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!’

After Boston

There is nothing sensible about running a marathon. It is a difficult thing to do. There appears to be a physiological upper limit of tolerance to distance running. At some point around 35 kilometres most runners experience a steep falling away in efficiency. Sports physicians suggest humans were not made to complete a marathon distance, which is a little over 42 kilometres.  
 
People die running marathons. While most do not die, or even suffer serious or lasting harm from the marathon, even a single death is one too many, given that there is no need, no practical purpose, to completing the full distance.
 
Running marathons is not even an efficient means to attaining physical fitness; you can achieve equal fitness with brisk walking as with running, and the risk to life and joints is far lower when you walk.
 
Earlier in my own marathon running ‘career’ (a suggestive term: it isn’t a career in the sense of something I do for a living; something that runs off the rails is said to ‘career’) I had the opportunity to go for a training run with the great Rob De Castella in Boulder, Colorado. Earlier I had discussed with sports doctors my experience – common among marathoners – of slowing radically over the final 7 kms of the race. The physicians had suggested that human beings weren’t meant to run that distance: there was the physiological limit I referred to earlier. De Castella, himself a sports physiologist, was educated by the Jesuits at Xavier College in Melbourne. 
After our run, exquisitely taxing at that altitude, I put the same question to De Castella. It was the Jesuit rather than the physiologist who answered: “If human beings gave up just when something became difficult we wouldn’t achieve very much, would we?”
 
That is the answer. In that nutshell is the reason that Paris and London will see tens of thousands compete in their respective marathons next weekend. It is for that reason that we love to do what we hate. I have run and hated and loved forty three marathons, in places as diverse as Boston and Alice Springs. I hope to run more.
 
If the marathon runner defies physiology the marathon watcher defies sense. In all weathers she stands outdoors and watches an endless, anonymous train of athletic mediocrities, watches for hours on end, feeding these strangers everything from jelly snakes to orange segments to fried snags. At her side her small child claps everyone who lumbers past. Her teenage daughter holds a placard that reads: YOU ARE ALL KENYANS.
 
My mother knew nothing of sport. Her lack of knowledge stood her in good stead for the marathon, indeed for any sporting event she witnessed. At the time of the Melbourne Olympics Mum took us kids to the fencing. She knew only that the swords were not lethal weapons, that the fencers’ precious eyes were safe. Those facts were enough for Mum. She barracked for the victor, she urged on the vanquished. She loved them both equally and generously.
 
IN 1956 the Olympic marathon course led from Melbourne to Dandenong and back to the MCG. The route followed the Princes Highway, which passed the end of our street. Mum stood and cheered every contestant on the way out and waited for their return. By that stage the runners were jaded and strung out. The leaders too were well separated. As the runners passed our street an American was leading. Coming second or third and looking tragic (in a way I came to recognize in my adult life) was a New Zealander. “Good on you, Kiwi”, were Mum’s words from the empty kerbside, a distance of only a couple of feet from the runner. Mum’s sweet urgings encouraged the runner, who visibly accelerated. Later Mum would say, “I helped him to win.” In fact the Kiwi did not win – Mum was no stickler for small facts – but she put her finger on a larger truth: he was a winner: he finished. He did his best.
 
It is in Boston that the runner and the spectator most truly meet. There the amateur runner is embraced by the uncritical spectator. She too is an amateur. She hasn’t a clue who is favoured to win; she has twenty seven thousand favourites; she loves them all. A literal amateur. Extraordinary statistic: of a population of three million persons in the greater Boston area, one million spectators come out to watch the race. The spectator comes out and she remains there, cheering, clapping, waving placards, uselessly feeding, encouraging every last pathetic struggler, every finisher, every champion. These three, as she well understands, are one and the same.
 
She was there, this ignorant dame, when I sailed past her, full of hope, energy, crowd fever and coffee early in last year’s race. She was there as I struggled up Heartbreak Hill. She was there in Boylston street to see the winners – man, woman, wheelchair champions (both genders) – as they crossed the line. She was there when the first bomb went off. Was it the first bomb or the second that took her life? I do not know. 
 
I know this: she will be there again this year when the race is run again; there in her thousands at the start, in her tens of thousands in the middle, in her weaving, praying throngs through the weary late stages, there among the ecstatic crowds that squeeze joyously at the kerbside as crazed runners find speed for the final gallop along Boylston Street. She’ll be hoarse and weeping as the untalented race along those cobblestones in their ragtag glory, arms pumping, heads high, fists aloft as they cross the line.
 
And what of the runners? We are wiser now. Inevitably, sadder. Running – that senseless frolicking of supposed adults will never be the same.
A record field will contest Boston in 2014. Terror will enjoy its limited success – some attention for a cause, or as seems likely in this case, no clear cause; some increased security, some minor oppression of amenity and civic liberty – but the lovers of Boston will meet and embrace as they always do, at this, their festival.
Running, our ceremony of joy, now sanctified, will always be the same, that familiar pointless folly. 
 

A Run in the Desert

The Alice Springs Marathon takes place on the third Sunday in August. Forgetting how cold the nights are in the desert Melbourne people marvel: ‘Oh, how can you bear to run in that heat?’

The temperature at 0630 this morning is three degrees. I manage that terrible heat rather well. But by the time I finish the day is warm, gloriously warm. Is there a more lustrous town in winter than Alice? The skies are blue – I am searching for an adjective – a blue to banish the blues. In winter, no haze, just light. The Macdonell Ranges dominate every prospect. Rugged, richly red-brown, frequently blanketed heavily in green, the colours mutating with the changing light. From one side colossal heaps of burning honeycomb, from the far side purples mauving to pinks, greens to slake a thirsting soul.

