knowing the need. The simple fact of being known – such a deep human satisfaction. Thanks, Mel. I’ll see you at work. And on I run.  

 

 

 

Now as I run I hear the voice and see the image of my younger daughter, she who has always held my joy in running in the balance against the hazards of running; she’s known how marathons have claimed and killed and stilled many runners, faster and fitter than her Dad, fathers no less beloved, no less unreplaceable. Before every marathon I’d hear the voice of that daughter, have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead. At the conclusion of every marathon over the last twenty years, it was that daughter whom I’d call first: I had a great run, darling, and I’m not dead. But after the fifty-second marathon that dialogue came to an end. Dad, said the daughter, I don’t want you to die but I know you will one day. Meanwhile you love to run and I love you and I want you to do what you love. And if you die doing what you love I’ll be sad but I won’t be mad at you.

 

 

 

 

If my daughter’s relationship with my running has been ambivalent, I might say the same of my glomeruli.Wikipedia will tell you that glomeruli form a network of small blood vessels in the kidney, through which blood is filtered to yield a filtrate of urine. The rate at which blood is filtered through all of the glomeruli, and thus the measure of the overall kidney function, is the glomerular filtration rate (GFR). A combination of increasing age, high blood pressure and family tradition has knocked my glomeruli about somewhat, and my filtration rate has fallen as a result. I consult a kidney doctor who advises me, somewhat ambivalently, to keep running marathons: overall it’s probably beneficial to you, but – and here he wags a finger and his gravel voice deepens to a rattling scree – don’t get dehydrated.  That’s like saying, you can run marathons but don’t get tired. So at every drink stop I drink, taking great camel draughts, one time of water, the next of an electrolyte drink. Have you ever drunk Staminade? If you’re fond of blue cordial you’ll like the look of it; if you enjoy drinking glomerular filtrate you’ll love the taste of it.  

 

 

 

Soon my left calf provokes a conversation. The calf has started to feel strange: What – I ask – do you mean by this hard, dead feeling? Didn’t we meet each other in 2013? On that occasion you forced me out of the Melbourne Marathon. Piss off now! Two kilometres later my calf feels fine. And I do not hear from it again. 

 

 

 

 

Never lost for thought, my nimble mind now enters earnest intercourse with the sand. Beaches in Australia are expanses of sand, this particular beach being vastly expansive. I look down and notice something new – striations in the sand. Between the predominant areas of cream, pink streaks appear. The pink is of such delicacy that I perceive it today for the very first time in the quarter century of my running here. Aah, beauty. O blessed day!

 

 

 

 

I interrogate this pink. Pink? Pink? Unheard of. What, where is the earth pink? Answer – the earth here is paprika-pink, rust red, burnt red all through the Pilbara, the Centre, the Kimberley. And whence comes the redness? From iron, that same red element that makes me red blooded. This peaches and cream earth and I are blood brothers. I am at home here, I belong here. Like Adam I am made from this earth. Carried now by this flooding of aesthetic pleasure I am far from the sensations that should affect me. Fatigue is a stranger, thoughts of labour washed away.

 

 

 

 

At this stage I discover I’ve reached the 25-kilometre mark, ordinarily the locus of a great groan of self-pity. The discovery, after three hours of running that I still have seventeen kilometres to run has always fallen heavily upon my morale. But today my being rejoices in all that is before me. Seventeen kilometres? How fortunate! I want this never to end.

 

 

 

 

 

I fill those seventeen kilometres with thoughts that should embarrass me, so deeply dorky are they. I will confide in you, dear reader, trusting to your discretion: I play a word game in which I choose a word of a few syllables, say, ‘catheter’; and using the letters of that word, try to name other words of four letters or more. I find lots of words that, being unwritten, circle and loop though my mind time and again. I will spare you the full list, mentioning just a few words that tickled my vanity practically to orgasm. Those words are theta and theca, followed by terce and tercet, the former denoting the third meditative Christian chant of the morning, the latter referring to a trio of lines in verse.

