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.

One Grandchild, One Sickness

A contemporary told me of a rule she and her friends observe at the monthly meetings of their luncheon group: “Only one grandchild, only one medical diagnosis.”

 

 

The rule struck me as wise. My grandchildren proliferate, for which I give thanks and tell stories and show pictures. This is a picture of my latest, Sadie.

 

 

Last night I visited Sadie’s house. To my good fortune she happened to be crying. My son passed Sadie to me and I placed her against my left breast. My heart beat at its steady 46 beats per minute and over the next few minutes I patted Sadie’s back in gentle diminuendo. She stopped crying. She rooted and tried to suckle. My collar proved unnourishing. After a while Sadie gave up on fluid and slept. I held her there, on my breast, for some minutes: was it twenty? Was it only five? I never felt more deeply alive.

 

 

So much for the one grandchild. Now for the one medical condition. Like grandchildren these proliferate as we age. I have lots. Every condition generates a story of compelling interest to the sufferer, and to the sufferer alone. Today’s was a visit to the periodontist. Have you ever been treated by a periodontist? If not I congratulate you.

 

 

In reality the periodontist is a dentist. The difference is one of specialisation. This practitioner doesn’t implant, doesn’t fill cavities, doesn’t do root canals, doesn’t make bridges. Nor even, in the usual sense, do extractions. Instead the periodontist extracts scale, plaque and whatever you have saved for your retirement.

 

 

Because the periodontist is truly a dentist she has lying horizontally on a jet age bed that rises and bends and straightens in response to unseen signals from the practitioner. Behind your right ear the practitioner keeps a small table upon which lurk small pointed instruments of hardened steel. These she keeps out of your line of sight lest you seize one, and in a reflex of self defense, you plunge it deep into her eye.

 

 

In short, periodontic procedures are notoriously painful. I took my seat this morning on the dental bed. The bed lay down and so did I. I opened my mouth. A bright light shone upon my face. I closed my eyes. At this point I ceased speaking. The periodontist looked inside. She said some gloomy things: ‘Gingival recession… pockets… these front teeth are loose, might lose them…’ She fondled my gums for a good time: ’I’m applying local anaesthetic jelly’, she said. I tasted something distinctive and highly unpleasant. I recognised the taste, one I remembered from the day in the bath in 1951 when my older brother pissed in my mouth.

 

 

Perio, as I will call her for brevity, now poked a hissing instrument into my mouth. I salivated. As the instrument hissed it cooled itself with a constant spray of watery mist. Fluid accumulated somewhere near the hole through which I customarily breathe. Perio probed, the gadget hissed and misted, the fluid level rose and for a time I breathed under water. This went on for a longish time, a form of dental waterboarding during which Perio asked repeatedly, ‘Are you OK, Howard?’ Each time I lied: ‘Yes, fine.’

 

 

From behind my left ear the unseen dental nurse waved a wand that hissed and sucked. Frequently this sucking instrument missed its target and sucked at my lower lip, a strangely sensuous experience. My mouth being open and full of fluid prevented me from thanking my unseen sucking kisser.

 

 

The bed became erect: ‘Rinse’, said the Perio. I rinsed. The bed collapsed and I took the hint. My mouth fell open and so, briefly, did my eyes. I beheld before me at eye level a long thin syringe of glass and steel, moving towards my gums. I’ve seen that sort of syringe before in movies in which a figure such as Mengele carries out unspeakable acts. I closed my eyes. My trapezius muscles clenched. My gums swelled hugely, all sensation fled and the balance of my hour passed. I drowned repeatedly. I rinsed, I spat. The bed erected itself, Perio said, ‘That’s it.’

 

Happily, I paid for her next BMW. I was happy because nothing hurt. I’m sure she’s not a real periodontist.

 

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.