You look up and up, the walls of colour so close, so steep above you; you feel like singing praises; you shake your head at these ridges that dominate a town. Such immensity, such liberality, so close!
We runners set off in the last of the dark. The rock still black and near-blacks that will kaleidoscope and explode as we run.
As ever, on marathon eve, I made plans, plotted strategy, devised tactics. I wrote of these to John, my illustrious runner-in-law in New York: ‘This time I’m not running for survival, not running passively, aiming merely to finish. I’ll attack the marathon. I’ll run for a time: after my worsening Personal Worsts of Boston (five hours and nine minutes) and Traralgon (5.14), I want to beat five hours.’ I laid out my plans: dividing the 42.2 kilometres into four quarters, I would run as follows: first 11 kms in 70 minutes; second 11 km in 70 minutes; the next 10 kms in 75 minutes; and the final ten in 80 minutes. I concluded my letter to John with the words, ‘Man tracht, Gott lacht’ – ‘Man plans, God laughs.’
As in all my forty-six previous marathons I gave God a good chuckle today. He might have smiled as early as 2.48 AM, when sleep died and, with an excitable bladder, I arose early for early, and my day began.

IMG_0842
***
My younger daughter Naomi invariably issues two instructions on the eve of my marathons: ‘Have a good run Dad, and don’t come back dead.’ This year she adds, ‘Know with every step how I love you.’ Her anxiety peeps out and shows itself as I age.

I knew I’d have to harden myself against pain and fatigue. I would remind myself, whenever the going got hard, ‘It’s meant to be hard. That’s why we do marathons.’
As usual the field was rich in tattered and scarred males, blokes weathered and tempered by marathons run all over the country; and young women, girls really, all looking too tender to be serious. Yet I knew from experience these girls from Alice, outwardly delicate, are inwardly wrought of gristle and gut; I knew of old how they’d whip me. And today the Army turned out. A contingent of soldiers entered the race.

***
Last year I was injured. In my absence from the race they changed the course. Too deaf to follow this morning’s briefing, I know I’ll be in trouble if I find myself leading. Prudently I avoid that pitfall. After the Race Director finishes whispering his instructions, he raises his pistol. Bang! I’m not too deaf to hear that and I set off near the tail of the bunch to attack the Alice Springs Marathon.
After only two hundred metres, my breaths come fast and hard. I recall my mantra: ‘It’s supposed to be hard. It’s a marathon.’ One after another, runners pass me, as they should. My place is at the tail of the field. But I keep up my attack. In the course of my first two ‘quarters’ it will not be my watch that guides me but my breathing. I resolve to run hard enough to remain always short of breath.

And so I do.
Have I mentioned the beauty of this place? After only six winding kilometres we have left behind the town of Alice and run through Emily’s Gap. Like Honeymoon Gap, the name sounds rude, but the rich deep chocolate rocks grab my spirit and I have no thought for anatomy, none even for respiration; it is glory that transports me.

australianphotography.com

australianphotography.com

Past the ten km mark, I search for the end of my first ‘quarter’. I say to myself – I conduct lots of self-conversations during a marathon – ‘That’s a quarter of the distance done.’ But I reckon I’ve spent much more than that fraction of my strength. I find no comfort in these calculations.
Around the 20 km mark a blur approaches at speed from the opposite direction. Is this a duststorm? A willy-willy? No it’s my midget colleague and new friend Roxi, motoring fast on the homeward leg. This kid can run. She completed the famed Comrades run in South Africa while pregnant. Now lactating, she carries her biology lightly.

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Not Running with the Devil

The longest night in the southern calendar, June 21, gave birth to a splendid and frigid morning in Traralgon. By the time we started running the temperature was four degrees celsius, a good deal cooler than Boston where, a couple of months earlier, self-pity and hypothermia had congealed within me. Wiser this time, I enclosed myself in layers. A Michelin Man, I set off, discarding layers as I warmed. The layers were, I realised, like geological striae, those stripes in a rockface that are time’s memorial. First to go at twenty five metres in was the remarkably ugly tangerine rain jacket (discarded in Boston by another runner who decided wetness and cold were preferable to Adidas’ ugliest.) Next to go were the elegant little white gloves that cocooned my fingers during winters in the eighties when we’d run the alps of the Diamond Valley. (Ahh, my friends, my friends…) At the twenty kilometre mark I left my stripy thermal top (Kathmandu, 2014) and the Stepping Strong top that honours Gillian Reny, the young dancer whose legs were shattered by a Tsarnaev bomb (Boston, 2013). At 35 kilometres I divested the Miles for Michael shirt (Boston 2013). This left a salted wreck whose overheated genitals must abide within undies (Leigh Creek supermarket, c. 1999), olive green tights (Kathmandu, 2000) and New Balance running shorts, veterans of seventeen marathons (Leigh Creek, 2008). 

In the dawn no wind blew. Silent and shapely, six plumes rose pink against the indigo sky. Delicate and pretty the smoke of Loy Yang poisoned my world. 

 

I ran the first half hard with legs confident from last weekend’s fast training run from Babinda to the Boulders and back, a distance of fifteen kilometres, longer than one third of a marathon. My wristwatch read 74 minutes. This absurdly quick time suggested I’d regained some speed. I reckoned in Traralgon I’d take a full hour off the Personal Worst that was Boston. I ran first with Leanne, a shrivelled fifty-year old, light of step, a lean machine. I kept up with her, keeping myself honest. Leaving her behind I chased a rounder matron who took a bit of catching. She said, I just want to finish. We swapped names; the matron’s name was Marlene. Keeping pace with Marlene did me good – in the moral sense. I had to reach deep for Nobility and Courage. After Marlene left me behind with benediction, I ran alone for a while, this time on a stony dirt track. Mother earth beneath my feet, hard but fair, took me back to childhood in the country. My reverie – have I been dreaming, have I slowed? – was interrupted by busy footfalls pattering behind. Light of foot my pursuer spurred my own feet and I worked to stay ahead. Three kilometres later the pattering feet drew alongside and they belonged, not as I expected, to a female but to a bloke named Duc. We exchanged the lead a few times before I sent Duc on ahead with my blessings.

