Farewell, Farewell

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.20130411-184933.jpg

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.

Marathon Thoughts, 13.10.13

Today I was to run the Melbourne Marathon, my 15th(?) Melbourne and my 43rd marathon altogether. Last year I injured a calf (leg, not poddy) and had to pull out at seven kilometres. I had never failed to finish before. It was a painful moral injury; the calf recovered but the moral wound did not. Today was to be my chance at redemption.

Forty three is a lot of marathons. Enough to learn quite a lot. I’ll list what I know for you. You never know when you might used them.

Running a marathon is hard. There are 42.195 kilometres to complete, equating to about forty two thousand steps. My car gets tired after 42.195 kilometres. The tough news is that every one of the 42,000 steps needs to be run.

Double knot your running shoes. Then they won’t come undone.

Apply Vaseline to toes, groins, armpits, scrota and nipples. Especially nipples. (Runner’s Nipple is one of the more dramatic running injuries. The nipples haemorrhage spectacularly. Why? Well, the nipple is an erectile little gadget. As you run, your skin heats up. Sweating follows, then evaporation of the sweat. Evaporation cools the skin, the nipple leaps to instant and enduring attention and the salty residue of the sweat on the nipple rubs against fabric. Forty two thousand wobbles of a breast result in a nasty dermatitis. Bleeding follows. Pain attends.)

Apply a curved line of Vaseline across your forehead, thus creating an eave, along which sweat can run to your temples. This spares your eyes hours of sweat sting.

Don’t run a marathon.

Having disregarded the last piece of advice, you’ll understand its compelling good sense. Corollary: if you run more than one marathon you are a person who persists non-sensible behaviour. Spouses and families will point this out to you.

Running a marathon damages your body. Within days or a week or two, your body will usually recover (The exception is the case where you die running the marathon, as happened to Pheidipides of old.) Do not imagine you are doing this for your health.

Running a marathon requires a lot of training. Racing a marathon – quite distinct from merely running to complete the event – requires a shit load (that is the technical expression) of training. Spouses (see above) do not generally like this. Sometimes you come back from a marathon to find the spouse has gone.

Running a marathon requires courage.

The marathon humbles everyone who attempts it.

The marathon runner discovers something about herhimself every time shehe runs it.

The marathon is an extreme test. Its extremity evokes extremes of feeling. Tears can flow.

The marathon runner who is forced to pull out due to injury within a few kms from the Finish is a tragic sight. In horse racing a steed that is injured can be shot on the track. A quick gunshot is an expedient that would be welcomed by both the injured party and those runners who witness that colossal grief.

(Death by gunshot is readily available in the USA.)

Plan to have a poo before you run. The runner has consumed megabites of carbs the previous day and all things come to pass. The alternative to evacuation prior to the run is to do so during. This wastes valued time. Unless, like the woman winner at Boston about twelve years ago, and like De Castella at Rotterdam three decades ago, you don’t stop when it starts and you go with the flow. In the case of the brave German girl, diarrhoea and untimely menstruation coincided. Unlike the runner herself, it was not pretty.

Although it must occur to about one in five females on a given race day I have no advice to offer regarding prudent management of marathon menstruation.

Trim your toenails a week before the event. Otherwise the nail might leave your toe somewhere between Start and Finish.

That is the totality of the wisdom I have to impart.

I did run today, I did finish – in brutal conditions – and I am requited. A little bit proud, self-amazed, a bit sore (I’ll be at my sorest the day after tomorrow), weary and happy. And very, very thankful.

Patriots Day 2013

The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most celebrated of the mass marathons. You need to qualify. Twice I qualified and ran. in 2005 I ran again, this time as fundraising runner. I never won the race: hometown decisions, I guess.

Today’s Boston was to be my fourth. I was running as a fundraiser, this time for the Michael Lisnow Respite Centre. This morning I visited their HQ in Hopkinton, near the starting line. I met people who face their colossally difficult lives with genuine joy. I met the fundraisers who punctuate their serious marathon training by devoting themselves for months to help fund this small enterprise.

Why am I going on at this length about these small matters in the face of the bombings?