Continue reading

Two Recipes for a Long Life

Recipe One
(Yvonne Mayer Goldenberg, 8 June, 1917- 7 June, 2009)

  
Eat only foods rich in butter and cream. Avoid any food that requires chewing, especially vegetables. (My mother was frightened by a vegetable as a child and never came near one again.)

Relax. Do not rush. Shun punctuality.

A lady who possesses the skill of changing a flat tyre should conceal such knowledge. ‘Why deprive some gentleman of the opportunity to behave chivalrously?’
(Mum believed in chivalry. As a child when instructed by her teacher to use the word ‘frugal’ in a sentence, Mum understood ‘frugal’ to mean one who saves. She wrote: ‘A lady was walking by the sea. A strong wind lifted her up and flung her into the waves. She could not swim. She saw a man on a white horse: “Frugal me! Frugal me!”, she cried. So the man leapt into the waves and frugalled her. And they lived happily ever after.’)

Rejoice in your kin; they are life’s benison to you. You will not have them forever. (Mum’s parents died in her childhood. Left with her younger sister in the care of her beloved grandmother, Mum cherished all her descendants with promiscuous undiscrimination.)

Smile. Nothing is so serious that it should furrow your brow – unless it hurt your little ones.

Talk to strangers, visit their countries. Walk the earth without fear. People are good.

Forgive your children their naughtiness. Indulge your adolescent children in their self-absorbtion. They owe you nothing; they give you all.

What you cannot cure you must endure – with a smile. (Mum’s hip was shattered in her twenties. For forty years she walked in pain, with a marked limp. She did not think to complain. Pain did not interest her. Likewise the disabling strokes she suffered in her last decades. ‘A stroke is boring’, she said.)

Decorate your life. Eat every day from your best china; use the good cutlery. (Which day will be better than today? Who better than the family to enjoy these things?)

Raise your boys to help. (‘Why should I be your kitchen slave? There is no pride in being a parasite.’)

Sex is good, sexual pleasure very good. Never boast of your conquests. Use a condom. (These last two dicta were delivered to her sons before the age of nine.)

Feminism is a mistaken impulse. (It arises from the absurd notion held by some that a woman could possibly be inferior to a man in any particular.)

Never open someone else’s mail.

Read. Meet new words. Look up every one in the dictionary. Read everything – the classics, the junk mail, the cornflakes packet.

Don’t fear death. Speak of it freely. (‘Death is a part of life, darling.’)

Do not fear harm. Fate is kind. Clothe your young in love but do not over-wrap them. Harm probably won’t befall them. Entrust them to the care of the universe.

Do not fear at all.

Recipe Two
(Myer Goldenberg, 5 December, 1909 – 10 September, 2003)

  
Fear everything. (Dad witnessed his friend die of electrocution when the stays of his yacht struck power lines. He operated on trauma patients without number. These events made him warn his children of the injuries that result from inattention or lack of care. One warning would never suffice. No number of warnings could suffice.)

Do everything. But take care. Sail, drive, use power tools. Never wave a knife around. Safety first. Safety last.

Fear nothing and no-one. No task is beyond you, no skill too hard to master, no knowledge beyond your reach, no person to be feared.

Eat vegetables. Overboil them first.

Be firm with children. Demand they meet your own high standards. Don’t coddle them in their minor ills. But if real harm come near, cross the country to protect or repair them.

Don’t let your children off lightly. But protect them ferociously from attack by an outsider.

Cherish your kin. Honour your parents. Honour your ancestry.

Honour your work.

Work hard. Keep going. Do not weaken.

Do not run marathons.

Be worthy. (Dad idolised his parents, particularly his father. Through his long life Dad wished always ‘to be worthy’. He meant worthy of his own father. Even in his eighties Dad fretted he was not worthy. I ached when I heard him speak so.)

Forgive. Never hold a grudge. Speak your anger then reconcile.

Never forget or forgive one who hurts your young.

Keep your words clean. Do not say ‘bum’, never say ‘bloody’. Forget ‘dick’. When you belt your thumb with a hammer, allow yourself ‘YOU BITCH!’