 

Next came Sam. Short like me, bearded like me, his fleshy face a crop of smiling peaches, Sam didn’t look like he was made for distance running, his well-fed body the antithesis of the ascetic distance runner’s. But Sam too left me behind. I would see him again as I approached the turn and once again, much later, as I staggered past the 41 kilometre mark; Sam, smiling still, had finished a full hour earlier.

 

At the halfway mark I met the Devil. In fact he’d run with me all the way, quietly waiting his moment. (In Judaism the Devil is not personified much; if anything he is The Adversary. He lives, not in hell but within us as desire, ‘the evil inclination’, which is ordinary, domestic, human weakness. As such the Devil doesn’t really earn his capital letter.) The devil was up and about early in Traralgon.

 

With my friend Nick and his febrile son Darcy waiting for me with love and drinks at the Half, I paused. The sun shone in a windless sky as the devil murmured in my ear, congratulating me on my time, which, while not the blinding brevity of Babinda, was quickish, respectable even. The devil suggested I needn’t knock myself about so much. He counselled me, drink slowly, recharge your energies. It might be wise, he insinuated, to hold something in reserve. He whispered something to my bones, to my thighs, something I didn’t catch. He reminded me the turn wasn’t really halfway; the second half doesn’t start until 32 kilometres, when you’ve got ten more to go. The sun was soft now on my face. It felt good. And so I jogged. 

 

Jogging isn’t running. When you run you leave the devil behind. Jogging along past kilometre marks that came and went agreeably, time did not count. I looked at the sky and followed the flight of ducks. I looked long at the smoke stacks of Loy Yang, pondering my own complicity. I smelled the cows. Runners passed me and we’d exchange congratulation and encouragement. A large vehicle came up behind, slowed and swerved close. Two female faces shone with enthusiasm and screamed you are awesome! Never mind these words have been bled white of meaning in a million million facebook ‘likes’, these girls transfused the words back to life. I felt wonderful. Just ahead the girls called the same to a much speedier runner who just grunted. Wonderful girls, aren’t they, I said. He grunted again, his face a mask.

 

I jogged on. When I turned into Black But Road the devil slouched over to me with some advice: the stones underfoot here on this unmade track can hurt your feet. Best to walk here. A little walk can’t hurt… Over the remaining fourteen kilometres I enjoyed a number of little walks. They didn’t hurt at all.

 

I turned back onto the Traralgon-Maffra Road where busy cars sped past at their full entitlement of one hundred kilometres per hour. I crossed the Latrobe River, where, in all twelve of my previous Traralgon Marathons, my skyscanning eyes have sighted a sailing pelican, my white bird of hope. Always, gazing across to the chimneys, I’ve thought of the Ancient Mariner:

 

Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,

The glorious Sun uprist:

Then all averred, I had killed the bird

That brought the fog and mist.

‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,

That bring the fog and mist.

 

Today, for the first time, I saw no white bird.

 

At thirty five kilometres I sighted the white car of Good Friend Nick. He accepted my sweat-laden shirts in exchange for my drink of Coca-Cola-and-orange-juice. This dysenteric-looking concoction contains sugar, potassium salt, sodium chloride and caffeine. And water. Ever since the turn my dry lips had been telling me I forgot to load up with water before the race. Now I loaded up with every molecule known to aid a depleted body.

Darcy, no longer feverish, looking at me, wanted to know, is it hard? His Dad looked at me and laughed. I said, yes Darcy it is. That’s why we do it.

Running slowly ahead of me, his aged body skew-wiff, his pace dogged, we sighted a Spartan as he pressed steadily onward. Over the next seven kilometres of straight road I saw his singlet of emerald green, a flag of courage that reminded me of my own lack of that quality.

 

Nick drove off to hide my final bottle of dysenteric elixir for me at the 40 km mark before hurrying back to Melbourne to watch his elder son play footy .

 

Now walking, now shuffling, now jogging, I pressed on. I knew a full-bodied run would hurt intolerably. I knew this because the devil told me so. Runners continued to pass me, every one of them urging on this bent wreck. Voices said, looking good. And, great effort. Not long now…

 

A small parcel of sinew and strings drew alongside. I recognised the woman’s face, full of years and resolve. I recognised the voice that hectored me for ten kilometres in 2013, before its owner hurried away to assist others with her wisdom. Now the voice said, I know you. I ran with you here once before. Today she didn’t not linger to advise, or assist, or direct or instruct me. Perhaps it was something I said.

 

I felt the caress of fingers dancing lightly on my left shoulder. I looked up to see an able body, young, upright, light of foot. I saw a face buried in a forest of auburn beard. In the depths of the forest I saw a smile and from them a voice blessing me, extolling me, praising my effort. The dancing fingers left a sensation that abides still, twenty-four hours later.

 

Here and there the Traralgon-Maffra Road undulates. From the 38 kilometre mark to 39 kms in a flat marathon course the road rises steadily. As I sailed downhill early in the outward half I marked this well, resolving I would not stop, nor even slow, during my return. Brave promises those, the promises of legs that feel fresh, of resolve not yet tested. Walking now I saw the road rise ahead of me. I stopped and took a deep breath and cranked my limbs into a shuffle. And then a slow run. Putting the devil behind me I ploughed uphill. I reached the top and turned and started the downhill run home. Now my legs started cramping. Earlier, when they’d have excused me from trying to run at all, I’d have welcomed these cramps, but not now. I decided to ignore them.

