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.

Men, Today we Die a Little

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before the Marathon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is OK. Next time you ask?

Yes. Next time. Thank you.

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

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

 

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

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

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

The 30km mark


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was number fifty.
 

An Easy Run in the Desert

Warning: running a marathon is an endurance event; writing the marathon likewise; and the reader won’t get off lightly either.

Arithmetic calculations: the marathon distance is 42.2 kilometres. That’s a long way. My car gets tired going that far. If my running speed over forty-two kms averages eight minutes a kilometre, the run should take me around 337 minutes – just under five hours and forty minutes.

The event starts at 0630. My plane home from Alice Springs leaves at 1230. It takes 20 minutes to drive from the Finish Line to the airport. Something will have to give.
I write to the President of the Alice Springs Walking and Running Club: will you allow me to start 30 minutes early?
I have run this particular marathon so many times they treat me like some sort of fixture, an ancient site that happens to move. Slowly. The President, good bloke, Collingwood supporter, writes back: shouldn’t be a problem.
Even so it will be tight. So I book a later flight, this one not direct – not ideal for a blistered person, jaded and aromatic in his marathon clothes, and badly in need of a shower.  
Final arithmetic calculation: the earlier start and the later flight home are seven hours and ten minutes apart. Should suffice.

They are predicting rain. In Alice Springs? Absurd! The Weather Prophet on the ABC says it will rain. From her residence deep within my slim phone, Siri agrees. It’s never rained in any of my previous dozen or so marathons here. 
Arriving at the Start at 0515 I present myself to the Race Director to confirm the earlier start. Race Director, pleasant man, youngish, shakes a head full of brilliantined hair: O no, I’m terribly sorry, but that won’t be possible. O no. Duty of care. No Course Marshalls in place at that hour, no drink stations. Not possible, sorry. Duty of care, you understand. I do understand – not a Collingwood supporter. I understand too that care and marathon running are antithetical notions. Hence the Waiver all runners are obliged to sign. That waiver says, I know it’s a long way. I don’t care. I know it’s tiring, I know I will encounter everything about myself I have ever feared. I don’t care. I know I haven’t read this Waiver. I don’t care. Just let me run. 
I hand over my many bottles of restorative drink, each of them labelled in lipstick pink with my running name, PHEIDIPIDES. I will drink this elixir at the 15 Kilometre mark, at 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 33, 37 and 40 Kms. Inspired by Russian success at recent Olympics I have decided to employ chemicals to aid my efforts. My drinks contain my familiar drugs – caffeine, sugar, caffeine, water, caffeine – as well as electrolytes, some more caffeine, and brown boot polish. In total I will consume four litres of this concoction, known to the retail market as Coca Cola. 
Just before 0630, the Hour of Dutiful Care, a lady marshalls us forty-plus starters. I look to the heavens. In the dark they keep secret any rainy intention. So far, so dry. Steve Monaghetti will be our Starter. Monaghetti the unforgettable. Mona – to his country an ornament, to fellow runners an inspiration, his name an amulet. My mind goes back to the Barcelona Olympics, where Mona finished in the top ten. As he did in all three of his Olympic Marathons. In the steam and heat of that day in Barcelona, numerous fabled runners simply failed to finish. The famed Kenyan, the feared Japanese, the mystic Korean champ, all were defeated by the heat and the steeps of Montjuic. But Mona finished. Ten seconds after Mona crossed the line the man from Aussie TV poked a mike into our man’s face. Pretty tough out there today, Mona?
Yeah, pretty tough.
The TV bloke listed the eminent Did Not Finishers by name. Then he asked Monaghetti: Did you think of pulling out yourself?  
Mona’s eyebrows shot upward. He looked at the interviewer as if he had addressed him in a strange language. Shaking his head slightly in wonder, Mona replied: No mate. Running for Australia mate!

A slight figure in a yellow running shirt glows in the half light of an Alice dawn. Kenyan slim, Mona takes the mike, speaks: Runners! I salute you. Today you will achieve something significant, something most people will never do, will never even contemplate… Anyone here running their first marathon? A slim arm rises falteringly. Addressing the young woman Mona says: You will never forget this day. I admire you. I admire you all, I respect you all. Good luck, enjoy your run. I’ll see you at the Finish.
BANG. Eighty-two legs break into a run and cross the Line. Two legs attached to a slowly moving fixture come to a stop as Pheidipides fiddles and fusses with his phone. He activates the new running App which will record his run. He starts again, again stops. The App has defeated him. Hapless, he resumes his run, Appless, philosophical.
***

 
So easy these first kilometres. A worry, all this ease, as my caffeine-charged legs race around sluggards, skip through gaps in the field. I know my legs are running the lip of the Crevasse of Euphoria. At the bottom of that crevasse I have buried many marathons past.
 