Exercise. Where you could drive, choose to walk. Walk fast. Your children can run to keep pace.

People are good. Life is good, health a blessing. Protect it with injections.

Do not fret about germs. They build resistance.

Breast feed. (‘They’re not just there to fill jumpers’).

Cuddle your children. Kiss them – the boys too. And not just in private.

Pass on your faith. Drill your young in ancient ritual and practice.

Tell the children Bible stories. Read those stories with passion and conviction. Pass on your heritage with love and pride.

Be proud. You are as good as anyone else. And no better.

Be authentic. Do not fear being different. Respect yourself and others will respect you.

Love your children. Succour them in your old age as you did lifelong when the need was real.

Show tenderness. A man can be soft and still be strong.

Tell the truth. Demand the truth. Nothing is more sacred than your word. Nothing nourishes better than trust.

Don’t arrive on time. Arrive early.

Never open someone else’s mail.

Work hard. Save for a rainy day. (Dad worked very hard. He practised medicine to the age for ninety-two and a half. To the end of his life he saved for a rainy day, never feeling the heavy rain upon him, never knowing the time had come to take shelter.)

Sing. Sing loudly. Sing with your children. Sing table hymns with your children on Shabbat; sing loudly in synagogue; sing sea shanties, sing nonsense songs. Opera is grand but Gilbert and Sullivan are brighter, more fun.

The compass needle on your boat flickers; at the poles the compass fails. Know your own True North. Follow it.

Embrace the sea. Sail, fish, and sing. Travel by boat at night, navigating by stars, chart and compass. Do not fear the sea. Never take it for granted.

Be vigilant. Experience the rapture of your mastery of an alien element.

Do not fear. Relax. Never relax your vigilance.

See the beauty, smell the ozone, relish this given world.

Thrill to the cresting wave, the heeling sailboat.

Surrender to the windless calm. Experience tranquillity.
Feel the caress of the sun, the bracing breeze. Both are good.

Give thanks. Be thankful.

Love your kin. Nourish them, work for them protect them, nurture them. Demand resilience.

Be brave. Be true.

When all is said remember the love.

And the Two Walked Together

The boy emerged from the car and read the sign: LIGHTHOUSE 19 KILOMETRES. Beneath the sign were the words: Six Hours. The boy spoke, his voice small: ‘I’m nervous, Saba.’
The old man reassured the boy. They pulled on their weighty daypacks and started to walk from the turntable on the mountain. The dirt track was wide enough for a small truck. It sloped away beneath their feet and, despite the lowering sky and the fine wind-whipped rain, the two made good speed in good humour.

The old man said: ‘This is a long, long downhill slope; it will be uphill on the way back. Just when we are really tired we’ll have to fight these hills.’

They looked ahead into immensity. As the path led them lower the slopes towered green and steep before them. The old man saw they’d soon be climbing. The rain stopped and the two felt hot. They peeled off parkas and jumpers and mopped rain and sweat from their faces.

Rounding a sharp bend the boy exclaimed, ‘Look Saba! Look – how beautiful!’ The old man looked and what was beautiful for him was the joy on the boy’s face. ‘Surprised by joy’ – the words floated into the old man’s mind from some half-read snatch of old verse – ‘surprised’ – overcome – as in a surprise attack.‘ The boy’s face, red with exertion, glowed. The old man looked again; he saw no sign of care.

 

The descent ended in a strange plain of long grasses and thick green ferns between which the pale trunks of gums rose, twisted and charred, like writhing skeletons, reaching for the sky. ‘The bushfires must have raced through here’, said the old man, ‘See how there’s not a single living eucalypt. Just ghosts. And everything else so green.’ To himself, he added, ‘They look like humans whose prayers were not heard.’ The old man had dwelled much in suffering of late. All nature spoke to him of the pain of others.

The boy’s expression was opaque.