I ran studiously down the hill attempting a judicious balance between speed and cramp. Footsteps behind me, soft voices, closing on my left shoulder. The runners drew alongside, a bloke in his fifties, and a much younger female. Her face had the puppy fat of childhood. They saluted me and passed. I saw the child wore a pair of floral shorts. The freshness of her being, the stream of approval and encouragement flowing from her father, the sweet amity and unity of the two, these lifted my spirits and distracted me from pathetic thoughts and tremors.

 

Approaching the 40km mark I decided I wouldn’t stop for my drink. Here I was, maintaining a precarious run; if I stopped I mightn’t start again. So it was with mild puzzlement but no regret that I sighted no bottle at the 40 km marker. Ahead a marshall smiled and directed me to the second last turn, calling, you’re doing well, Howie. “Howie”. How did she know me? Now her little boy approached me, near to blocking my path. His outstretched hand held a small bottle of brown fluid.

Small kindnesses, these, potent with grace. I recalled other moments, over my previous forty five marathons. Crossing the Line at the finish of the New York Marathon in 1988 I heard a sweet voice singing. It came from a fellow runner, a student of opera at the famed Julliard School. He asked my name: Pheidipides.

Ah, Pheidipides. Reverting now to Greek he recited that runner’s dying words: ‘Rejoice my brothers, ours is the victory’.

 

On Patriots Day in Boston, Athens of the New World, a river of grace flows during its Marathon. Of three million Boston citizens fully one million come out – and stay out – to cheer on the runners, both the fleet of foot and the unfleet. They cheer us, they feed us – everything from bananas, to segments of orange, to candies to barbecued sausages dripping fat – they love us. When two explosions destroyed the ceremony of innocence that is a marathon, overwrought Bostonians overflowed with tender concern for their thwarted guests.

 

Together with every runner in the world I watched the telecast of the Olympic Marathon in Barcelona. In the final brutal kilometres as the runners raced up the slope of Monjuic, one of the lead bunch of five missed his drink at the drink stop. With a medal in sight and no time to be lost, he ran on without it. A rival passed his bottle and the two shared it.

 

I was one of a generation inspired by John Landy’s act in the 1956 National 1500 Metres Championship. A young Ron Clark fell at Landy’s feet. The champion stopped to assist him than ran on and won.

 

I ran my first marathon in Traralgon. On that occasion achilles tendonitis and unremitting cramps forced me to walk from the 30km mark to 40kms. I contrived a pathetic run for the last stanza, hobbling into view of the football club where all the other 140 finishers were enjoying refreshments. One caught sight of Pheidipides approaching in the gloom. To a man, my fellow runners abandoned their scones and passionfruit sponge cakes and sausage rolls to applaud the runner who ran on an hour after they’d finished.

 

After my mother-in-law-in-law survived Auschwitz she dedicated her life to fighting racism. A tiny woman of immense will, she was never scared to take me to task. She challenged me once with the folly of the ‘disordered’ (her term) pursuit of marathon running. Shortly afterwards I ran the New York Marathon and found my answer: my life is a marathon, an undistinguished passage through time and space; it is a passage made rich and significant by the people who run their race at my side.

  

Postscript: Yesterday in Traralgon I set a new PW of five hours nineteen minutes. My time of 5.13, Boston was a sprint in comparison.

 

Five Hours to Run, Fourteen Hours to Write, One hour to Read

“Rain, Snow, Winds of Storm –

Nought shall make me afraid.”

Flying east from the West Coast every third person seems to be a slim female heading for Boston. All of them blonde, all appear younger than their years, all wear the BAA jacket from a previous Boston Marathon. They bring their own health foods which they chew with religious solemnity; they have no truck with airline pap. Heading east with the same purpose I feel those Boston stirrings. We pilgrims know our Mecca.

I recall my previous Bostons. Amazingly, for a runner of no real distinction, I’ve managed to run four of them. Amazing because you have to qualify for Boston, a feat I’ve never quite managed. In1987 I completed the Application Forms and addressed a begging letter to the Race Director:

Dear Mr Morse,

You might not be aware that Australia celebrates its two-hundredth birthday this year. You might also be unaware that Melbourne – where I live and run, and Boston – where you live and run, are sister cities. As you will see from my application my ‘qualifying’ time of three hours and thirty-one minutes is not quite fast enough. I believe I can run a qualifying time but Melbourne has no recognised marathon for me to run before the cutoff date.

I write to appeal to you: here is your chance to cement the Australian-American alliance. If we wait until Australia’s three-hundredth anniversary, I’ll probably be too old. Please consider.

Yours,

Pheidipides* Goldenberg.

Weeks passed. Months passed and no word. I needed to know, so I rang the Boston Athletic association and asked to be connected to Mister Morse. A voice came through the phone: Who is this?

I’m an Australian runner, running as Pheidip…

Are you the guy who wrote that crazy letter?

You’re all set. You’re good to go!

So I went.

That was a day like they’re forecasting for Monday – cold, wet, miserable. And triumphant.

Some time after the event I began to wonder whether Melbourne and Boston are indeed

sisters.

My brother-in-much-more-than-law, John, planned to run the one hundredth Boston with me. A member and regular runner with the New York Road Runners Club, he qualified easily. I planned to run Melbourne to qualify but the event clashed with the Festival of Shavuoth. I sure as shit don’t run on Shavuoth.

I approached the Melbourne people with a plan. I’d run the course one week early and they agreed to provide me with a certified time on presentation of a statutary declaration of my finishing time. They told me they’d mark the course one week early, and I couldn’t possibly get lost. I ran, I found no marks, and I did get lost – repeatedly. I ran with witnesses, doubling back whenever I took a wrong turning. We subtracted the time expended on

extra distance and came up with a net time of three hours and twenty-six minutes, comfortably inside the qualifying time. Boston honoured the Melbourne Marathon certificate and John and I ran together.