 

 

 

 

 

The mind is a magpie. My mind has no business knowing the name of an element in High Church liturgy, but it pecks around and picks up useless information prodigiously. If you want to know anything unimportant, ask me.

 

 

 

 

 

A being on a bike intrudes upon my word games. He wears black and he identifies himself as the Sweeper. The Grim Sweeper, the Broome Sweeper! 

I ask, Am I running last?

No mate, there’s a couple behind you still. You’re killing it.

How old are you, if I may ask?

I tell him my age and he says, You’re running like a boy, and I say, If I were your dog you’d take me to the vet and the Sweeper laughs and I laugh and he sweeps back to the laggards behind me and the world feels very nice.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sweeper has put his finger on something real. To run, simply to run, for no real purpose and to no material end, to run for play, is precisely what a small boy does, what a little girl does. Utterly useless, it’s a physical expression of delight in being. It’s the undying spirit of play in a dying animal. I still am, therefore I run; I still can, therefore I run; I run, therefore I am still that small boy. And, enjoying this conversation with myself, I run on and on, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

 

So sweet, this frolic, I wish it never to end.  Running alone, I think of my mother’s father, who came to Broome in 1906 with his three brothers to dive for pearl. I never met that grandfather. I know he played polo, I know he built and played a one-string violin and performed for large audiences in Perth. I know he carved tortoise shell and pearl shell into objects of art. I know he was brave, plying his trade that carried a mortality rate of thirty percent. That grandfather, a laughing cavalier, died young of lung cancer, and I don’t know by what tender name I’d have called him if I’d known him.

 

 

 

 

 

So, communing with the dead grandfather and the dead philosopher, puzzling with words, rejoicing in all that befalls me, I come to the end. My marathon ends in a finishing time of five hours and seven minutes, six minutes slower than I ran five weeks earlier in Traralgon. Of course I’m jubilant, drinking deep of endorphin, floating on euphoria.  A crowd numbering perhaps five persons cheers me across the Line, and behind a phone is the face and form of Mel, taking photographs to record Pheidipides Goldenberg finishing the Broome Marathon in first place (Male, Ancient), there being no other runners aged over seventy.

 

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Running with the Cows

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?

No.

Lucy pressed on: Have you heard of arrhythmia?

I had.

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?

Personal Worst.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

 

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.

 

 

 

Jogblog, 1

Around 1980 I came across a supposed distinction between a runner and a jogger. A runner, I was pleased to learn, was one who could beat one kilometre every five minutes. At that stage I could run the 42.2 kilometres of the marathon at a rate just quicker than 5-minutes a kilometre, finishing in three-and-a half hours or less. To be classed as a fast runner, you had to beat forty minutes for the 10K. Over the next fifteen years I raced a dozen 10K’s, finishing always in 42 minutes and 23 seconds, precisely. I was consistently not fast.

 

 

Running not fast, I’ve barely outpaced packs of semi-wild dogs on hot dusty outback tracks; I’ve chased my childhood along the perimeters of Leeton, where I lived my halcyon seed time; I’ve outpaced skinny dogs in Old Havana and reproachful cats in Israel; I’ve skidded on the black ice in New York City and plodded through the silence of snow falling heavily about me in Mount Kisco and Pittsburgh; I’ve run past the legendary spud farmer Cliff Young, and side by side with the heroic Manny Karageorgiou, who never stopped for Death until Death stopped for him. I’ve trained at Olympic Park as Cathy Freeman whizzed past me. I’ve run in the Rockies with Rob DeCastella, in Alice Springs with Steve Monaghetti, and in NYC behind the gracious Juma Ikaanga. I know I’ve dogged the heels of greatness.

 

 

Running alone on the scorched desert floor beneath The Breakaways out of Coober Pedy, on the abrupt slope of The Gap at Balgo, climbing the Snake Track at Masada, in the darkness before dawn at Uluru, I’ve encountered my sole self, arriving – it seemed – but moments after the Creator completed the work.

