I used to run six days a week. No longer. I used to run marathons. No longer. Farewell, farewell, a long farewell to all that.
I ran before work; sometimes I ran to work. I ran every day but Saturday, the Sabbath. I ran because I could, I ran because I needed to. I ran up the hills of Wattle Glen, up the endless alps of Kangaroo Ground, and along the river at Warrandyte and Kew.
I ran marathons in Traralgon, on the Gold Coast and in Alice Springs. I ran in the New York Marathon (thrice – never won it – home town decisions, obviously) and four times in the world’s oldest modern marathon, in Boston. The 2013 Boston was my last. I never crossed the finish line, turned back by the police at the 41 kilometre mark. At 67 years I was too old, too slow to be harmed by the bombers.
I ran in the World Veterans’ Games Marathon, and I was a Spartan at Melbourne. About 8 years ago at Traralgon, I became the Victorian Country Marathon Champion (Over Sixty, Male). There was one other sixty year old bloke – a patient of mine. He ran with an injury that I had fortunately not cured. I entered my title – Vic Country Marathon Champ – on my resume.
I ran in Havana and Amsterdam, in London and in Oxford, and on the golden stones and basalt cobbles of Jerusalem. I ran up and down Masada and in Galilee. I ran in Buenos Aires and in Capilla del Monte.
In fifty Aboriginal communities I ran to feel country, running fast to keep ahead of mobs of hungry dogs.
Through all this running I discovered strengths I never dreamed of and weakness I’d always feared. I extended my being, I joined in the joyous commonwealth of comrades that is a marathon.
I ran and I wrote what was a metaphor for my life – a passage, undistinguished, through space and through time, made rich by those I ran with and those I ran for. And always I ran with a doctor’s calibrated sense of risk. I ran with my younger daughter’s instruction ringing prayer and warning: Have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead.
I ran carefully, knowing if I did die I would leave wife, children, and latterly, grandchildren, grieving and aggrieved.
I ran and I gave thanks that my body held up for so long. I knew joy and pain and the joy of pain transmuted. I knew my lands and the lands of others intimately, physically. And in the stiffness and the glad soreness that followed a hard run, I knew pride, I knew joy.
An Australian boy knows it is in the sporting arena that his worth is measured. Excellence at sports trumps beauty and wealth. Brains lag last, far behind all. As a little boy I was timid, both physically and spiritually. A large brain served me only to imagine fearsome possibility; it was no asset in sports. Introduced to both cricket and football, in which I overcame fear sufficiently to try bravely, I achieved and sustained a modest mediocrity. I might have achieved more but for two discoveries: the hard cricket ball, travelling fast, hurt the fumbling fingers; and the elusive football, fiercely contested by other boys bigger and less timid than I, led me only to painful and fruitless collisions.
By virtue of very little, I rose to captain the Second Eighteen in footy and captain of the Second Eleven in cricket. My highly academic Jewish school quickly won fame for academic excellence, while earning only a reputation for awkward strangeness in inter-school sports. Generations of Jewish history had equipped Jewish boys well for debating, mathematics and playing the violin. Our ancestors in Europe learned to run only from fire or pogrom. So the best teams this post-Holocaust Jewish school produced were try-hard failures. And I was never good enough for the Firsts. Captain of the Seconds at Mount Scopus was the ultimate backhanded compliment in sports.
But at the age of fifteen came the discovery of distance running. The annual cross-country run over three miles of hilly scrubland sorted the tortoises from the hares. At the gun all the glamour boys leaped into the lead and quickly disappeared between bushes at the first bend in the course. I chased as hard as I could, my breath burning my throat, my chest aching. In a failure of the imagination I never thought of stopping or slowing. I kept going. Abrupt hills, uneven terrain, a finish line that was nowhere in sight, all conspired to daunt and defeat our gazelles of the track, our hares of the field. But I kept running. I don’t think I slowed at all. Eventually the astonishing sight of my idols bent double, gasping at the trackside, unable to respond to greeting or commiseration told me I was among the swiftest of the tortoises. I finished in the top ten that first year, improving to fourth, and eventually to third place, in the years that followed.
The barren years of sporting opportunity after school saw me gain a medical degree (summa sine laude), a wife and a bunch of little kids. And about five kilograms in weight. I was now a sedentary family man, short in stature, with a small pot belly. Then a schoolteacher friend took me running on the hills of Diamond Valley. He tired me out and he puffed me up, saying, “You have a nice running style, Howard.” One day we ran ten kilometers together. Breathless with achievement I looked at the distance – nearly a quarter of a marathon! – and with fine naivette I said to myself: I can run a marathon. And I did.
Seven months ago I drove for six days to and from an outback locum. My left thigh ached and it still does. Two months ago I fell onto my left knee from my bike. It screams with pain whenever I run a single step. The MRI of my spine resembles a bombed railway track – you can recognise the pattern of the original structure but you wouldn’t want to travel on it.
I used to run. Now it’s over.