Although the arithmetic was scrupulous, it had to be wrong. In 1998 I wasn’t beating 3:30 by that margin. This time it was Boston’s birthday I honoured.

The third time I ran as a charity runner. I wrote to everyone I know, promising them an investment opportunity like no other. I offered an absolute no-risk guarantee: donor-investors would never get their money back. We raised over five thousand dollars to aid research at Boston Childrens Hospital, the great institution that saved the lives of my two nephews, and so many others. As usual in Boston, I ran poorly and felt fulfilled.

The fourth Boston I raised money for the Michael Lisnow Respite Center, yet another local institution where tragedy is transmuted.

That was in 2013, the year of the bombs. I was not permitted to finish.

Now once again I am a fundrunner, this time for ‘Stepping Strong’, the inspiring initiative of the parents of a lovely young woman whose horrific injuries almost took her life in 2013.

Five Bostons without a single dinkum qualifying time. The story of a fortunate man.

In Boston on race day I consult the weather forecast. Yesterday they predicted eleven degrees Celsius. Today they revise it down to eight.

American weather prophets express themselves in percentage probability. Today’s prophecy: one hundred percent likelihood of rain.

While I wait in the meagre shelter of the light rail station my body confirms the forecast. Hugging myself, clapping hands for warmth I wait glumly. The light rail ride is warm but all too brief.

I descend and hike to the bus that will take me to the Start at Hopkinton. Waiting in the line I shiver.

Once aboard the bus the old bloke next to me announces he comes from Nova Scotia. Stick thin, too tall to sit straight in the bus, he wears five layers including a windbreaker. Although he ran his last marathon in Dubai his body remembers the cold.

We introduce ourselves. He’s Robert. I extend a hand, he offers a collection of long bones: Glad to meet you, Howard.

Good to meet you, Robert.

We shake.

Robert aims to finish under four and a half hours. What about you, Howard?

What about me? Unusually, I haven’t identified a target for myself. I know I want to finish, something they wouldn’t let me do in the year of the bombs. That DNF leaves a scar in a runner whose sole boast is persistence. More than pride suffered wounds that day: belief was harmed as little Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu died at the Finish in Boylston Street.

Before that day ‘The Finish’ never carried a double meaning. After Boston 2013, every ‘Finish’ carries a doubt.

I jolt myself from reverie. Forced to consider times, I know I want at least to beat my last effort, a painful four and a half hours on an Arctic day in Melbourne.

Boston usually lifts my spirits. Even with the bombings two years ago the mood abroad of unity and amity redeemed the day.

But the clothes I wear this day are not equal to the cold. Near me another veteran grumbles: there are only three things I hate at a marathon – rain, cold and wind. And today we’re gonna get them all.

Only minutes after leaving the bus I start to shiver as drizzle fulfills the prophet’s one hundred percent confidence. Memories of bone chill in my last marathon in Melbourne gloom me up thoroughly.

But Boston, being Boston, doesn’t allow a stranger to shiver: Take this jacket, sir. The volunteer has collected the jacket from a runner, one of the fleet of foot whose race has already started. Volunteer lady, twenty years younger than I, mothers me into the jacket, pulls the hood over my ears. There you go sir. Wear it until it gets too hot for comfort, then hand it to any volunteer and we’ll make sure it goes to the homeless. I begin to defrost and Boston brightens within me.

The announcer introduces our Starter. Wave Four, the slowest and the last to start, includes the bent, the broken and us ten thousand fundrunners who’ve raised funds for various charities. The Boston Athletic Association honours our Starter in recognition of her service to this village where she has conducted her family grocery since 1943. Big it up for the Hopkinton family grocer, folks. Usually too insubordinate – too Australian – to big it up when ordered, somehow I join the clapping for the grocer lady.

At some signal that I cannot hear nor see, Wave Four is released for the 26.2 miles. Now I shuffle, then trot, now tread a wary path between speeding legs that weave about my prudent hypotenuse. After one kilometre we start to run. This running is too easy; the steep declines murder muscles.

Before a marathon most runners prepare their ‘splits’, calculated times for each section of the race. My calculation is simple: never run a mile faster than ten minutes: any faster than this, I’ll burn up and be forced to walk the route into the early evening.

For ten miles I stick to my splits. After that time carries no meaning as I interrogate slowing thighs that have thudded down hill after hill. This strange sensation in my quadriceps muscles must betoken something, something portentous. A marathoner is a practised hypochondriac, fuelled by fears, searching ever for signs of doom, teasing meaning from meaningless sensations. Faced with the alternatives of hope and fear I elect to hope: let this thick feeling, this heaviness in the thighs reflect muscles bursting with all that pasta I took on board last night.

In this time without time I run inwardly, communing with my constant companions, doubt and fear. A voice penetrates, the public address: The leading runners just passed Heartbreak Hill. They’ll finish in a half hour.

The fundrunners on every side run for cures. My group seeks to cure trauma. Named for Gillian Reny, a nineteen-year old whose training to become a professional dancer was shattered with her leg, the ‘Gillian Stepping Strong’ team is as inspiring as that young woman, who dances her life yet.

Around me run the Liver runners, the Dana Farbers (cancer), the Cystic Fibrosis team, the Melanomas, the Multiple Sclerotics, Boston Childrens, Miles for Miracles, MR8 (for Martin Richard, aged eight). MR8 – a statement, a protest. Who can forget the carefree image of Martin with his wide toothy grin? The child wrote: No more hurting. Peace.