I take stock of my fellow runners, my comrades. They range in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties. The oldest of them is a string bean striding oddly in front of me. The runner is tall, his left elbow swings back towards my face then forwards, back and forth, fixed in semi-flexion. I spend some time in clinical contemplation of his oddity. Is this spasticity perhaps – a relic of stroke or of injury at birth? Yet the Bean moves efficiently, maintaining his lead as others fall behind us. Running through parkland I lean into a bend in the track and, surprised by ease, slide past the Bean. I will not see him again until the 10K mark.

 
Turning out of town now, the field thins as we file towards the first of the water gaps in the encroaching MacDonells. Here in the half dark, glowering over us, looms a mighty bulk of rock and crag. Truly named Ntaripe in the original Arrente, the Gap is ‘Heavitree’ on the tongues of us newcomers. 


 
Heavitree?
 
Idle googling traces the name to an English town outside Exeter in Devon. The name appears in the Domesday Book as Hevetrowa or Hevetrove, a name thought to derive from heafod-treow – old English for “head tree”, referring to the tree on which the heads of executed criminals were placed. Apparently this was an execution site. The last executions in England for witchcraft took place in Heavitree in 1862. Here the Bideford Witches met their end. The women had names – Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards.
The names humanise Google’s dry history.
 
 
Thoughtfully I plow onwards, on toward Emily Gap which will announce the seven-kilometre mark, and to Jesse Gap which will welcome me to the halfway mark and the turn for home.   
 


 
 
I pass a couple of young women. They smile delightfully. All of the females running today have delightful smiles. Later I will ask myself: are their smiles truly delightful or am I simply delightable, caffeine-struck, euphoric, singing wetly as I run, ‘hello skies, hello clouds’? Who knows? I recognize one of the smilers; she is the slender girl blessed by Monaghetti. His words come back to me: ‘You will achieve something significant today.’ What does all this signify, all this sweat and Vaseline, all these hundreds of training kilometres, these thousands of airline kms, this gathering in the dawn, this nervous excitement?
 
 
 
During this time of philosophic enquiry a praying mantis appears at my side. I recognise him – he’s the Lean Bean with the crook elbow. His pace and mine settle into sync. Breath for breath we run together in intimate silence, a silence sociable and equable, two veterans, comfortable with silence. At length one of us speaks: ‘Have you run this one before?’
‘How many have you run?’
‘Where are you from?’
These civilities flow naturally back and forth between us, two old dogs sniffing each other’s bottoms.
 
 
 
Straight away I’m glad we spoke. Ralf – that’s his name – comes from Germany. This is his first visit to Alice. He’s sandwiching this event between marathons in Brisbane and Perth. He averages a full marathon every two weeks. He’s done this for the last few decades. My mind shrinks from the arithmetic.
 
 
Ralf tells me he’s run marathons on all six continents. ‘How was the Antarctic Marathon?’, I ask. The Bean shakes his head: ‘No, not in Antarctica. It is artificial, such a run. I run only where it is natural.’ Ralf’s natural marathons have coursed across the Americas (both of them), through Europe, in Africa, Asia and of course Australia. He’s run the great city marathons and he’s run events in towns smaller than Alice. He ran in Norway, along the country’s northernmost road until he came to its end. Beyond him lay permafrost and ice. This was the halfway mark. He turned and enjoyed a solitary time on that road to nowhere. Alice, I realise, is just another run in a desert of a different sort. Another quiet event shared with the few. (‘We few, we happy few…’)
 
 
Our conversations meanders with our route. I learn how this quietly spoken, hugely achieving man looks upon the world: ‘When a man loves his country, this I respect. When he declares his nationalism I feel tremors of a competitive love, one that can easily express itself in aggression.’ Like many German people I have met, born after WWII, Ralf is sensitive to such things.
Wondering, I ask Ralf: ‘Do you recognise the man who fired the starting gun?’
‘Yes, of course. Monaghetti. A great man. He won the Berlin Marathon in 1990. The year the Wall came down. His time was fast, two hours and ten minutes.’