 

 

In the dark of a starless night in midwinter, following a road in the hills of the Diamond Valley, my feet traced the sole marker of my way, the luminous white median line on the bitumen. No sound save for my footfalls and my breathing. No hum of motor, no bark of guard dog, no lowing of cattle; just me, the sharp intake of breath, the slap of my foot. In that world of black I shivered not for the cold but for desolation. Then – a sound? – impossible. But heard again, approaching me, low, rhythmic, utterly unaccountable, utterly real sounds. Hairs stood rigidly erect. Then a collision! My legs registered some mammalian presence as I leaped into the air. A thoroughly startled wombat, a speechless runner, silence restored.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 

 

The mother of my brother-in-law was a midget dynamo who’d survived Belsen. When I entered her orbit in the mid-70’s she reproved me for my waste of a life: “Marathon running is somehow disordered”, she said. She spoke with the moral authority of one who knew too much. I listened but I kept running. I considered her words as I ran marathons, some of them alongside my brother-in-law, her only child. I recalled the legend of Pheidipides of Marathon. I came to see my life as the marathon, a passage through time and space, blessed and made rich by encounters with those who make the passage with me, and before me, and who will jog on after I have passed. 

 

 

Rejoice my brethren. Ours is the victory.  

Only Connect

 

 

The marathon began, like all my best marathons – and like all my worst – after too little sleep and too much coffee. Even before I start I know I will learn something today. Every marathon brings its own teaching.

 

 

 

 

I run alone. I train alone. All my running comrades have aged and retired, some defeated by injury, others redeemed by family. Alone, but never lonely, today least so, with friends waiting at Mile 23 and wife and kin at Mile 25. My wife Annette had her fill of marathons decades ago. The novelty of travelling to an inconvenient, often inaccessible rendezvous and waiting there for some hours just to sight and greet and embrace and encourage a sweaty spouse has worn off. Yet today bears the promise of Annette.

 

 

 

 

Fifty thousand-plus of us runners moved by ferry and by bus to Staten Island, New York’s forgotten borough. All had drunk copiously from early morning, against the inevitable drying out of our bodies during the run. After 90 minutes on the bus we debarked, bladders groaning, seeking relief.

 

 

 

 

I looked around me. I saw bushes aplenty but of toilets I saw none. The official marathon booklet warned us runners (on pain of disqualification!) not to use the bushes. I found a very long queue leading to the portable toilets which bore the name Royal Flush. I jiggled, moving from one foot to the other. Looking up, I saw many others in this queue and in others adjacent, dancing the urinary gavotte.

 

 

 

(I know no way of reporting the grit of the marathon without dealing with the seamy reality of the body. When we mammals run our bodies heat up. To contain that heating, a dog will pant, but we human mammals sweat. By the end of the marathon the human kidney is under siege from breakdown of muscle protein, the circulation struggles to compensate for dehydration, toes purple and balloon as blisters fill with blood. Elsewhere, armpits and scrota shed skin, nipples bleed, bladder walls abrade each other and haemorrhage into urine already laden with albumin and urea. The runner eliminates a scant flow of disreputable gravy. Great runners are not immune: champions of major marathons have voided into their shorts, have shat themselves when their bowels outran them, and/or shed public menstrual blood on their way to victory. It’s not a glamorous sport.)

 

 

 

 

The morning was crisp and bright. The sun streaming through the window of the bus had warmed me luxuriously, but once out of the bus I crisped up nicely. Dunkin Donuts make a drink they call coffee and Americans pay good money to drink it. For us runners the drink was free. I welcomed it for the warming. My Wave in the marathon would not start for two hours, so I sat in the lee of a large tree and read the Book Section of the New York Times. A thin lady with fair skin, her freckles pale in the sunlight, wore a shirt blazoned with the dying words of Pheidipides, ‘Rejoice, my friends! Ours is the victory!’ The young woman claimed Pheidipides as her running inspiration. ‘Mine too’, I told her. She said, ‘I tell the story to my little girls, but I don’t dwell on his dying.’ Soon we were talking about books and favourite authors, and time trickled away pleasantly until Marshalls called my Wave to the starting corral. I suppose that was the story of my day; simple connection with another that would blind me to small things like tedium and pain and tiredness.