I recall another image. Standing with his back to the wall, his backpack at his feet, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gazes impassively at the scene near the Line. Only a few feet in front of him he must see Martin and his seven-year old sister. He sees, he walks away, leaving his bomb behind the children.

Boston is healing but a fresh agony tears at this liberal community – the question of the death sentence for the bomber. Survivors and their families are painfully divided on the question. The voices I hear are Boston voices, measured, sober, heavy with unmediated pain.

Boston the town whose largest hoarding tolls the dead. The text reads in part, AMERICANS KILLED BY ASSAULT WEAPONS SINCE SANDY HOOK: 73,835.

Every runner’s singlet seems to memorialise someone. For Dad. Nigel and Luke. Barbara. Nanna and Nick. So many names, so many stories. The rain falls thickly now, drawing a heavy grey curtain and I do not venture to ask.

But the crowds refuse all gloom. Small children reach out and up from beneath umbrellas, high-fiving us grownups. Women whoop, men roar, the air screams benediction. Gloom begone!

We’ve passed through Ashland, running now between dark woods that line both sides of the road. Men dart from the track, turn their backs and drain overstretched bladders. An enterprising woman chases the men from the road. Does she plan to join them? No, instead she pees discreetly in the lee of a conveniently parked car.

Descending alarmingly still we pass through Natick. A lot of big beards here, tattoos, big stomachs. Harleys line the road. Music booms, the air rocks to Born in the USA and we ascetic creatures lift our feet, energized, at one with all them good old boys.

Uphill at last, then down, we’ve reached the Wellesley Hills. Here sing the sirens, the students of Wellesley College. The young women scream and carry placards, some subtle, some nearly subtle:

Kiss me, I’m from China.

Kiss me, I’m size D.

Kiss me, I’m French.

Kiss me, I do tongue.

A very married man, I blush and turn away, suddenly shy. But my legs respond. Lighter now, they want to bolt up the hills until I rein them in, reminding them of my ten-minute rule.

Around the halfway mark my legs declare themselves: they are just tired. This makes sense as my training has been limited to the half distance. Doubts bellow now, in chorus: Will you keep running? Will your resolve evaporate? Do you have the ticker? When will you give up and walk?

A huddle in black moving slowly to my right distracts me. I read the name “Achilles Club” on the black jackets of a group of four people who surround a racing wheelchair. Seated – no not seated – he’s half recumbent, in the chair is a black man, tall, not young. Two helpers drag the chair backwards up the hill, two others push from the front. The man has one operating limb, a leg that extends to the asphalt and pushes against it, helping to propel the chair backwards. I know the Achilles people, named for Homer’s wounded hero; they help people with disabilities to participate as athletes.

The hero in the chair silences my chorus. Abruptly I know myself again. I’ll finish this, and finish it running. This is only fatigue. That, and an exaggerated belief in my own frailty. A life lesson learned: I need to learn to give Father Time his due, but not to pay him in advance.

This certain knowing doesn’t buoy me much. There’s a bloody long way to go, it’s bloody unpleasant in this cold and wet, every step is hard, and there are no excuses.

Labouring onward I am visited by a thought, a sparkling discovery: This is stupid. I am too old for this. This will be the last. And just to confirm the resolution I add, No more! This sort of thinking is not new. I have thought this way during every one of my forty-five marathons. This time the decision feels compelling.

At every milepost I pause and drink a cordial composed of sugars, electrolyte and urine. Or something. I wash it down with a splash of water. These respites of thirty seconds allow muscles to recharge. I pick up my legs and for a time the going feels easier. Perhaps I was hasty. Maybe I needn’t stop doing this. I just need to train properly instead.

We start to climb what must be the outliers of Heartbreak, a hill whose start is undefined and whose finish is a coronary. These undulations have defeated greats: in the 1970’s Bill Rodgers won Boston four times; but on two other occasions he had to stop around here and withdraw.

HG Running Boston 2015

Refusing to look up, running now in my dour element, I know the drill. Steady and slow, plod, plod, up, up. Refusing to be lulled by the odd small decline, I remember and respect these hills. My wise legs, hardened on the granite grades of Wilsons Promontory, follow each other slowly, soberly, up, up.

My brain melts. Arithmetic fuddles me. Here’s the nineteen mile mark. The marathon is 26.2 miles. How many miles to go? Too hard!

Snatches of verse swim into my head: here in Emily Dickenson’s territory I seize upon:

I like a look of Agony

Because I know it’s true…

Shakespeare follows:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind

Thou art not so unkind

As man’s ingratitude…

Tennyson speaks to my remnant resolve:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…

Scraps from the Song of Solomon:

My beloved skips over the mountains

He leaps the hills.

This last fragment runs and runs, spooling endlessly, following the rhythm and tempo of my footfalls. I spend a long time – is it a long time? – I cannot be sure – with Solomon.

A cry from across the road: Uncle Howard! Uncle Howard! The crier is Ziva, my sister’s firstborn. At her side, sucking an enviably warm-looking thumb, stands her younger son Akiva, holding a placard in primary colours. The placard informs the field of thirty-two thousand that Uncle Howard is a champion.

Howard sign

Akiva’s elder brother Elisha is not with us. He’s in hospital, recovering from a kick in the eye.

Shai black eye

The injured brother is represented by Grade Seven classmates, showing solidarity with Elisha. Some neighbours of Ziva have been gathered to watch her grateful old wreck of an uncle gobble a banana, reject a waterproof (too late), ignore the Coke Zero he requested, instead bolting and slurping electrolyte gels.

The uncle says sentimental things, kisses the niece, tries to kiss the great-nephew (who ducks adroitly) and runs off greatly cheered. Ringing in his ears are Ziva’s fatuous words – You’re running great, Uncle! – words he finds entirely convincing.