Not an hour into the walk the boy’s voice asked: ‘Would we be a quarter of the way there yet?’ The old man doubted it. He couldn’t really say. Mostly the boy walked beside him, now and then slipping behind. At these moments the old man slowed, he hoped, inconspicuously.

The boy’s breaths were loud. The old man announced: ‘Morning tea time’, and they stopped to drink. The old man asked, ‘Apricots?’ The boy took the dried fruits and ate appreciatively. They hoisted their packs again, the boy staggering a little before steadying. The old man took the drink bottle. It felt lighter in his hand. They walked. Between the sounds of footfalls a voice spoke: ’I love you Saba.’

The old man, for all his years, for all his words, could find no words better in reply. ‘I love you too, darling.’

   

After a time the flat road began to rise and twist. Ahead of them they saw stately ranks of black tree trunks, erect and slim, towering upward, their branches richly green. ‘Look’, said the old man, ‘Every tree has been burned but every one of them here has survived.’ Their eyes drank in the green life, the dense underburden. Walking between the giants the two felt the silence and it did not oppress them. Rather, wonder swept their eyes upward. In quietness they laboured up long hills, around bends that led to yet more hills, working hard but not feeling it as work.

A scream broke the silence. The boy hobbling, whimpered, ‘My foot! It kills!’ The old man took the boy’s pack. ‘Here’, he said, ‘Sit down.’ ‘I can’t Saba, my arse will get muddy.’ The old man saw a tear at the corner of the boy’s eye. He spread his waterproof on a bank, pulled the boy’s haunches backward and sat him down. ‘Saba, my foot doesn’t hurt when I’m just sitting here. But it killed before.’

The old man opened lunch, bagels he’d bought from Glicks at five that morning. The previous evening the boy ordered peanut butter and honey for his: ‘Fifty percent of each please Saba.’The old man made short work of his own bagel but the boy played with his, peanut butter and honey notwithstanding. Reckoning the child needed relief the old man removed the heavy items from the boy’s pack. Bookish like his grandfather, he’d packed a small library.

‘Do you think you can test that foot?’

The boy rose, hoisted his pack and stepped forward. He winced but said nothing. And the two walked together. At first the boy’s gait was diffident, but quickly he established a fluent step-wince-step rhythm. Rounding a sharp bend the boy cried out, once again in delight. A small wooden footbridge led them across a shallow stream. Green ferns dwarfed the boy, the water chattered and rippled, the air was still and cold. The boy glowed. He turned and spoke: ‘Thank you so much for taking me here Saba.’ In the richness of his feeling the old man felt again the poverty of his own words.

 

They climbed. The old man, remembering walking as a child with his father, described how hard it had been to keep pace. He said, ‘Every few paces I’d fall behind. I’d have to run to catch up. I think that’s what started my life as a runner. It’s what prepared me for running marathons.’ The boy replied, ‘That happens to me too, Saba.’

The old man, a package of memories, told the boy about the time he ran a marathon in Melbourne. ‘It was springtime, quite warm. The sun shone and warmed the asphalt. I could feel the heat through my shoe every time my foot hit the road. I realised I had worn the soles too thin. Actually I had trained hard here, at Wilson’s Promontory, on tracks like this. I had run fourteen kilometres, only one-third of the marathon distance. I anticipated feeling pain with every step of the remaining 28 kilometres. I felt full of gloom. Then I did something really brilliant: I talked to myself. I said, “Every time your foot hits the ground remember you have one les step to run. Every time your foot hurts it’s a reminder – you’re getting closer to the finish.” Guess what – after about ten metres I stopped noticing my foot altogether.’

They passed a sign that read: HALFWAY HUT. Unfortunately whatever ’halfway’ meant it did not refer to the lighthouse walk. They walked on a good while and the boy asked, ‘How much further do you reckon we have to walk, Saba?’

‘Maybe ten kilometres, perhaps a bit less.’