 

 

 

 

The day, like the poets, starts in gladness and ends in madness. Events, faces, sounds, sights and crowds merge into montage. Memory becomes a scrambled egg. A body starts out full of running, it sobers and slows, it falls into a plod, later it labours, only to speed up again, endorphin-fuelled. By the end of the race I remember all, but chronology blurs.

 

 

 

 

Every runner contemplates three distinct finishing times – the one most likely; the acceptable slower time; and the secret time, very fast, of the runner’s dreams. A couple of months ago I ran in Alice Springs with an injury. I completed the 26.2 miles in 344 minutes, equating to a mile every 13.13 minutes. Feeling fitter now and more hopeful, I dreamed of running this marathon in eleven-minute miles. A marathon is one of those things dreams are made on.

 

 

 

 

One thing certain: if I run more quickly than I can sustain I will regret it later. With my mind full of calculation, I heard a cannon fired somewhere in the distance. Runners shuffled forward towards a Starting Line none could see, the roadway rose beneath our feet and abruptly we were running up the long incline of the bridge over the Verrazano Narrows. I tried to forget how high we were above the waters. I tried not to run too fast. I noted with dismay the rough, harsh concrete surface that jolted my joints with every step.

 

 

 

 

I looked from one to another of my fellow runners in all their heterogeneity. (That’s another secret – distraction by the human landscape.) I saw we were thin, we were fat, we were tall, we were short, we were of all races; some of us were twisted, some wasted, some blind; one ran upon a metal spring in place of a foot; we were young, we were old – one runner older still, for on his back I read, ‘Born Before WWII.’ The man was weedy, his trunk narrow and his hair long and wavy, a white savannah. He radiated a perky energy, his marionette limbs jerking along effectively at roughly my own pace. After a time I lost him but we were to cross paths repeatedly over the coming hours.

 

 

 

  

We descended from the bridge into Brooklyn where the first of countless New Yorkers came out to bless us and feed us and celebrate us as we passed through their multifarious neighborhoods. Those New Yorkers held aloft signs. Some named their hero: ‘Daddy, we’re proud of you!’ ‘Miss Jones, Grade 4 think you rock.’ ‘Lucy, marry me. Please shower first.’ Others were philosophic: ‘Pain is temporary, glory is forever.’ ‘Pain is temporary, Facebook is forever.’ And, ‘Pain is just French for bread.’ 

 

 

 

 

And one sign humbled me with, ‘Stranger, I salute you.’ (The shock of the true. Who is this who speaks thus to my soul?)

 

 

 

I was dreaming I suppose when a sign told me I’d run three miles in 29 minutes. Too fast! I knew already my hope of a good time was ruined, the work of mutinous legs and wild ambition.

 

 

 

 

Bluetooth carried music through my hearing aids. Suzanne started me, followed by Sisters of Mercy, then Hey, That’s no Way to say Goodbye, So Long Marianne, and so on, through the Leonard Cohen songbook, eighteen songs over one hour and 18 minutes. From the Start on the bridge from Staten Island the entire album carried me into Brooklyn, but not beyond. This, I realised, would be a slow marathon of many albums. “Graceland” next.

 

 

 

 

Numerous young women brandished warning signs: ’Run faster, I just farted.’ (How rude.)

A tall black man at a pedestrian crossing held a sign that urged the endless passing stream, ’Speed up. I’m waiting to cross.’ (I larrfed.)

 

 

 

 

We runners too wove a legible thread, of words worn on our bodies, some playful, some sombre. I read tee-shirts as I ran. Cancer was condemned, Muscular Dystrophy unpopular, diabetes damned.  When I read ‘Pancreatic Cancer’ – remorseless killer of numerous close to me – I gulped. Quite a few runners simply wore the two names, ‘Martin Richard’, without elaboration. Those names rang a bell from Boston, 2013; Martin Richard was the 8-year old boy blown up by the gormless younger bomber. The photograph in the papers showed a child standing on the pavement, gazing outward; behind him a young man in a peaked cap, at his feet the fatal backpack. That was Memorial Day in Boston, 2013, the day our folly lost its innocence.