It is a still cheerful uncle who looks ahead and sights the stiffest and last of the uphills. Today marks the new moon of the month of Iyar in the Jewish calendar. Psalms from the day’s liturgy visit me:

This is the day the Lord has made –

Let us rejoice in it and be happy!

And that’s what happens. The way is long, the body is tired, but the mind is reconciled. I run on rejoicing.

Time to boast. Throughout the race I’ve been working the downhills. Instead of coasting, I’ve lengthened my stride – it hurts when I do this now – grabbing what acceleration I can. I tell myself I’m running an honest race, the best I can run. Steadfastly ignoring my stopwatch, I am yet aware my marathon pace is funereal. But some dumb pride glows as I run on, relishing the minute achievement of my imperceptible accelerations. I will run a Personal Worst today, which will yet be my absolute best.

Another boast: I recall a conversation between a champion marathoner and a commoner.

Slowcoach: I cannot believe your speed – running that entire distance in half the time it takes me.

Champion: And I cannot believe your endurance – running your hardest for twice as long as I can.

Today I will run nearly two-and–a–half times as long as the winner.

Ahead of me runs a solitary figure in pink, a youngish woman, quite tall, strong looking. Powerful shoulders emerge from her singlet; is she a triathlete? Whatever she is or does – this island – she piques my curiosity. Her independence wins my respect.

I recognise another woman, running like a draft horse half a pace ahead of me, the same Dana Farber runner I saw earlier wearing ‘Barbara’ on her singlet. She’s another island, plodding, oblivious of spectators and runners alike who are now jiving and singing along to a pounding ‘Sweet Caroline.’

I’d like to hear about Barbara. I pull alongside, am about to ask, then pause. I don’t want to hurt or shock the lady by referring to Barbara in an inappropriate tense, whether present or past. Please excuse me. Would you like to tell me the story of Barbara?

Briefly startled, the woman smiles: Yes, yes, I’d like that very much.

She tells me Barbara had cancer, but hers is a happier story. Thirteen years ago Barbara received a diagnosis of an aggressive, inoperable brain tumour. She might hope to live six months. At the time her children were three and one. She underwent treatment and was free of cancer for eleven years before the disease returned. This time it was six months.

I am so glad you asked me. I want people to know.

Moved by the telling, I murmur, It’s a sacred remembering her, speaking her name…

Yes, yes, I feel that too.

A young woman runner darts across our path from the far left to the barriers on our right. Crying words I cannot make out she throws her arms around two young women who stand together at the barrier. Three heads clinch in close embrace. The women exchange fierce kisses, then hold each others’ faces for a long moment in searching silence. Something has happened. Perhaps here, at this precise spot. Something tells me they arranged to rendezvous at this point. Was it here they heard the news two years ago, of a fourth – a friend? – when the bombs went off.

Running along Commonwealth Avenue now, only four miles to go. Only. Here’s a smallish lady, female, whose raincoat reads, Baby on Board. I pull alongside and cast an obstetric eye over her belly. Yes, she is.

How many weeks are you?

She smiles: Thirty-one. The doctors say it’s quite OK so long as I don’t overdo it.

Running a marathon is overdoing it – by definition. That’s the point of running the event.

She runs slowly, steadily on, looking quite comfortable. Slow as I am I outpace her. I leave her behind and ruminate happily on a new baby, a new life, some sort of consolation. If they call for a doctor, I’ll be ready.

Another familiar Dana Farber, this the one who wore ‘Nigel’ and ‘Luke’. Emboldened I ask, Those names you wear – cancer?

Yes.

Were Nigel and Nick twins?

Yes, identical.

Thud. No further questions asked, none required. The woman’s soft look must mirror my own; a sorrow shared.

Past the Citgo sign we turn. Soon we’ll see Boylston Street and journey’s end. But the 25 milepost forbids excitement. This is one subtraction I am equal to. The one mile that remains feels like a long sentence to serve. But the sentence is not solitary. I share it with the lame, the very elderly, the damaged runners, as well as quite a few who appear young and fit. We leave behind the tall pink girl, now walking, stolid still, and solitary.

From either side of the street the crowds hurl waves of noise, calling, cheering, praising us all in an ecstasy of joy. They love us. They love me. Our effort is theirs, our success their own.

Boston claims us, lives through us. Amazed, uplifted, I burn. And run steadily on. Down Hereford Street now, it’s roses, roses all the way. Here’s where they turned me back in 2013. I look around me. Police again are everywhere, but calm, calming, part of the Boston polity, our protectors.

The final turn. Three hundred metres to go. I can race this. I raise rusted knees, swing mechanical arms, rise up onto blistered toes and chase. No chance I’ll catch that young bloke five metres ahead and to my left; he’s racing too. That young woman just ahead has picked up speed as well. Bugger it: let’s go for gold! I sweep past the racing girl. I chase that young buck, knowing it’s futile, joyous in full-blooded pursuit. The feet beneath me fly over the wet roadway towards the Line, a royal blue slash just ahead. Ten metres out, I find a bit more. I lunge and vanquish Young Buck. We shake hands and I stagger a bit.

Medals, drinks, foods, fruit, Medical – all straight ahead! Keep going straight!

One hundred long metres further on a woman wraps me in an insulating foil robe. Ahh, that’s better. Another lady garlands me with the familiar Boston medallion, the weightiest trophy marathoners know. They are not young, not glamorous, just kindly, just volunteers – Bostonians. And we runners love every one of them, all nine thousands of them.

I turn around and sight Ms Pink, striding slowly across the Line. Her gaze nowhere, she’s mindless of completion. Her face is distorted and drenched. This is not rain, she is crying.