The boy absorbed this. He picked up a straightish stick, about 1.3 metres long and tested it. A few minutes later he discarded the stick, saying his foot wasn’t too bad now. He added, ‘I love you Saba.’ ‘I love you too, Mister Pie.’ (When he was a baby family members called him ‘Sweetie Pie.’ After twelve years the remnant was ‘Mister Pie’).

 

The two came to a fork and another sign. To the left, the sign read: VEHICLE TRACK 9.5KM.

To the right the sign read, WALKING TRACK 8.5KM. The old man recalled the briefing from the Ranger Staff, warning them off the walking track ’because it rained last night – could be soft underfoot.’ He chose the walking track, being the shorter and possibly the softer. ‘Maybe too soft, perhaps marshy or boggy.’ He misgave but he did not reveal his uncertainties to the child. The decision proved decisive. Time and again as they clambered over steeps, scrabbled on uneven footing, wound around sharp turns and twists, the boy exclaimed in delight and wonder. At every corner a vista, at every peak breathtaking verdure. And at every pause the song of falling waters. They panted and sweated and never stopped smiling.

 

The old man, marathon man, always prided himself on his doggedness on hills. But these slopes, so steep, so long, so numerous, for these he needed to dig deep. Head down, bending forward to bring the pack over his centre of gravity, the old man, ploughed dourly on; while the boy sailed ahead, never slowing, never weakening, not ever quailing at the next hill and the next that unfolded in unfeeling succession at summit after summit. The old man marvelled and rejoiced.

 

The walking track was no bog, simply a way up and into a southern Himalaya. Abruptly the climb ended in a series of steep declines. ‘I’m scared I’ll fall’, said the boy. The old man held the back of the boy’s pack and pulled gently backward at every descent, the traction a felt message that the old man would not allow a fall.

 

Around a bend and suddenly the dense bush ended at a wide cleared space. The walking track had rejoined the vehicular. A short walk brought them to a further sign announcing: NO THROUGH ROAD. Rising from their left a walking track led into bush. Leaning on some rocks three men in their late thirties sat eating dried fruit. One asked, ‘You heading for the lighthouse? It’s up that way.’ A thumb pointed backward over the speaker’s shoulder indicated the walking track. The three might have been planted in that spot, so comfortable was their seat on earth, so fixed and settled their attitude.

 

The old man asked, ‘Have you ever walked to the lighthouse?’ Heads nodded. The man with the thumb looked at his bag of currants and said, ‘It’s mainly downhill from here. All except the final three hundred metres, which are the steepest in the entire National Park.’ The boy pointed out a smaller notice behind the men: LIGHTHOUSE 3.2 KMS. He and the old man had been walking for four hours. With a relatively short descent ahead of them both understood they’d arrive in good time for the sunset and the start of the Sabbath. That knowing, not spoken aloud, relieved the worry, also unspoken, of walking in darkness and arriving to cold and dark.

  

 After a short climb the track truly did descend. Underfoot, leafmeal and twigfall covered the soft sand. ‘This sort of footing is my favourite’, said the old man, ‘It comforts your soles. My feet love it.’ At every bend gaps in the bush gave way to glimpses of sea. One gap, wider than others, gave onto a view to the east of a long climbing pathway of exposed rock. At the far end of the path the two saw a white structure, phallic in shape – the lighthouse! It looked beguilingly close.

 

The two pressed on, half racing now. They tumbled around a bend almost falling into the arms of a human who stood on a granite elevation, tall and slim, a statue. The statue had a young woman’s face, a woman’s voice: ‘Look there: Orca.’ She pointed over a shoulder at the sea. ‘Look carefully, you’ll see the water break as they near the surface. When you arrive at the lighthouse would you please tell the lodgekeeper; there’s a pod of four playing here.’

