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!’

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.