*For quite understandable reasons of security BAA requires a runner’s name to match that of the photo ID. Farewell, Pheidipides the brave, my hero since third grade!

I post this long report so a reader can feel the long slog of the marathon.

Additionally I offer and dedicate this post to the generous blog followers who donated to Stepping Strong.

If you missed out on the privilege of giving, please be aware the fund accepts donations until June 30. You can give soon and give often. https://www.crowdrise.com/brighamwomensboston2015/fundraiser/pheidipidesgoldenber

News Flash

NEWS JUST IN, FROM OUR MAN ON THE SPOT IN HOPKINTON, MASSACHUSETTS



BOSTON MARATHON CONTESTANT, PHEIDIPIDES GOLDENBERG, (RUNNING INCOGNITO AS HOWARD GOLDENBERG), WILL COMMENCE RUNNING ON APRIL 20  AT 1115 HOURS, BOSTON TIME.

THIS CORRESPONDS TO 0115, AUSTRALIAN EASTERN TIME ON TUESDAY 21 APRIL

KEEN JUDGES PREDICT  PHEIDIPIDES’ ELAPSED TIME (WHICH WILL INCLUDE TWO COFFEE BREAKS) AT 4 HOURS AND 45 MINUTES, CORRESPONDING TO A FINISH TIME OF 0600, AEST, TUES 21 APRIL..

THE THRILLING NEWS IS YOU CAN FOLLOW PHEIDIPIDES’ PROGRESS AT http://www.baa.org.BAA.ORG, BY KEYING IN HIS BIIB NUMBER = 25666  

MANY FANS AND FOLLOWERS TRADITIONALLY STAY UP ALL NIGHT ENJOYING ‘WAITING FOR PHEIDIPIDES’ PARTIES

THIS IS TO BE ENCOURAGED: WATCH YOUR DONATIONS MAKE THEIR PAINFUL WAY TO THE FINISH

ANY EMPLOYER WHO DOCKED A WORKER’S PAY THE FOLLOWING DAY WOULD BE UNAUSTRALIAN 

Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going?

This blog has spent the Passover period training for the Boston Marathon. Training has consisted exclusively of that intensive form of carbo loading which is the consumption of loads of matza. As matza is highly constipating carbo unloading has presented a challenge. Reminiscent of Martin Luther, who struggled mightily with his bowels, the Passover observer passes little.

In short I have been busy: as a result the blog has followed the admirable maxim of the ancient Sages of the Mishna: “Do much, say little”.

Shortly the blog will have much to report: of a visit to sit at the feet of another Ancient Sage, Dr Paul Jarrett, 95-year old surgeon of Phoenix Arizona; of fetching myrrh to Jack, the new babe born unto us Goldenbergs in San Francisco; of drinking GOOD COFFEE ! in New York City!!! (at ‘Little Collins’, my nephew’s celebrated joint on Lexington Avenue); of learning the latest in neuroscience from Joseph John Mann at Columbia Presbyterian; of Shabbat observing in New Rochelle; of entraining to Boston on the Sunday; and on Monday 20 April of observing Patriots Day in Boston.

On Patriots Day much is afoot in Boston, when this Athens of the United States becomes Sparta. The public holiday commemorates the ride of Paul Revere and the start of the American Revolution. (I refer to Boston as Athens as an incubator of wisdoms but also as the place of Gauguin’s masterwork, ‘Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?’ That painting and its title encapsulate the entire enterprise of human storytelling.
The painting is strategically located in a gallery situated directly across the road from Dunkin Donuts [Aussies must indulge the local spelling] where the donuts are certified kosher. But I digress.)

gauguin.org.au

For us runners Boston is THE marathon. More broadly, Boston, most humane of cities, hosts the most charitable of marathons. The event admits both the athletic elite and the footslogger, those who qualify by their speed over 26.2 miles and those who qualify solely by fundraising. I belong to the fundraising sluggards. This will be my fifth Boston, a further opportunity to put my feet to the service of the good. Unavoidably we come here to evil: in my old home town of Leeton a bride who loved the colour yellow is murdered unaccountably one week before her wedding day; in Boston bombs explode the innocence of thirty thousand runners and one million natives. Three die, two hundred and sixty four injured – many grievously – survive.

And I ask myself: Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?

The small town of Leeton turns out to honour lost youth: multitudes gather in the park wearing yellow; married women hang their bridal gowns on front fences; on the victim’s planned wedding day brides all around the country add a dash of yellow to their apparel.
In Boston the city grieves, runners shake their heads, and return to the marathon with intent. Among them is one Gillian Reny.

“The Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Fund at Brigham and Women’s Hospital will support life-giving breakthroughs in limb reconstruction, bone regeneration, orthopedic and plastic surgery, and skin regeneration. Established by the family of Gillian Reny—a young, pre-professional dancer who was critically injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings—the fund will fuel cutting-edge research and clinical programs in three areas:

Stepping Strong Research Scholars
: The Research Scholars project has two components: using stem cells to advance bone regeneration, and developing better methods to regenerate skin and heal wounds to reduce the suffering of amputation.  

Stepping Strong Trauma Fellowship
: The Trauma Fellowship will train the next generation of trauma surgeons in advanced techniques for treating acute and complex traumatic injury. Fellows will gain proficiency in surgical management, rehabilitation, limb reconstruction, and scar management.

Stepping Strong Innovator Awards: 
To inspire innovative research in areas including limb regeneration, limb transplant, advanced stem cell technology, orthopedic and plastic surgery, and bioengineering, BWH will offer Innovator Awards through an annual, competitive, request-for-proposal process. These awards will fund high-reward projects by our best and brightest physician-researchers.”

This is the good for which my feet will run on Monday April 20. This, like the wearing of the yellow, is the good that transcends evil. This is the good to which you can contribute. Go to: