“This marathon might be my last, darling.”
“We’ve heard that before, Dad.”
“I’m serious, Raph. I see it as a moral test. If I fail it, I’ll realise it’s over: I’ll know I lack the moral strength.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?”
“Simply this. I’m confident my legs are strong enough. It’s my spirit that’s in question: do I have the drive or the staying power or…the spiritual reserve? My fear is I’ll tire and decide to walk, and if do I weaken and walk, I’ll know my marathon ambitions to be vain. Finished.”
“Walking a marathon is nothing to be ashamed of, Dad. Especially at your age.”
”Well, shame might be an over-reaction. But willpower has been my private point of pride. I wouldn’t feel proud if I walked, simply for a failure of will.”
Like every Australian boy I always wanted to shine at sport but, being timid and lacking drive, I didn’t. I absorbed sporting ideals, however. Inspired by Pheidipides I honoured endeavour; with de Coubertain, I decided the important thing was not to win but to try my best. Translated to distance running, this meant not to give up. If I could persist I would win self-honour. Through fifty-five previous marathons I’d gained sufficient self-honour to try a fifty-sixth, on this occasion in Traralgon. But an aged man is a paltry thing and I’m an alert witness to my own decay. This Sunday’s marathon could take me as long as six hours.
(My doubts in mid-2021 arise following twenty months of lying fallow. Covid cancelled all four of the marathons I’d planned to run in 2020. I’m out of practice, trained presently to run no further than 20 kilometres.)
Over the following days the conversation with Raph plays again and again in my mind. Today, in Traralgon, my legs ask their question of will. My Rwandan yoga teacher, Philbert Kayumba, happens to be tall, slim, fit, a gifted distance runner. Phil accompanies me to Traralgon as my support person. Traralgon, I tell him, was the site of my catastrophic first marathon,as well as my fastest marathon.
Today events conspire to help me. The good people who organise the event provide a special Early Start for the elderly and the unlikely. The weather forecast is for 1 degree Celsius. The Bureau adds, it will feel like minus1. In the event, the temperature starts at 8.7, rising to a windless 14 degrees at the finish. Gloved and cosy inside my six layers of shirting, I dance up and down skittishly at the Early Start. Phil instructs me to stretch, a religious ritual among runners that has always found me a disrespectful agnostic. Obedient today I do stretch. Colin, a friend of almost lunatic devotion, who has driven three hours through fog to photograph me at this early start, falls about laughing at the sight. He snaps his old marathon comrade actually stretching.
A short young man of rotund build joins me at the line. Luke, meet Pheidipides! Luke’s fist bumps my gloved hand. Good to meet you, Fylopidees! I regard my new comrade. At five foot tall and three feet deep, Luke looks like a serious rival for last place. He tells me his target time is six hours.
The Early Starter arrives late. Ready Gents? Go! The Starter clicks his phone and we go.
Four hours and 46 minutes later, I stop. This is the Finish but it will not be the end. The daunting corollary of gaining self honour today is the prospect of doing it all again in the future.
In the course of those hours and in the passage of those forty-two thousand and 188 steps, Phil drives to meeting points and provides me with drinks, carbohydrates and caffeine, all in calibrated quantities. He keeps up a relentless commentary upon my strength, my greatness. Bystanders cheer and Phil declares, He’s a machine.
During long intervals of running alone I enjoy the feel of the benign surface of this new route. The organisers have improved the long-famed event by routing runners along the Gippsland Rail Trail. The surface of soil topped lightly with gravel is ideal. The earth yields briefly beneath my foot before releasing it with a spring. Or that’s how it feels. Viewing Phil’s video of my old man’s shuffle alters all notion of springing.
Whatever the truth of my running form, Traralgon has provided the kindest surface I’ve encountered in fifty-six marathons, a runner’s benison.
On this foggy morning, Traralgon blesses the route with a shifting curtain, visible but impalpable, of filmy white mist; by turns the mist conceals then reveals the deep green of foliage and the bright green of pastures on either side. I run through a dim tunnel of quiet and peacefulness, faintly mysterious, with intermittent patches of brilliance ahead wheresunshine breaks through. The sights bring to mind the dark tunnels towards bright light described by people who think they have died and who ‘come back.’
Here memories of the lost arise to meet me. I think of Manny Karageorgiou, my friend, officially declared Legend of the Melbourne Marathon, one of only eight to have run every one of the first 41 Melbournes. I ran the fortieth of these at Manny’s side, knowing he was achieving the wildly improbable, Manny having literally emerged from his hospital bed to run. That was a day of glory. I shared the run with my friend, rejoicing at intervalswhen he’d be surrounded by his adoring family, all of them aware that their cherished Manny was doomed. Later that day I joined Manny’s circle of old friends and extended family at his home, where we ate and drank outside and rejoiced.
The agony of their love stays with me.
When Manny set out to run his forty-second Melbourne, he fell early. His nephew and I gathered him, bloodied, to his feet and he shuffled on. Minutes later, when his wife Dmitra sighted him, she gasped, took his arm and led him from the road.
When Manny died the Melbourne Marathon died for me. I never ran Melbourne again.
Phil’s video shows my starting form to be ponderous and stiff, with my neck bent absurdly forward, and my marionette body engaged in endless chase of that pendant head. Yet I know myself to running hard. So ‘fast’ am I, I realise I’m running with calculated imprudence. I’m following my plan to attack the first half of the marathon, to run at a rate I can’t sustain.As I haven’t run further than twenty kilometres in training, there is no pace I will sustain. So I set out at my recently improved training rate of six-and-a half minutes per kilometer.
For the initial ten kilometres I run alone with my thoughts. Phil appears before me on the track, radiating: I’m amazing, I’m looking strong, my form is impressive. In addition to these loving lies, Phil plies me with iced coffee and Black Forest chocolate. To drink without choking I must stop running. As soon as I put my drink down, Phil commands me: Keep moving, Howard. Don’t let your hips seize up. The respite is delicious, the resumption tolerable. Farewell, Phil, see you around 21ks.
Fast footfalls follow me, overtaking me swiftly. A tall male figure floats past, his strides smooth and strong. He’s the leading runner and he looks like a winner. A minute later runners Two and Three overtake me. They too look good. Admiration overtakes envy; such speed, such power and grace! Over the next quarter of the race, I have the opportunity to admire fifty or more runners faster than I. With every passing, runners exchange greetings, acknowledgement and encouragement. None of this is perfunctory. The respect is authentic. A runner knows the truth embodied in every passing comrade.
Keeping up this speed is getting harder. I negotiate with my legs, I put the hard wordon them: No excuses. I know you can do this. My legs plug resentfully on. Happily, every encounter interrupts such conversation. Volunteers cry out my praises. You can do this, they cry, as if they’d overheard my inward address to tiring legs.
Ahead on the track a tall figure waves to me. It’s Phil, meeting me somewhat before we arranged, around 18 kilometers. We’ll run together to the turn at 24 km and then back some distance. By then we’ll have reached 28 kms. Once there, with two-thirds of the distance behind me I’ll feel confident of finishing. It is at this stage that Phil tricks me. He leads me to the half-way and well past it without my realising. Never knowing I’ve reached that landmark, I forget to slow, and, thus deceived, I float on Phil’s oceanof goodwill without self-pity or ruminative arithmetic.
More chocolate, a draught of Coke, a peeled mandarine and Phil is off, leaving me in the company of a tall young woman whom I’ll call Louisa, who’s running her second marathon. Louisa shares my mandarine and keeps my mind distracted,telling me of her mother, who fights her recurrent breast cancer and her rheumatoid arthritis. We’ve gone plant-based and we’ve chucked away all the auto-inflammatories. Mum did a seven-day water retreat and now you wouldn’t know her for the woman she was. No pain, no drugs. Happy.