The water broke and mended itself, broke and settled. Was this whale action? The same small disturbances were seen in every direction the man and the boy looked. Hopeful then doubting, then self-doubting, they fixed eyes, solemn and reverent, upon the sea. The old man had seen whale in these waters in years past but this time he saw no purple-black bruising the surface. After a decent interval the two hastened on. They’d seen no Orca yet they tingled with the closeness of greatness.

 

A voice rose from the bustling shape of the boy. He spoke of self-doubt, of fears, of haunting thoughts of his own grave unworth. The old man, filled with quite opposite thoughts of the boy, listened. He ached for the boy. He wanted to say something useful. ‘I know those feelings, Mister Pie’, was all he managed. He wished he had some infusing strength such that if he but held the boy close, the child would grow and know his worth. The urge to seize the child, to crush doubt from him bodily, was strong. But the old man knew such truth is the daughter of time. A daughter not yet ready to be born.

  

 Meanwhile, simple exertion, the actions of fast walking seemed to make the child lighter as he gathered momentum. The words spoken, the hard thoughts disappeared in air, leaving a small body busy and complete in its plunging passage through bushland.

The old man followed behind, carrying his pack, the boy’s books and the boy’s discharged cares.

 

A rock lay in their path, its northerly aspect coated in delicate mosses of brilliant green. The boy stopped to explain, ‘In the bush you can use mossy rocks as a guide, like a compass. The moss grows on the sunniest side. In our hemisphere that’s north.’

 

At one bend the lighthouse would appear only to disappear at the next as they corkscrewed their way down to sea level.  

Now a right angle turn marked the last of the bush. They emerged to an exposed path of surpassing ugliness. Blocks of weathered and stained cement set end to end formed a series of plaques that rose and rose, ending three hundred metres further on at the Light. This, the old man recognised, must be the ‘worst climb’ mentioned by the currant muncher. He looked up. The boy had not paused. He’d opened a lead of twenty metres as he attacked the awful slope. The old man hurried after him but the gap did not close. Half way up the boy approached a welcoming bench, set at the path’s edge to relieve exhausted climbers. The boy ignored the bench and steamed past and the old man, shaking his head, followed. When he reached the top the boy was grinning, his face a fairground of many pleasures.

 

Before they set out the Ranger had estimated the walking time from carpark to lighthouse at six hours. The man and boy finished in under five and in plenty of time for sunset and the Sabbath.

 

The lodgekeeper welcomed them. He said, ‘We’re expecting eleven in your cottage tonight. You two are the first to arrive. We expected an old – pardon me, I mean older – man and a child. Amazing that you beat all those grownups, young feller. Congratulations! Your reward for arriving early is the room with the best view. See – there’s the Light just outside your window. You’re overlooking the ocean. You’ll see any whales without leaving your room.’

 

The room had high ceilings, bunk beds, large windows and plenty of room for two and their possessions. The ‘cottage’ was formerly a lightkeeper’s dwelling, large enough for his wife and their eight children. Outside the wintry gale blew up a four metre swell. Inside the cottage was snug and the showers were hot. Both man and boy stank of sweat. They peeled off their steaming clothes and showered. The boy headed off to the reading room where he met the incoming walkers, adults all, and held court. The first to arrive was the trio of dried-fruit eaters, blokes in their thirties, friends since their schooldays in the Blue Mountains, revisiting old haunts and shared pleasures. After them came a family of four, rich in geography and history, which encompassed Scotland, Southern Africa, Denmark and a touch of Jewishness. The sole female was the Dane. The boy introduced himself and she replied, ‘I’m Astrid.’ This name was new to the boy who remembered her as Asteroid. Following the arrival of that heavenly body from Denmark a lean schoolteacher in his early thirties turned up. He’d sighted the boy in the carpark before setting out. Admiringly he said, ‘You walked quicker than I did’.

 

Darkness fell, the windy world outside moaned and window frames rattled, while inside their room the man and the boy had lit the candles. The old man placed his hands on the boy’s head and slowly, as in a fugue, recited the old words of blessing of the child. Then the two sang the Sabbath Dedication before breaking bread and feasting on packeted food brought to piping in the microwave.