You need to be in Boston on Patriots Day to appreciate the celebration that is the Marathon. A city of less than one million comes to a stop; people take their chairs, their picnic rugs, the treats they will give to the runners; they line the 26.2 miles and stay all day, cheering on every runner; they hold banners – everything from “You are all Kenyans” to “Kiss me, I’m flexible”.

Picture Melbourne on Cup Day or Grand Final day without the booze.

Boston is high on its marathon and the runners. Patriots Day is the time to enjoy the embrace of the people of Boston.

If you have the good fortune to be a charity runner, you run at the tail of the field, feeling that embrace, the surges of love for the people – usually young – who are supporting local causes. Often the fundrunner commemorates one lost or saved or suffering the disease she runs for.

One young woman survived melanoma; another is in remission from her leukaemia. I have close relatives saved from those diseases. So, apparently, do hundreds in the crowd who roar their gratitude.

One, a spoonerist, runs with the words: Cuck Fancer. The crowd echo her sentiment.

Someone else came to the Marathon today with a different purpose than to celebrate. Someone whose malignity exceeds his knowledge: his bombs exploded near the finish around the four-hour mark; in an elite marathon like this, the ‘bulge’ – the greatest concentration of finishers – occurs 30 to 60 minutes earlier. The terrible toll might have been much heavier.

I plodded to the 22 mile mark, when a spectator offered me a slice of orange. His kindly young face looked troubled. “There have been explosions near the finish line. The marathon has been temporarily suspended.”

Naively I ran on. Perhaps they’d resume the event.

A mile further on, I was one of very few still running. Police and runners were mingling on the course, faces troubled. Hands held mobiles, sending text messages; local phone coverage was out. Some wept wrenchingly, their features distorted in grief or shock or anxiety for others ahead on the course. Many had relatives waiting near the Line.

My progress from mile 22 to 25 was slow. The crowds fell quiet. Overhead, helicopters gathered and clattered. Police vehicles racing everywhere, ambulances, sirens shrieking, tore between barriers as the crowds melted out of their path. Not for the first time, the matter of placing one foot in front of another felt slight. Here was immediate danger and evident bloodshed.

Police turned back those of us who were running into danger. I needed to contact family – in Boston, in New York, in Israel, in Australia (where I had bled my friends to donate to the Respite Centre). I had no phone. Strangers handed me theirs, refusing my offers to pay. I asked a teenager for directions to the Citgo sign, a local landmark, where my relatives would collect me; the teen insisted on escorting me the mile distance to make sure I found it.

As I waited, strangers seeing this stranded runner, stopped to offer help. One bloke, himself a (non-marathon) runner, wanted to give me his jacket so I wouldn’t get cold. Passers by touched me, or took my hand to shake. One stopped, gazed at me, shaking his head. He said, “I am sorry.”

Boston silenced, in shock, in grief. Its citizens reaching out to each other in spontaneous solidarity,as we see repeatedly in Israel following such atrocities. More than that, people felt implicated in a wrong, embarrassed: their guests had been hurt, frightened, frustrated. They turn their goodness upon me and I feel like crying.

A terrible beauty born.

Silent Companion

I approach as the sun withdraws. There are only two of us, the Rock and me. I glance upwards: gorgeous parabolas of stone, ferrous waterways etched in rust.  One convex curve of curtained rock is fretted and tinted, purnu, an Aboriginal wood carving.

Around me all is still. I feel as I did as a child when I intruded into my grandparents’ bedroom. No-one found me, but the stillness nearly undid me.

I park the car, hide my keys, and set out, running clockwise. The rock is my companion, watching me, looking down from steeps and heights, not austerely, not unkindly nor yet tenderly. Keeping me in sight, keeping an eye on me.

Everywhere I go on earth I run; I feel the place then, I connect with its earth. I breathe its air. Well, no, not quite everywhere: not in sacred places – not on the Temple Mount, not at the Shrine of Remembrance.

The first time I came to Uluru, I drove here with my Dad. I parked and leaped from the car, crying, See you soon, Dad. Just going for a run to the top.  Continue reading