Running to a Dream

After the Malta Marathon I took a break from long runs. The physical recovery took about one week, two at most, moral recovery much longer. I feared long runs. The thought evoked moral nausea.

Perhaps that’s why I managed to acquire my first real injury in forty years of running. Perhaps that’s why rest brought no cure; why physiotherapy didn’t fix me; why eventually it hurt too much walk. Surgery followed, together with the instruction, ‘No running for 6-8 weeks.’  Disability became my comfort, surgery my excuse, prohibition my refuge.

***

Almost one year pass without a single further marathon. Finally my legs speak up and today, fifty weeks post-Malta, those legs mandate a long run. I decide I’ll try to run to Cabarete and back, a distance of 23 kilometres. We visited the poor Dominican village of Cabarete a couple of days ago, and we know it a little. Cabarete is the home of a Dream.

Here in the Dominican Republic the air perpetually feels thick and today it is a mantle, heavy on the skin. Very soon a fine rain falls about and upon me, a rain too fine to soak my thin singlet. The horizon disappears in the grey, and with the light Sunday morning traffic noises quelled it is a softer world that welcomes me back to the long run.

In this northern part of the country but a single road runs from Puerto Plata to my turning point, Cabarete, and beyond. Some dreamer designated this road a highway, but the reality is simply one lane of traffic twisting in one direction and a second stream struggling back. Potholes large enough for caving lie concealed beneath pooled rainwater. Three vehicles in four are motorcycles, underpowered and overloaded. The bikes carry a load of soft flesh. Usually two ride but sometimes I sight a third body, even occasionally a fourth – generally children – squeezed between driver and pillioned passenger; and my first-world heart misses a beat.

These frail conveyances seek safety on the verge, where I – likewise a frail conveyance – seek safety as I run. I run facing and dodging  the oncoming traffic.

Traffic regulations are observed in DR in the breach. Red lights appear to be advisory only. In one full week of daily runs, I never see a motorcyclist in a helmet. Life expectancy is low here, human life guarded less closely than in my fretful homeland. However today, ‘Domingo, the Lord’s Day,’ I actually sight in the gloom what looks like a helmeted rider. Is this possible, I wonder? A large roadside sign answers: Con Dios Todos es Possible.

 

 

The rain has thickened but it does not dampen my spirits. Luke-warm, it falls vertically in fat drops, cooling me sweetly. Legs free of self-doubt propel me forward, the kilometres turn into miles, nothing hurts. I breathe fresh air fortified by hydrocarbons and the smell of cow manure.

When I asked my friend Edith, ‘are there snakes here in DR?’, she answered: ‘No. No snakes, unless you count the little green ones. They’re harmless.’

Running beneath a pedestrian overpass my shoe strikes the tarmac just beside a serpent lying in the warm wetness. This reptile is about a metre long, striped in the pattern of Australia’s decidedly unharmless Tiger Snake.  This particular serpent would be a baby tiger in Australia; his thickness a little less than one inch. At present this snake has no volume, he is a planar serpent, compressed flat by some overrunning heavy vehicle. My legs cease their running and I study the deceased. His small mouth gapes venomously, as if to frighten Death himself. He looks neither particularly little, not at all green, and absolutely not friendly. But he is extremely dead.

I run on.

Tottering along on its four circular feet an ancient motorized cart passes me, headed for the tourist district. Loaded chaotically with watermelons the cart conveys undefeated optimism. In the family of a watermelon seller life and sustenance, hang by a filament. I recall my Papa, a professional watermelon seller operating in the waters offshore from the fishing port of Yaffo (Jaffa) in the 1890’s. Hunger drove Papa from school before he’d finished Third Grade. He’d buy watermelons in the market and swim them far out to sea in the hope of making a sale to thirsty fishermen in their boats offshore.

Eventually I arrive at Cabarete’s sole traffic light, my turning point. Nothing hurts, breathing is easy, I’m feeling strong, nothing daunts me. I turn and run for home. Is it raining still? Strangely, I’ve stopped noticing; it seems to make no difference in this damp-never-wet-for-long-never-very-dry place.

Back to snake overpass and here, on the opposite side of the ‘highway’ lies another serpent, his dead brother’s twin. Something unexpected happens: I feel sorrow for the poor dead creature, crushed, spine broken and wrenched into a violent right angle that is, anatomically, all wrong angle.  D H Lawrence’s ‘Snake’ comes to mind:

Was it humility, to feel so honoured?

I felt so honoured.

Reading the roadside hoardings as I run, pretty soon I crack the code: if the language is English the signboard addresses pink people, Gringos, especially Yanquis. The pink have the money for this spiffy resort, that shmick kitesurf school, these elegant condominiums.

As in Australia, the person in DR who cleans your room, or cooks for you is not pink. He or she is pigmented and poor.

An eatery describes its fare in emphatic upper case:

BURRITO’S

 

TACO’S

 

BOWL’S

It is to puke. The feral apostrophe has invaded the hispanosphere.

Grammar-appalled, I run on.

 

Here’s another roadside notice: an attractive female face beams down at the traffic. On her fitted t-shirt one reads:DREAM PROJECT, Dominican Republic Education And Mentoring. Surrounding her, small dark faces bend over books, desks, small trays; little fingers grip pencils in a rainbow of colours. The scene of infant industry carries a powerful message. Along the lower margin a reminder: WWW.DREAMPROJECTDOMINICA.ORG

I recognise those pleasing features. Together with my Australian-American family I visited the Dream Project a couple of days ago.

Goodbye My Friend

We are saying goodbye to Mannie today.

Mannie, my friend.

Mannie, whose loved ones weep today.

Manny, one sole man, who ran and ran.

Mannie whose race is finally run.

Mannie’s roots lie in Greece.

Mannie was true to his roots.

Those roots brought forth shoots who live and grow and bear fruit. The shoots are the children of Mannie and Demitra. When the young couple named their shoots they were visited by the muses: they named their children not Lucy but Alithea; not Robert but Panayioti; not Susan but Leni. The names carry meaning, love of course, and destiny.

Mannie did not give his children easy names, Aussie names, names to hide behind. He gave them what he received – a culture, a tradition, a history of beauty and pride.

Everyone knows of the feats of Manuel Karageorgiou, Mannie, who ran the first Melbourne Marathon and the second and the third and …

Manny was one of the eight. Eight glorious souls who had lived and toiled and wrought in every Melbourne Marathon from the first to the latest. Forty consecutive marathons. Foolish.

I want to suggest to the non-runner reader what Mannie’s folly entailed. Physiologists have identified an end point of energy. And adult human can run about 32 kilometres, then energy reserves are exhausted. After that the runner faces a wall. The runner digs into a core of belief and runs a further step. There remain ten kilometres, ten thousand steps. The runner digs further, drawing on pride, on mystic need, on love, on some truth in the soul. And the runner runs on, runs through a wrecked body. The runner now is pure spirit.

And then there are the final, agonising, ecstatic one hundred and eighty steps. The runner crosses the line and then the race is run.

A few paragraphs ago I began listing Mannie’s Melbourne Marathons. I stopped after three. Were I merely to list the forty your eyes would glaze, your mind would wilt, you’d leave the track that Mannie and the Eight would not leave.

My Greek friend always dreamed of running the Athens Marathon, a homecoming profound beyond imagining. But Mannie never allowed himself to run Athens because it clashed with Melbourne. And Mannie owed the event his presence, his being. Mannie would not desert his friends of the Eight.

I’d like you to visit www.howardgoldenberg.com and look up posts that tell of three of Mannie’s marathons. You’ll find them dated October 2014, 2015, 2016. And then read https://howardgoldenberg.com/2017/10/23/its-not-how-long-youve-got-its-what-you-do-with-it/ from October 2017.

I’ll reveal here some of Mannie’s medical history, normally a forbidden act. But Mannie as we know was not a normal man:

While on an early morning training run before the Melbourne Marathon a few years ago I sensed a solid bulk of human flesh approaching in the gloom. The flesh developed a face and the face shot a me smile through the mist. Mannie recognised me first.

Here he was, I knew, fresh from his bone marrow transplant. Preposterous – Mannie understood – to run a marathon with that illness, outrageous, with those therapies. He’d visited me the previous week to talk about running again. ‘The specialist says I shouldn’t run. Howard, is he right?’

‘I suppose he must be Mannie. One fall and your bones can break, so easily.’

It was a broken rib, cancerous, we both recalled, that uncovered Mannie’s diagnosis.

Mannie looked at me. Mannie knew I was no cancer expert, just a runner. His look was a plea; he wanted a reprieve.

I said I could tell him what was the safest course. But then I told him about my mother:’Late in Mum’s life her health was shattered by strokes, but the spirit of the wanderer that had taken her to the bright and the dark ends of the globe, burned still. My sister and I were going to fly to Uluru. Mum wanted to come. She said, “If I stay at home I’ll die one day anyhow. I’d sooner go and see and find and know; and if I die doing it, I’ll have seen the rock. That would still be a good deal for me.” Mannie thanked me and left.  You know what Mannie decided.

I referred before to Mannie’s folly. I’ve seen marathons. I’ve seen and felt the interest and the indifference of spectators. I’ve seen the fellowship of running. I’ve felt the loneliness of the Malta plains. I’ve seen the splendour and I’ve seen the blackness: both were present that day in Boston. I thought I had seen it all, until I ran a marathon with Mannie. An entourage ambushed him – a son, a brother, a younger leviathan figure, a clutch of attractive young women (I wondered who they were. I learned they were girlfriends of nephews of Mannie.) This phalanx of nonrunners surrounded Mannie, they spread widely across the road. Mannie was one runner among thousands, but he alone moved in this stream of flesh aching with love. They ran and ran alongside their hero – the older man, the fat man, the glamorous girls. They tasted fatigue but they would not leave him, not until he reached the next plank in Mannie’s platform of love; and this, of course, was Demitra. ‘DEM!’, he cried, and they kissed. And Demitra held their grandbaby. Mannie stopped. He held that chubby child close and inhaled her. And then he ran on.

I have written of a human, a person. I have written of him chiefly as the operator of a pair of legs. A person is more than that. More than a disease, more than his diagnosis. But in Mannie the runner I see the human and his fate. This man faced Nemesis and outran him for year after year. And when at last – five kilometres into the fortieth marathon, after Mannie stumbled and fell, then arose bloodied – it was Demitra who stepped from the footpath, who took his hand and led him away.

“..Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done…”

Farewell, Mannie. We will not see your like again.

Mannie’s family have let it be known they don’t want floral tributes to mannie. They’d prefer us to donate to the Myeloma Foundation in his memory. And of course, in his honour.

It’s Not How Long You’ve Got, It’s What You Do With It

I’ve got six to twelve, the older man said.

The younger man said quietly, they give me three to six.

But you never know, said the elder, my count is down. A little. I might get longer. Doctors can be wrong…If the count keeps falling, I might last longer than the twelve; I might be able to take the family to Greece next year. I’d love to go…

The younger man said I want to get to my brother’s wedding in February.

Silently we did the sums. February will be after three months.

The elder man’s oval face creased. He said to the younger: maybe you can get into a trial. I’m on a trial drug. My count is down, a bit. Are you on a trial?

No. I’m not eligible. I don’t have the mutation.

The elder urged the other to do things, to try things, not to accept predictions as solid fact: They can be wrong you know.

The young man smiled his crooked smile, stretching the wasted side into momentary symmetry. I know, he said. At first they gave me twelve months. That was five years ago.

The elder man’s eyebrows shot up. Wow, he said, that’s beating the odds. His earnest face relaxed, happier now. Are you on chemo?

I have been. On and off. It’s stopped working.

I keep hearing about people who have their brain tumours removed. Couldn’t they try that?

They did. Twice.

Twice? The elder man winced. He was trying everything, fighting the younger man’s disease.

Whenever he spoke the younger man’s voice was quiet. A physiotherapist, he was trained in disability. Now it had come to him, kept coming, unfolding in his body. His brain analysed each stumble, he processed the growing weakness down the left side, every step was improvised, his studied speech experimental, not bitter.

I stumble too, said the elder man. Last week, I was only one kilometre into the marathon when I stumbled. The ambulance men would have taken me away but Howard here wouldn’t let them. It’s just the foot, it flops.

The younger man said you can get an orthotic to keep the foot straight. They work. They’re not comfortable but you won’t stumble.

The ‘stumble’ was a crash. Down he went, his heavy body accruing momentum that his muscles could not brake. Six of the last eight months in hospital had seen powerful tissues soften and shrink, proud muscles, muscles that had carried this man 39 times the full 42.185 kilometres and across the Line. One of the Legendary Seven, last Sunday he lined up for his fortieth. He walked, he trotted, he shivered wildly, then he fell. Bent forward at my feet the man groaned loudly. He crouched, his head folded under his belly and he groaned again. Blood oozed, first from his knees, soon from the heels of his palms.  Two tall young men materialised, one on either side of the fallen man. They asked questions, good paramedical questions. The athlete groaned. I said, He’ll be alright.

The ambos said, He doesn’t look too flash.

I said, I’m his doctor.

What’s his diagnosis?

Everything, I said. He’ll be right.

At the prospect of unwelcome rescue the runner hauled himself up the helping arms of his son and his doctor. His sister-in-law mopped blood. The tissue was soon soaked. He said to his son, I’m shivering. Can I have your jumper?

He started walking again. People in the crowd recognised him. He was one of the Seven. Good on you, they cried. Legend! Keep going!

The man kept going. So did his teeth, chattering violently now, drumming time with his gait. The doctor in me wondered about fever, the return of infection that had seen him in hospital again and again.

A little short of the Fitzroy Street landmark his wife intercepted him. She took his arm and guided him gently to the kerb.

***

The younger man and the elder had not met before, although each had heard me speak of the other, a person like him, another with a problem that doctors could not cure.

The younger man regarded the elder. This rotund man, this athlete, this grandfather who’d three times risen from his sickbed to run so far. He sat at a remove from his stricken body, his face alight in wonder.

I nudged the younger: tell him what you’ve been doing since your diagnosis. The younger man spoke a little in the voice I have come to know, the voice he always uses when speaking of his living while dying. The voice speaks softly, a grin riding above the speaking mouth, ironic knowing in the background. The elder sat and listened. He heard of the classes the younger man runs for children with disabilities: They’re the kids no-one can do anything for. I mean no-one can fix them. There’s no cure for their cerebral palsy or their intellectual deficit or their severe ADHD.

The younger man did not mention to the elder how he teaches children they can be anything, do anything. His own life is the textbook, held open to the kids.

How do they come to you? Do you advertise?

Not as such. More word of mouth.  And there’s the website*.

A smile dashed across the younger man’s face: We start off each time with a group hug. It’s more a gang tackle – they race across towards me and throw themselves onto me and we hold each other. It will be fun tonight. The younger man glanced at his failing left leg:  Until now my balance and strength have been fine. Tonight I’ll go down and I’ll stay down. He laughed. It was a merry laugh, no irony, just the laugh of a man looking forward to sharing with his small friends the joke that is his health. The joke that is all health that is broken or twisted or failing.

We ate, all of us suddenly hungry. The younger man’s left hand rested in his bowl of hot dhal. I looked down, wondering when he’d remove it. The hand stayed put. The brain that should have perceived and sent the message to the hand neglected its work. The brain has been invaded and the invasion continues.

I asked them both, Don’t you feel angry? (I felt angry.)

The older man said, Why would I feel angry? Look, I’ve lived, I’ve got my wife, my children, a grandchild. I have a lot, I’ve lived. I feel sorry for my mother. She rings me every day, every single day. She worries.

A moment passed while we thought our thoughts. I felt for the younger man sitting at the side of the elder and hearing of the joys of a life lived, of a man full with his generations.

The younger man said, I’m not angry about this. He pointed to his head. I just get angry when doctors won’t listen. I nodded. Some of my starchier colleagues are uncomfortable with a patient  who is more than his disease, one who charts his path, who travels his world so widely and deeply as my friend.

A week earlier I asked the younger man was he frightened of dying. He said no. Later, a characteristically quirky text appeared on my screen: On the way down in the lift I worked out why I wasn’t scared. Dying isn’t scary – if you get it wrong then you stay alive.

*www.camerongill.com.au

Traralgon Marathon Report

Given the event took place over a week ago this report is pretty tardy. The truth is I have nothing to report.
If you’d asked me for my report thirty-nine years ago, I’d have leaped into print. Likewise had you enquired in June 1990, I’d have been bursting with news. In 2000 I reported on my run with Fidel. Even though he rode much of the way in my car, Fidel was awarded a Finisher’s medal as First Dog across the line. And in 2007 there was news of a different order.

But in 2017 I have nothing to report.

The Traralgon Marathon is Australia’s senior event. This year marks its fiftieth running. As well as being our first marathon, Traralgon is Victoria’s Country Marathon Championship. All in all a pretty lustrous affair. Competing under his nomme des jambs of Pheidipides, Howard Goldenberg ran his maiden marathon at Traralgon thirty-nine years ago. That year 181 runners started and 141 finished. I still have the official printout of the results. At the foot of the second of two roneoed sheets of paper (this report antedated the internet), you’d read: In 141st place, Pheidipides Goldenberg; time: 4 hours, 31 minutes, 31 seconds.

Every time I run a marathon I write one. That simple passage through time and space, so simple, so elemental, you mightn’t credit it worthy of remark. But every running feels remarkable to the runner. In the marathon the runner encounters the sole self, discovering some things that are unwelcome and others that make the runner feel a little proud. In a marathon, as Zatopek remarked, we all die a little. The event is charged with significance for this runner because the essentially solitary passage through time and space always involves encounters with others. It is the comradeship, the fellow feeling, the respect that elevate our experience. In that sense the marathon is a metaphor for our lives.

A watcher of the Barcelona Olympic Marathon might have caught images of the leading bunch of five as they passed their drink stop with seven kilometres to go. They had, running in intense humidity and heat, slowly outpaced a score of household names from Kenya and Tanzania and Korea and Japan and Australia. These five were the bravest of the brave on that particular day. One of these five, one only, would become immortal. Four of the five grabbed their special drinks at the 35 KM mark. The fifth grabbed and missed. And ran on, turning back being out of the question. The four drank and ran and drank again. One of those four passed his unfinished drink to the fifth. I do not recall whether the drink-giver won the event – I fancy he did not – but in that moment he joined the Immortals. In such small moments we see the glory of the marathon.
All this reads a bit portentously. Most running – and all of mine – is more comedic or shambolic than deep. In the field of my third Traralgon I sighted at the Start the esteemed and beloved Cliff Young, Australia’s most famous potato farmer, a previous winner of the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon. Cliffy used to go on his training runs wearing his hobnail work boots. If he needed a haircut he’d trot the thirty kilometres from his farm to Colac, then run back home again. That day in Traralgon I wondered if I’d manage to get close to him. Around the three KM mark my legs became over-excited and accelerated and I hauled him in. Running a couple of paces behind Cliff I admired the light lacework of his tracksuit material. I drew closer. The lacework was in fact the work of a legion of hungry moths. Through the mothholes I could see and admire the pale skin of those spindly old legs.
‘Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot/But he’ll remember with advantages/What feats he did that day.’ Thus Shakespeare. It was in Traralgon that I ran my best marathon time. In those better years I’d usually finish in three and a half hours – not flash but respectable. Around 1990, everything went well. By the twenty km mark the field was well strung out, each runner alone with his thoughts and his hopes and his faltering strength. Somehow on this day only my shoelace faltered. I heard a slap, slap, slap – one slap at every second stride. I looked down; my right shoelace had untied itself. I stopped, resting my foot on the lower timber of a little footbridge. I tied the lace and cursed myself for the loss rhythm. 

Where strength falters it is rhythm that lulls the unthinking legs with metre that beguiles like music or poetry. I straightened and placed one foot forward, then the second, now the first, now the second. And here, quickly, rhythm returned. I ran on and on. I passed a browsing cow. She looked up and gazed at me, ruminating. I passed a lonely church. I counted cars parked on the verge, calculating numbers of worshippers.


Approaching Traralgon on the return loop I saw the smoking chimneys of the power station blackening the winter blue with coal smoke. Crossing the river I was welcomed by a pelican gliding overhead in his landing approach. I blessed the bird of good augury. After that I think I thought of nothing. At forty kilometres I felt weary and I cursed the distance remaining. I slowed, realising I was about to ruin everything. I never recovered my pace. I cursed my feeble will.

A short time later that felt like a long time I crossed the Line. My time of three hours and fifteen minutes and thirteen seconds was to be my best ever.

Four weeks before this year’s Traralgon I ran a brisk 6.2 kilometres on unforgiving concrete. I thrashed along, full of surprised pleasure in my pace. Later, when I checked the elapsed time (35 minutes) I was reminded how, nowadays, mediocrity is beyond me. After the encounter with the concrete my right knee started to hurt. The after-pain of running always reminds me of the achievement that brought it about. Pain always passes but while it lasts I smile with small pride.

In 2007 my elder brother Dennis, always thirsty for my company, offered to come along with me to Traralgon. With him Dennis brought a hitch-hiker, his flatmate and devoted companion, Sahara the Hound. Sahara was a dog I never managed to like. In this I came closer than most. For Sahara was a raucous, snapping, yelping creature, anti-social, sociopathic in fact. Sahara yapped and snarled her way into the rear of the car, lay down on the seat, growled a bit and fell into silence, then into sleep. For the duration of the two-hour drive Dennis and I spoke as brothers do, of nothing and of everything. We arrived, I registered and showed Dennis the Finish Line. ‘I estimate I’ll get here in four to four-and–half hours,’ I told him. My estimate was incorrect; I crossed the line in 3 hours, 45 minutes, beating the only other sixty-plus-year old male by a handy margin. In disbelief I checked and rechecked my time.

As ever, Dennis swelled with pride at the achievement of his younger brother. Here I was, 2007 Traralgon and Victorian Country Marathon champion (male, sixty-plus). I duly added the achievement to my Resume.

During the drive home, Sahara slept again. Again Dennis and I chatted. Dennis told me of a question he’d been mulling: ‘ I’ve decided: I’m going to have the operation, Doff. I’ll lose weight and I’ll be able to exercise. I’ll have more energy because I won’t have sleep apnoea anymore. The doctor says I’ll be cured of my diabetes.’ I misgave but said nothing. ‘Doff, I know you’re super-cautious. I’m the opposite. I’ll have the operation and I’ll get my life back!’ I hoped he would. Dennis went on: he’d complete his MBA in a month or so, he’d graduate then he’d have the surgery. After recovering from the operation Dennis said he’d revive his business.

Two months later Dennis graduated at the head of his class, with High Distinction. In September he underwent bariatric surgery. Fourteen days later he died of complications. Every June the Traralgon Marathon comes around and I remember.

In 2017 my training was the best for years. I entered, paid, arranged to travel with a support team comprised of a friend and his 11-year-old son. We booked overnight accommodation in Traralgon and I saw my physio about the oddly persistent knee ache. My physio, a gifted and devoted torturer, rubbed and pressed and stretched me. She prescribed exercises, with which – to our mutual surprise – I complied. And my knee hurt more. I had an x-ray that showed a pristine joint and a panel of four physios gathered in conclave before the light-box to advise me. I rested the knee as they suggested. I took the dicey non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication that threatened my remaining kidney function. My physio taped my knee. I rested further and lost fitness. Two days before race day I could not walk to the toilet without pain. We cancelled the accommodation. The good people at Traralgon Harriers gave me a rain check to 2018.   

In 2017 I have nothing to report.
 
 
 
Footnote (kneenote, really): my knee feels better every day.

A Guest of the Emir

Recently I enjoyed the hospitality of the Emir of Dubai. Overnight Qantas flew me from Australia to the Emir’s desert airport where I boarded one of his aircraft, bound for Malta via Larnaca. At 0720 I found my seat in the very front row of Economy. As we were not due to take off until 0750 there was sufficient time for me to recite shacharith, (literally, the dawn prayer).

 

I looked around. I saw no other yarmulkes. On the other hand, there were no hijabs either, nor keffiyehs. I pulled out of my backpack all the elaborate paraphernalia of my morning prayer – tallith, tefilin, siddur and stood for a moment, irresolute. I recalled the prayers of my family on the eve of a previous Emirates flight: ‘Dad, you can’t do all those rituals on Emirates. It’s provocative. It’s not safe. Please, Dad, don’t do it!’

 

I unfolded my tallith. Not just any old prayer shawl, this was the final gift to me of my father. Very late in Dad’s life I took him to Gold’s where he bought this tallith for me and I bought one for him. An absurd exchange? Possibly so. It was one we had ritualised over a couple of decades: at the kosher grog shop, I’d shout Dad to arak or slivovitz for Passover and he’d buy me a brace of claret and Kiddush wine. Happy to enhance the other’s observances we’d grin and embrace and bless each other.

I looked at the tallith and felt the fall of many curious eyes. I thought of Dad and I wrapped it around my head and stood, enfolded, for a few moments of remembrance. Then I showed my face.

 

Standing in my seat in Economy I realised I was providing a live show for the roughly 160 gentile persons filing slowly past my seat at the front, en-route to their own. I had more colourful display in store for them. I pulled out the small bag of royal blue velvet that holds my tefilin. These small black leather boxes, fashioned after an ancient craft, contain Torah verses meticulously inscribed on vellum. Tefilin symbolise key rememberings that are mandatory every day upon every Jew. Attached to the little boxes are long black leather thongs by which I bind one box high on my left arm and another to the centre of my forehead. The verses thus are bound to my heart and my mind.

 

 

The unfolding of tefilin, the minute and precise steps of the placing and binding, punctuated at prescribed intervals by the reciting of rabbinic and prophetic words, constitute a dance no less exacting than the mating of brolgas. Three hundred and twenty eyes took in the old choreography. 

 

Upon completing my devotions I removed one leather box, kissed it perhaps a little more reverently than usual and coiled its straps. I did the same with the second. Finally I folded my tallith. The ceremony of prayer at an end, I took in my fellow passengers. We were Filipinas, Chinese, Occidentals, and a fair smattering of persons of Middle Eastern appearance. No-one had raised the alarm, no-one objected to my sectarian display.

 

 

When at last I sat down, the man next to me asked: ‘Where do you come from?’

‘Australia. And you’re from Korea?’

 

A large smile. Surprised, happy to be recognised, he nodded. He and his wife and his volleyballer-tall daughter were heading for Malta, as I was. ‘For our holidays’, he said. And what was it that drew me to Malta? The Conference of Arts and Sciences, certainly. And yes, the marathon. But before all that I was coming to listen for the voices and hear the stories of dead Jews.

 

Men, Today we Die a Little

Emil Zatopek spoke those words to his rivals at the starting line of the Olympic Marathon, in Melbourne in 1956. Throughout his career Zatopek regarded every other runner as a comrade. He talked to everyone everywhere he went. He befriended everyone, including his opponents, chatting with them as they raced. In this respect Emil and I are brothers.

On that marathon day, a Saturday in early December 1956, I was nearly twelve. I had worshipped Zatopek for some time. Later generations do not recognise that name but aficionados – among them Australia’s Ron Clark – remember Emil Zatopek as the greatest Olympic distance runner of all. (What? You don’t know who Ron Clark was?) The marathon course took runners from the stadium, out along Dandenong Road to Dandenong, where they turned for the run back to the MCG. Standing with my mother at the foot of my street in suburban Oakleigh, I picked out Zatopek as he approached, short, balding, a ball of muscular effort. He was not among the first three or so. I ran alongside my hero, racing him from the nature strip. I beat Zatopek over one hundred metres then left him to his devices. Long past his best, injured, unwell, he completed the marathon, finishing in sixth place. 

Sixty years later, in Malta, I was prepared to die a little. Malta was hilly, the roads uneven and hard, the weather brutally clement. Add to that my very late decision to run, and my token training, and I deserved to die more than a little.

I set my alarm for 0445 hours. I booked my cab for 0545. I lay down and sweet sleep enfolded me. My alarm never rang; sleep abruptly forsook me at 0300, leaving me to wrestle with a now hostile pillow and futility. At 0330 I gave up, got up and switched off the redundant alarm. I contemplated the coming day sourly. If you run a marathon with a sleep debt the late miles will claim settlement; effectively you fall asleep on your feet, concentration falters and resolution slumbers.

So I did what any drug addict does. I brewed and drank a thunderbolt coffee. Then I recited my dawn prayers. Then I did what any drug cheat does. I drank some more strong coffee. It was a thoughtful cheat who drained that second cup. There would be no more caffeine until after the race. In every other marathon runners deposit their personalized drinks before the start. These drinks are marked with the runner’s name and the relevant kilometer mark. As we approach every 5K mark we know our drinks await us. My drinks always contain Coca Cola, which, so the label informs me, contains only natural ingredients. The natural ingredients that interest me in a marathon are water (check) sugar (double check) and caffeine (check, check, check). Malta has no provision for personalised drinks – water and a sports drink only – and as I was to learn, even these might fail. So there’d be no further euphoriant chemicals to carry me through Zatopek’s valley of the shadow.

Being awake so early I bolted a slug of sustaining bircher muesli I had prepared a couple of days earlier. Over the couple of days my bircher had set into the consistency of drying cement. The cement sat in my gullet, a solid and present companion that would keep me company well after the coffee stopped working.

The cab dropped me at the ferry terminal in Sliema. From there our prepaid buses would take us to the start in Mdina. (Have you been to Mdina? You must. Around the Mediterranean, ‘mdina’ – derived from the semitic word ‘medina’ – signifies the old city. This particular old city sits atop hills, a fortress from its inception, its honeyed stone walls shining in the sun. I have visited and loved and gone mad time and time again in Jerusalem’s old city, a city most particular to me; and yet I have to declare, by narrow aesthetic criteria, I find Malta’s Mdina Jerusalem’s equal. And in both cases, the city’s geography is its history. Situated at strategic geopolitical crossroads, both have been loved, contended, changed hands again and again, and remain beautiful, beloved and blood drenched.)

Before the Marathon


The bus slid through the dying night. Runners from everywhere chatted in the dimness. I heard African accents, Asian, singsong Italian, German, and Eastern European tongues heavy in consonant and intensity. Regional British accents all around, French too, somehow always a whispering music. Four thousand would run, but only 900 of these would run the full 42.195 kilometre event. Of these Maltans are a small proportion. I suspected Pheidipides Goldenberg constituted the entire Australian contingent. 

The race information booklet advised the oldest male in the full marathon was one Giuseppe Balzarini. At 78 this fellow would be seven years my senior. A skeleton in a bright yellow shirt stood suddenly before me. His face of olive skin hung in deep stubbled folds. He had some teeth, not many, but all of them flashed me a brilliant grin. His right forefinger extended, nearly touching my own yellow shirt: You. How many?

Seventy one. My own index finger came into play: Which country?

The face showed incomprehension. His palms opened interrogatively: How much?

I showed the man seven fingers, then a single digit.

Ahh! Huge smile. The man indicated himself: Me…he showed me seven fingers then eight. His teeth were overjoyed. Then the man – the name on his shirt read not Giuseppe but Edouardo – did something unexpected. He extended his right hand once again, and brought it close to my cheek. Once, twice, Edouardo soft palm patted my cheek. An uncle could not have touched me more tenderly. Of course, my own hand rose to Edouardo’s face and did the same. Chest to chest, smile to crooked smile, we were two Zatopeks. We stood for a moment, then he was gone. I hoped I’d see him again.
Naturally we had arrived at the Start an hour before starting time. Naturally we all used the Portapotties. Mildly grotesque and richly comic are these lines of runners waiting to discharge some of the surplus we have so purposefully taken in. We stand or jiggle or dance, all of us declaring publicly a quite private intention. We wait and we wait, none of us knowing in what condition we will find the accommodation. (Beyond silently thanking my obsessive precursor I forbear here to report.)

But I can tell you on emerging I found it pretty cold up there on that hilltop, the wind rising from the Valetta plain, coaxing gooseflesh from my limbs. I found the numbered van corresponding to my race number and deposited my bag of possessions in the back. Then, sneaking around the front I let myself into the driver’s cabin, tried to make myself invisible, and let my flesh thaw.

The race was to start at 0730 hours. At 0710 my solitude was disturbed: You alright?

It was the driver. Yes I was alright, thanks.

Is OK. Next time you ask?

Yes. Next time. Thank you.

At 0720 my bladder had an afterthought. Back at the Portapotty queues a fair-haired runner named Michelle provided entertainment for us latecomers. A stocky young person, Michelle did not look African lean. I doubted she’d last the distance. (I was wrong.) But as a sprinter she was quite good. As soon as a Portapotty door swung open Michelle would race forward, only to find opportunity snatched from her. This open door was for males only, that open door was the same, this other one opened all right – exposing the buttocks of an occupant who wasn’t expecting company. Michelle danced on the spot, whether to warm up or to maintain continence, the effect was to divert us from our private concerns.

At 0725 the Public Address summoned us to the Start. At 0729 and fifty seconds the PA voice said ten seconds to go. Let’s all count down! Nine hundred voices complied. Zero! – cried the nine hundred. Go! – cried the PA. And we did. Tragically the first kilometres downhill from the citadel of Mdina were downhill. Utterly seduced, my legs flew. For the time being my body, cement bircher included, was weightless. Of course I could not catch my breath. And my sanity fled far away, not to be overtaken for twenty kilometres.

 

What followed in the next five hours will not hold your interest. I recall it all, of course, but wish to forget it. The marathon organisers warned runners the event would conclude at 1300 hours – fully five and a half hours after the start. After that, runners would receive no medal, their finishing times would go unrecorded and unreported. I thought five-and-a-half hours long enough to have a birthday: surely I’d beat the deadline. I had drawn up my plans, dividing the 42.195 kilometres into hopeful ‘quarters’ of 11 kms, 11 kms, 10 and 10.195 kms. I allowed these splits 70, 75, 80 and 90 minutes respectively, totalling five hours and fifteen minutes. A finishing time that would rank with my Personal Blushful Worst.

Of course everything transpired otherwise. Too fast in the first stanza, too undigesting in the second, too beaten up in the legs by Malta’s rocky roadways in the third, too thirsty in the fourth. Thus reads my list of excuses. 

It is true that the shabby mobile kiosk at 28 kms was emblazoned with the sacred words: Coca Cola. But the bewhiskered vendor had no change of my twenty Euro note. He offered me the drink gratis, but I waved his offer away. Even an addict would not rob the poor. It is true too that the water stations at 30 and 35 kilometres ran dry before my arrival at the tail of the field. I felt grumpy for a bit, a new sensation in a marathon. My uncharitable feelings quickly evaporated in the glorious sunshine – unseasonable, given Malta’s weather patterns for late winter. From the five kilometer mark onward I ran bare-chested, bare-bulging-bellied too – not a flattering look but a practical one.

The 30km mark


The final stanza of the course passed through a light industrial estate, a place barren of cheer or cheering crowds. There were none of the uplifting musicians of the first stanza. Thirty-two bands were named in the race brochure. Of these most of the final sixteen were packing up by the time we of the tail reached them. The brochure promised clashing drums, blasting brass, oompahing tubae, and so there were initially. But I could see the matter from the viewpoint of the musicians. By the final kilometres individual runners were spread out, separated by up to 200 metres. A band numbering eight musos might feel a bit absurd playing to one struggling runner.

How different, how soul nourishing was the raven-haired beauty who sang to me at the thirty-seven kilometer mark. (Yes, I appreciate your scepticism here – had it been a veritable Gorgon playing a guitar and singing I’d have felt an uplift. But truly she was beautiful.) The young woman might have been about twenty. Seated alone in a wilderness of concrete, on an ordinary kitchen chair, long black hair falling heavy behind her, guitar on her knee and a mike in front, she gave voice. Sounds issued from her throat that soared upward to the heavens whence they surely came. A moment of joy. When I think of it now – sober, rested, replenished of fluids and foods, and yes – of caffeine, that joy returns. It remains, a treasure to which I can return, long after my week of days in Malta.

38 Kms, read the sign at the roadside. At sea level now, tracing the shoreline of the bay I could not wait for the finish. I shuffled past that sign alone. In the near distance ahead a stocky form and a fall of fair hair told me how wrong I had been in underestimating Michelle. Yet I knew I would overtake her. Surely. Light footsteps behind, a flash of bright yellow far to my left, and this was Edouardo, plowing on, on, looking neither right nor left. I decided I would sneak past Edouardo. I would be the first septuagenarian to cross the line. I moved to the far right of the course, where my rival might not notice my challenge. I drew ahead. Then I looked at my watch – I had 28 minutes for less than four kilometres. I could do that comfortably. Then comfort undid me. I stopped that loathesome running and I walked.