 

 

 

 

Other signs memorialized a friend or parent – ‘This is for you Dad’ – occasionally the name and likeness of a child lost to cancer. ‘Charlene 10/13/08 – 2/9/14.’ All lightness sinks when you run behind that shirt and you contemplate the heartsickness of the wearer. Others wore the names of the Pittsburgh Eleven. (I was one of those.) 

 

 

 

 

After I’d run a couple of hours an ugly low bridge loomed ahead. That bridge (by name, Pulaski)  obeyed New York’s Law of Concrete Bridges, which ordains a cement surface, pitted and rutted, intensely hostile to the runner’s foot, ankle, knee and hip. The bridges of New York City are many. Next comes Queensboro, the great bridge from Queens to Manhattan. Lying in wait are the Willis Avenue Bridge and the Madison Avenue Bridge. The five bridges of concrete reality.

 

 

 

 

The Pulaski marks 13 miles, the halfway mark. By all accounts Mister Pulaski was a good bloke: 

www.polishamericancenter.org

 

[Kazimierz Pułaski, (English Casimir Pulaski, born March 6, 1745, Warsaw, Poland—died October 11/15, 1779, aboard ship between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.), was both a Polish patriot and U.S. colonial army officer, hero of the Polish anti-Russian insurrection of 1768.]

 

 

 

 

Good bloke or otherwise, to the runner, Pulaski means fatigue. By this point 13 miles felt to me quite sufficient. A tee-shirt ahead of me agreed: “Why didn’t Pheidipides fall at 13 miles?” Up, jolting and wincing, up Pulaski and over, and there, two-and-a -half miles ahead rose the great metallic arcs of the vast Queensboro.

 

 

 

 

In the company of The Boy in the Bubble I started the long climb. Into Graceland and beyond I climbed on. With Diamonds in the Soles of her Shoes I climbed still. Outside my earphones the world was quiet. Runners ran and breathed and grunted with effort. No crowds on the bridge, no wild animating distractions.

 

 

 

 

In the quiet I sensed my lips were moving, Hebrew words emerging. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” I am my sole self, again and ever the four-year old child reciting the creed. From that time I’ve recited that initial verse of the “she’ma”, twice daily. From that age I’ve known it to be the final prayer of the Jew at the moment of death. Why now? Why here? Perhaps it’s the relative isolation of these miles on the bridge, perhaps the mere mechanics of plod induce trance. I cannot say, beyond noting how, as I walk or run this earth, ancient prayer will surface unbidden. Liturgy-laced, my life has been framed by the times and seasons of the prayers.

 

 

 

 

I ran on and I heard my mouth say, “Uvlechtcha baderekh”, and I heard my father teaching us small kids, “And you shall repeat them unto your children, and you shall speak of them as you sit in your houses, as you walk upon the way, when you lie down and when you rise up…”

 

 

 

 

On and up, on and up, Under African Skies I ran, on and up, Homeless and joint-shaken until the top where the road ahead was blocked by a huge red firetruck. The truck revved us up, its deep horn blasting, booming, blasting. Legs took heart, the road sloped down and to the left, freewheeling I allowed my speed to pick up as I jolted the long mile down to Manhattan.

 

 

 

 

In four previous NYC Marathons, First Avenue always defeated bonhomie. Debouching from the Queensboro Bridge, we ran into an ambush of ecstatic goodwill in First Avenue, with crowds wildly excited at our arrival in Manhattan.  Manhattan! – a name to conjure with, name of the great centre of excitement that is New York. However, runner beware:according to an article in the New York Times, Manhattan is derived from the local tribal language word Mannahatta, with a likely meaning, “island of many hills.”