Louisa appears to be Mum’s sole support. Mum appears to be Louisa’s project. Dad’s back on the farm in Horsham, Louisa’s the carer child. I hear about the five failed IVF cycles. I gave up teachingand became a personal trainer. Did the study and got the qualification. All my work happens in early morning and in the evening. In between I have time for Mum. And this marathon stuff, that’s my outlet. No, there’s no partner. One day, when the stars align, we’ll find each other…I guess.
Arriving at the final drinks station I seize a cup of water and the opportunity for a breather. A voice announces, This is Pheidipides Goldenberg, everyone! Hello Pheidipides. It’s me, Barry Higgins! Huge grins, flesh shakes flesh. You’re going to write about this aren’t you? I nod. I always write my marathon and in Traralgon I send the Traralgon Harriers, who organise the event, a copy for their newsletter. Barry Higgins is the soul of this marathon, having run it more times than any other and having written a fine history of its first fifty years.
A bunch of marginally faster runners overtakes Louisa and me and edges ahead, stealing Louisa away. Left now to my own thoughts, I encounter Temptation. You’re feeling pretty weary, aren’t you?Wouldn’t those legs of yours enjoy a break? A little walk couldn’t hurt, could it?
The voices make sense. But this whole enterprise defies sense. A marathon runner is a grownup child at play. It makes no sense to run where you might walk. But watch the child at play, see how she gambols like the lamb in spring, like a newborn foal. We grownup runners defy sense, defy the years. Our legs remember the joy, the delight, of speed, and our brains, registering effort, imagine the body to be speeding.
My legs have posed their question. Will now responds in the negative. Dreadfully tired, I know I’ll not yield. I run on, tearful now, and joyous. I’ve passed my test. The sun shines, the mist has risen. I’ve removed layers of clothing as I’ve warmed, handing the sodden garments, one by one, to Phil, who bears them away. He reappears now, a beacon. He’ll run me home.
I run, awash with feelings of love and thankfulness for strength, for friendship, for the volunteers, for liberty, for this window in the pandemic, and for health. Especially for health. During the past week a message comes to me from Leni, Manny Karageorgiou’s daughter, telling me of the little boy born to her, whom she named Manoli in remembrance of Manny. Manoli is now aged three. He has been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare and wicked malignancy of childhood. Manoli’scancer is Stage IV. In footage of Manoli, I see him gamboling for the simple joy of movement. His head is smooth, innocent of hair. When I report all this to my wife, my voice fails me. How is it I am so blessed while others must suffer?
The world smiles upon me as the distance to the Finish shrinks beneath my feet. Phil at my side, in my ear, sings his song of faith. You’re nearly there. Only two kilometres now. You’ve done a mighty thing. You’ve inspired me. I’ll run it myself next year. Keep going, Howard, keep it up. You’re running so strongly. We reach the final turn from the rail trail to the bitumen. Minutes later we come upon vehicles parked at the roadside. The Finish is just a few hundred metres ahead, at the top of a little hill. A hill! Read hell, not hill. Phil’s voice whispers a final blessing: I’ll leave you here, Howard. Only thirty metres, now. The crowd loves you.Go!
I go. The crowd does indeed care. They cheer as if I, Pheidipides Goldenberg, were their own. These people – runners long-finished, wearing their medallions, runners’ support persons, volunteers, organisers – these people have one voice that cries, together with Pheidipides of old, ‘Rejoice my brethren, ours is the victory!’
Footnotes: 1.Watch Phil’s video. I watched it and learned to respect my own absurdity.
2. Please watch Manoli Plueckhahn on The Project. https://m.facebook.com/TheProjectTV/videos/823036118338701/?refsrc=deprecated&_rdr
You might be moved as I was, to donate funds for his drug trial abroad.