Now Edouardo drew abreast of me, now inching past, he left me behind, a moral ruin. I resumed running, without conviction, without really trying. Michelle receded. Edouardo flowed on. I plodded, I walked, I ran. I lacerated myself with self censure. Around a bend, I looked in vain for the finish. Around another bend, two bright figures, walking in the opposite direction, waved and cheered me on. I recognised the tall woman in her thirties and her male companion, she from Sweden, her husband British. Both wore Finisher’s Medals. I had made their acquaintance at the seven kilometre mark. This was their first marathon, their training had been nugatory. We’d exchanged hoped-for finishing times, we wished each other luck. And now the tyros had shown the veteran how it was done. The encounter lifted my spirits. From that point on – perhaps the 41Km mark – I mainly ran.

Around one more bend, I lacked the courage to look up for the Finish Line. But the crowd noises told me I was close. And the Public Address blaring: and here comes another runner, Ladies and Gentlemen. Cheer him on, help him beat the cut-off time.

I lifted my feet, raised my head, pumped my arms, achieving an ugly sprint. The crowd roared, quite deceived into thinking I had been trying my best. The numbers on the clock astonished me: five hours, 28 minutes. I plunged across the Line.

A banana and a bottle of water materialized in my hands, a foil blanket covered my too hot shoulders, and a medal – the medal – hung heavy from my neck. I shambled forward a hundred metres or so then settled down on a concrete kerb to negotiate nausea. A pair of brown legs approached, stopped within a metre. It was Edouardo. With all my heart I congratulated him. Once again I asked, From what country do you come?

Italia! – and that smile again. We shook hands. The better man had won and I loved him.             

And that was number fifty.
 

Empty, Empty and Desolate the Sea

I can’t see Manny anywhere. I stand and fret in St Kilda Road. The spring gale blows a clatter of discarded plastic drink cups along the great boulevard. The cups fly and land and take flight again, baffling the redshirted volunteers who try to arrest them. In all the great sweep of road it is only the volunteers who run, no others: the marathon field has swept past me as I keep my watch and ward, as I wait and wait for Manny.
 

It is eight thirty-five. The marathon runners have passed, the half-marathoners too. Where is Manny? We’d arranged to meet at seven thirty. When we saw each other a week ago Manny told me he could run only two hundred metres without breathlessness. I was treating him for the respiratory infection that he’s prone to: whether it’s his cancer therapy or the cancer itself or a recurrence of pneumonia, he’s been unable to train. ‘Until the other day’, he says hopefully, ‘I did 10K on the treadmill.’ Then he concedes, ‘I had to walk and jog.’

 

Last night Manny sent a message: I’m hoping miracles do happen. This will be my thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon. I am determined to start. I don’t want to embarrass myself. I hope I make it to the five kilometre mark. I’ll meet you there around seven-thirty I hope.

 

I have been watching since seven-fifteen, searching faces, peering into the throngs for sight of Manny’s familiar features, his labouring body. The road has been full, but empty, empty and desolate. So Manny has been defeated at last. After running thirty-eight successive Melbourne marathons, one of only eight people who have started and completed every one, Manny has admitted defeat. And it is not the event that has defeated him, but his illness. The wind howls in my ears, dust flails my face. I am almost relieved that Manny does not have to run into the gale.

 

I turn for home then look back over my shoulder. At the extreme of sight two figures are dimly seen. Their bodies are shapes, undefined. They seem to move: are they moving towards me or away? I wait. Yes, two figures, moving slowly, making slow progress in my direction down St Kilda Road. Can this be Manny and another, a support person? I wait my turn to become the next in Manny’s chain of supportive escorts. The figures approach, they gain definition. They move comfortably, they laugh and wave. They are young, female, they are not Manny.

 

Sombrely I jog back, keeping pace now with some lagging half-marathoners. Sloggers, these, a sub-sub-sub elite, united in dour resolution. These runners have the Manny spirit, the spirit that brought him through and home in the last two full Melbourne Marathons.

 

Back home I try to call Manny. No luck. I call his devoted son – all his relatives love and cherish him: no answer. I leave an anxious message. Restless, I await news. Day ends without word. I send an email.

Finally the following arrives: With help from my wonderful family I did the impossible and finished the thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon.

I did the Cliffy Young shuffle and someone was with me all the way to help me along. I’m feeling very sore and tired.

I’m sorry I missed you. Hopefully we can run together next year.

‘Next year’. Two years ago Manny’s cancer doctor warned him against running: You fractured a cancerous rib just by coughing. You might have cancer in any of your bones. You can’t afford to run. But Manny did run. In 2016 with the same warning echoing, he asked his GP what he thought; this GP said, I’ll run at your side. And that was our plan again this year. But I missed him.
I missed him but Manny ran. He shuffled through the spring gales and he completed the full forty-two kilometres, plus the final terrible two hundred metres. And I missed witnessing one of the great athletic feats, one of the triumphs of the spirit over the flesh.

 

Next year, Manny, next year.

 

THE MCG STANDS EMPTY, THE SOLE RUNNER, LIKE PHEIDIPIDES OF OLD, ENTERS ALONE