 

 

 

 

Erst, the excited crowds were brief and the Avenue long. Crowds would thin, muscles flag, spirits wilt and on we’d run, and on, towards a distant island of further desolation, The Bronx. No desolation today: today the crowds do not thin, enthusiasm blooms at every side, the sun shines upon spectator and hero alike. Spectators in wild array, in every mode and manner of dress, watchers in love with their particular hero, in love with this stranger that is within their gates. The sun warms them, large plastic beakers of lager cool them and their cup runneth over. 

 

 

I’ve claimed often I’m the world’s slowest runner, adding, ‘a good walker will beat me’.  Here at 18 miles I see my words made flesh. Striding at my left a compact young woman (they’re all young now) walks smoothly past while I runshuffle on.

 

 

 

 

And here’s music!  A bunch of schoolgirl drummers, exuberant in sky blue, drummed and danced us up First Avenue. Harlem, where runners’ limbs are leaden, boomed to the beat of rappers. Everywhere rock bands with driving guitars and belting vocalists shook us as we plodded along, revving us up. All music up-tempo. In Brooklyn a Spiritual choir outside a church (emblazoned with the Star of David – go figure) flung soaring soprano sounds into the heavens. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At twenty-two miles I overtook a young woman whose shirt read, ‘Running for Two.’ Apprehensively, wondering who she’d lost, I asked, ‘Will you tell me who else you run for?’ Her face lit up as she pointed to her belly: ‘My baby. I’m 10 weeks today.’ ‘Your first?’  (I meant the baby). ‘Yes’ – another bright grin – my doctor gave me the all-clear. (She meant the marathon.) The woman’s sheer delight infected me. Today, a maiden marathon, in 30 weeks a new human, born to love.

 

 

 

 

At length the golden light began to fade and the day cooled. At the same time my running slowed further and I too began to cool. I was heading up Fifth Avenue now, not that Fifth Avenue where every shop sells goods you don’t need and cannot afford, but a sylvan Fifth that curves and hides in the beechen green of Central Park.

 

 

 

 

Mile 22, mile 23, a steepish little uphill and I look around into the collar of crowd for a face I know. A doctor who has ministered to my family since my eldest daughter was 12 – that’s thirty-four years – has promised to meet me hereabouts with iced coffee. A voice roars from my left, ‘Howard!’and I totter over and accept a pint of the magic fluid.’ Brian and I shake hands, Onella beams, other voices from faces new to me tell me how great I am. And recharged with water, sugar and caffeine I’m of a mind to agree. Feeling at least a little greater I plow on, on toward another rendezvous.

 

 

 

 

 

The road curves and dips, the crowds are excited, solicitous, effulgent with love that seeks an object. ‘Nearly there! Nearly done!’ – they scream. People peer and read my shirt: ‘Australia! Australia! – seemingly exultant as their love is requited. 

 

 

 

The crowds bring me back in time to the marathons I ran with Melbourne Marathon Legend (his actual, formal designation) Manny Karageorgiou. The Melbourne crowds adored Manny, as he transcended his malignancy, time and again rising from his bed to run Melbourne, while his Greek soul dreamed ever of running the Athens Marathon –  the Marathon marathon. Manny died last year, his dream unrequited. Two weeks from today his son Panayioti will run Athens in Manny’s stead.

 

 

 

 

Mile 25, and when I sight upon my right a head of curls atop a short female form, I know I’ve arrived. My wife Annette runs from the verge, arms wide, smiling wide, and although there remain 1.2 miles to the Finish, I’ve arrived. I fall into those open arms and fold that small person and sob. A red head of curls at Annette’s right and a silver head at her left tell me my faithful sister Margot and my brother-in-much-more-than law John, are here too. Margot feeds me oranges that come all the way from China as I hold on to Annette, holding on for love, and holding so I won’t fall down. After a time I de-clutch and run on. And as in all my NYC Marathons, Margot runs alongside. The final mile and-a-bit are dull but painless. Nothing hurts as I crank the limbs into a jerky sort of sprint to the Line.

 

 

 

 

But someone else has fallen down. Mister ‘Born Before WWII’ lies face down on the bitumen. Gently, ever so gently, two large cops of the NYPD raise him from the road. His nose is bloodied but his smile is undimmed. ‘No, no, I don’t need a medic. No, I’m going to finish.’ With a cop cradling each arm, but under his own steam, the old man totters on. He will finish.

 

 

 

 

And as for me, my arrival happened before the Finish, back at Mile 25, back in Annette’s arms. I hurtle now across the Finish Line of diminished relevance, happy before I reach it. They give me a medal, they drape me in foil, they throw a blanket about me, but nothing hurts, nothing chills in this arrival, this return.

Appendix

And for the record Pheidipides Goldenberg, runner bib no. 57072, finished the  NYC Marathon in 5 hours, 34 minutes and 40 seconds, coming 118th of 231 runners aged between 70 and 75 years; 993rd of 1147 Australian runners.
The fastest Australian was Lisa Weightman (former Olympian, formerly Ondieki, nee Weightman), finishing in 2.29.11.
The fastest Australian male was Jarrod McMullen, finishing in 2.36.11.
The following day Jarrod crossed the North American Continent and the Pacific in 22 hours, seated next to Pheidipides Goldenberg, who crossed in the same time.

Fifty thousand believers

I hike across Manhattan this morning to pick up my runner’s bib and electronic chip for the New York City Marathon. I’ve run this event four times before; somehow the Kenyans always beat me. On the last occasion I placed 6000th of 36,000 runners and felt pretty pleased with myself. That was about 1998. That was twenty years ago, in the lives of humans, a full generation. A generation on, my body tells the story of my degeneration.

The sun shines, the autumn leaves glow gold and blush red. The thronging streets empty into the Jacob Javitz Convention Centre. THe human tide washes me before it and sets me down gently before overhead signs that read: BIB NUMBERS 1-100; NUMBERS 100-1000 and so on, all the way to Numbers 70,000-80,000. My number is 57,072. The bib persons shine their smiles of American teeth at me. They welcome me. From Australia? Wow! How old are you? Wow!

I approach the line where you try on the official souvenir shirts for size. In America the seats in airport lounges are very wide. In this country I think I’ll be a SMALL. The SMALL t-shirt is tight and smells richly of the hundreds who’ve sweated within it before me. I need MEDIUM. To my left a dozen or two women of all shapes and ages tear off their shirts and expose their underwear. An unexpected display. They do this to try on the souvenir shirts for size.

I wander aimlessly around the vast hall in a beatific state. Accents of all nations, shirts of all nations, languages enough for Babel, smiles, smiles on all sides. What – as the poet asked – is all this juice and all this joy? Unbidden, unchanging, my own teeth have organised themselves into a crooked grin. This huge assemblage, all for the simple task of bib-getting and shirt-receiving; these mere thousands here of the many tens of thousands who’ll run with me on Sunday all look idiotically happy.

Why? For what? Eighty thousand adults all gathering for play. Eighty thousand innocents.

As I leave the happy concourse and thread my way through the incoming thousands I pass two police officers. They wear bullet-proof vests and helmets. They grip in their arms their weighty submachine guns. Fifty-one marathons down and I’ve never seen this before. But something broke last Shabbat in Squirrell Hill. A fabric was torn in Boston in 2013. When they told me then the race was called off because bombs had gone off I kept running. I would not believe it. This, this glorious foolishness was the marathon, this the ceremony of innocence.

Feeling mounts within me. The physiology of imminent weeping signals intensity. It comes to me that this might be my last one. And if it be the last, ‘What larks, Pip old chap! What larks!’

Why I Haven’t Written

This blog has been silent for a good while. I have been remiss. Happily, of the blog’s three-or-four hundred nominal followers, one only has complained. Perhaps she alone has noticed. The truth is a lot has happened: spring came to Melbourne; a surgeon cut my eyes open and melted my cataracts, bunging in a couple of new lenses; a dear friend has died; we experienced a hit-and-run road accident; and Bert the half-hearted came through his surgery and battles on.