 

Afterwards the boy beat the old man at Scrabble, much to the admiration of the last two to arrive, a bushy-faced pair who materialised from the darkness, unfussed by their final hour of moonlit hiking.

 

The man and the boy slept eleven hours that night.

 

The next day – Saturday – was a true Sabbath, a day of rest. The boy accumulated a series of hurts – his back ached, his right sole was bruised, his left knee seized in spasm. When the lodgekeeper invited all guests into the lighthouse museum for a tour, all pains were put to the side, and soon – or sooner – forgotten. The boy asked most of the questions, good adult questions, as the lodgekeeper later confided. They spent the rest of the day and the evening in the heated common rooms, reading, playing Scrabble, chatting. It is fair to say the nine adult males found the sole female and the sole child the most memorable of the company.

 

Early Sunday the boy revisited his wounds: his bruises padded with multiple bandaids, his knee now moving without pain, his stiff back tolerating a (lighter) pack, he said, ‘I should be able to walk.’ The old man said, ‘The stiffness and soreness will probably disappear once you warm up a bit.’ Before they left the lodgekeeper insisted on taking photos of child and man standing with the lighthouse in the background. ‘To prove to everyone you actually made it’, he said.

  

 The walk back was just as beautiful, just as long, just as tough as the walk out. After an hour the old man asked, ‘How’s your back, Mister Pie?’ ‘I haven’t been noticing, Saba.’ The boy greeted every new vista with delighted recognition. The top of every rise, each mossy stone, every leafy dell, every rugged prospect, he claimed them all as new old friends. He owned the track, his by conquest. Every so often the boy would turn to the old man in his train and repeat, ‘Isn’t this wonderful, Saba? Thank you so much for bringing me here!’

Over the hours of the return hike the boy never asked, ‘How far have we walked?’ Pressing hard on the hills, the boy asserted a sort of mastery: he had done this walk before, he’d do it again now. There was no doubting his ability.

Ahead of them rose the final four kilometres of unrelenting hills. Between the two and the hills a pair of colourful shapes moved in and out of focus. The boy said, ‘Asteroids. There’s a couple of asteroids ahead of us.’ Neither spoke it aloud but both decided they’d overtake the colourful figures ahead. It took them seventy minutes but they did so. The boy declined the old man’s suggestion of a break for lunch. A quick stop for drinks and fruit and upward and onward they went, again tacitly resolving they’d beat the asteroids to the carpark. As on the outward walk the boy attacked the closing uphills. Cruelly illusory, every late bend offered promise of an end. Time and again a tough slope led the eye upwards towards a seeming opening, as one would see at trail’s end. But time and again the boy ploughed on, leaving disappointment behind, his head down, breathing hard, with the old man following in his wake.

 

The sun found its way out of cloud, the greenery took on a lighter shade, the day gleamed. Sweat beaded the boy’s small face, the pink of his cheeks overlying a strange circumambient pallor. ‘Take a break, Mister Pie. Let’s drink.’ The boy took the bottle without words, sucked, passed it back and climbed wordlessly on.

 

One of the illusions of an end turned out to be the fact of the end. The boy strode into the clearing, staggering a little now on the flat asphalt. His grandfather went to take a snap to record the moment of triumph, but the boy, sickly pale, waved him away, gasping: ‘No photos, Saba.’

 

A little later, in the car, the boy said, ‘I’ll take my son on this walk one day – or my grandson.’

  

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.

 

A Message of Love Smuggled into a Suitcase

We live in a world in pain. In that world dark deeds, harsh words, inhumane policies are normal. God is conscripted and deformed in every form of violence. Truth is lost, our planet poisoned.
Seeing all this, hearing it, feeling it,a person might surrender and despair.
Then life sends a message.
This is the message that came to me today.

  
Miles spent two weeks pocket money on this gift for his mother.