I’ll start with the least material of these events, the road accident. I parked my wife’s pretty little red car outside a travel agency and went off to buy bok choi. I came back to find the front defaced and a note attached to the windscreen:

31 AUG 2018, 11:08 AM

CAR: WHITE HONDA CRV, YHO 815

LOVE,

FLIGHT CENTRE, SIX WITNESSES

I surveyed the alterations to my wife’s car, then entered the travel agency. The travel agents described the event, described the driver, wished me well in the manhunt and assured me they’d testify. They shared a lively indignation; the driver’s amorality offended them.

I post these particulars by way of invitation for the assailant to come forward, confess, throw herself upon my wife’s mercies and pay up. Under those circumstances we need not trouble the constabulary.

Surgery is one of the everyday miracles of life in a city like Melbourne. Two crazed lenses are literally melted in the eyes and sucked away like so much snot. New lenses are inserted and the world gleams. Then spring arrives. I see the green greener, and – thanks to the new hearing aids – the birds sing. (One of the saddest little lines in poetry closes Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci. The line of four words – and no birds sing – suffices for desolation.) Once again my spring sings.

Little Bert underwent his second heart surgery. His heart, sized like an apricot, was showing strain. A vascular detour improves his prospects. Inside Bert’s chest the so-called great vessels are like thin tubular spaghetti, cooked al dente. Somehow a surgeon cuts, stitches, reroutes, and attaches. Somehow blood flows through the pasta. And Bert breathes on. The praying continues.

In the mid-seventies I met a bearded maths teacher who took me on lengthening runs up and down the green hills of the Diamond Valley. His name was Dick. One day we paused on a high hilltop and watched the shafts of sunlight pierce the winter mists. A moment of silent communion followed as we share revelation. That was ten kilometers, said Dick. We breathed together, blowing out mist, thinking the same thought: If I can run ten, I can run a marathon. With Dick as my inspiration and my training partner, fifty-plus marathons followed. And a few weeks ago, Dick, who’d developed and survived lung cancer, Dick who never smoked, Dick died – of breathlessness. At his memorial service a large congregation paused and wondered: How is it we live? How is it we cease living? What is this miracle we call friendship? Which is the greatest wonder?

I write this aboard an aircraft from Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve just said goodbye to friend Paul, struck down by a stroke on a Sunday morning late last year. I asked him had he felt fear. No, not fear. I found it difficult to dress for church with my right hand paralysed.

I’ve written previously of Paul, surgeon, aviator, morbid anatomist. Paul is a man of deep faith. He’s certain he’ll be reunited with Beverley, his beloved wife who died eighteen years ago. I noticed the words printed starkly on the band he wore on his left wrist: MEDICAL ALERT – DNR. Knowing his confident belief in rising again to bliss, I asked: Paul, does it make you sad to persist here in life? His voice of deep gravel remains strong and clear. His word choice carries all the old inventiveness, no stale phrases: After my stroke I’d awake in the mornings quite surprised still to be alive.

Paul and I sat outside in the heat of the Arizona afternoon while he smoked his daily cigar, holding it in his left hand. The right hand remains weak but to my astonishment the strength is returning steadily. Such vitality! I thought of the tiny trees growing in their cleft rocks at Fitzroy Crossing. Germinating from seeds dropped by birds, these miniature saplings force a root downwards through great basalt rocks, emerging into air as a tendril that dangles down to the river surface, down through the great waters to the muddy riverbed. His one-hundredth birthday falls early in 2019. After today I do not expect to see this marvellous man again. But on parting Paul asked, when will you come out this way again? The question was not facetious; he’s lived this long, why not a few more years?

Deaths, deaths. I write of them so often – naturally so, as I age and those I know slip away. In my work too, the farewells are many, and not all of them to elderly persons. Long ago a friend remarked of my writing that I what I was really doing was coming to terms with my mortality. At that time I didn’t see it. But I know now he was correct. I know too, death is not the worst thing.