For all my admiration for Ralf’s achievements he shows a surprising respect for my own – vastly lesser – and for my dilettant commitment. His best time of two hours forty-plus minutes beats my historical best by half an hour. (He reassures me: ‘These days I am not so fast. Perhaps four hours, perhaps more today.’) Ralf’s tally of marathons is approaching five hundred, literally ten times mine. Why should he respect my efforts? Is it the hoary head? I do not think so. Ralf respects the marathon, the foe we share; his respect for me is self-respect, deflected. That significance, that meaning, the gravumen, hard to pin down, lies behind our weird seriousness.
‘Ralf, how did you injure your elbow?’
‘Pardon? I have no elbow injury.’
‘Oh, is it your shoulder?’
The lean face looks at mine, puzzled. ‘Only my knee is injured – not too badly. The medial collateral ligament.’
So much for my clinical eye. But his left upper limb does move funny, with a sort of clockwork rigidity where all else is fluid. 
 

Ralf’s long legs draw him ahead. With every stride he opens a small gap before checking himself and slowing. Such courtesy! ‘Ralf, don’t wait for me. I’ll see you at the finish.’ He glides easily away. And now a new companion, equally welcome, greets me. It’s the rain. Cooling, a light sprinkling, a benison. Running a marathon in light rain is like swimming with flippers. Everything feels easier. 
 

At the fifteen kilometer mark a volunteer hands me my potion. I sit down in the folding chair she has vacated. Aaaah, water. Aaaah, sugar. Aaaah caffeine. Cheered, plenished, I am ready to run, but Ms Volunteeer has a question: ‘How do you pronounce your name – is it Feedip Ides?’ ‘
Actually I pronounce it Fie-Dip-Id-Ease, but I don’t speak Greek so I’m not sure.’
‘Oh, you don’t look Greek.’
The lady deserves an answer: ‘Pheidipides ran the first marathon.’
‘Did he win?’
 
I shake my head and run on. Did Pheidipides win? Did he lose? Does any finisher lose?
 

At the 18Km mark another drink of Coke, another sit down, another pheidipidean lecturette. And so it goes at every Coke stop. Everyone wants to know about my strange name. I astonish them with my story of the brave Athenian of Marathon Field.  
 
What is the alchemy that brings me to the turn without pain? I run, I meet and greet my fellows, hailing and congratulating those who’ve turned for home before me. I run, I drink, I tell my story of the running hero I have worshipped since I was seven years old. Half a marathon has fallen in my wake and my familiar marathon foes – doubt, fear, fear of pain, dread of all that lies ahead – have not assailed me. How can this be? Being – for the time being – Greek, I recall Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’:
 

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
 
 
In short a rare excitement stirs my spirit and my body. I cannot tell whether it is the spirit of storytelling or the spirit of Coca Cola. The world is a quiet blanket of cloud. The tight skein of the start has unraveled. Two score runners snake silently along. Our slow ballet moves across the backdrop of unchanging crags and ridges. The MacDonells stare at us mutely, their aged faces unreadable. All of us runners alone with our thoughts or – as in my case – our lack of thoughts.
 
 
At 24 kilometres a friendly face waves me down. The volunteer hands me my pink-labelled potion and asks, ‘What’s with the name?’ I take a seat – hers – and I tell her the tale. It’s a tale I tell my grandchildren, it’s the tale I read in our thin textbook of Social Studies in Third Class. I read then of Pheidipides and I felt inspired. The story remains alive within me. When I run today it is to save Athens from the invading Persians. Three hundred millilitres of my gentle intoxicants later, I rise and run on in euphoria – aptly originally Greek for ‘the power of enduring easily’.
 
 
And so it is at 27K, at 30, 33, 36, 39 and 42 K’s, I drink my Pink Label and I tell my tale. And this is the tale I tell:
 
Once upon a time, a long time ago, when ancient Greece was young, there was a fast runner in the city-state of Athens. His name was Pheidipides. Athens was a city great for learning, for the arts and beauty. It was different from Sparta, which was famous for its physical culture, for the arts of war.
 
The elders of Athens learned that Persia was sending a great army in a fleet of ships to conquer Greece, one city-state at a time. Athens would be the first to face the feared Persians. The elders sent for their best runner, Pheidipides and asked him to run to Sparta.’ Go to their leaders and elders and say to them, “The Persians want to fight every city-state alone. They want to beat us one by one. But if the armies of Athens and Sparta join together, we can defeat them and save all of Greece.”’
 
 
Pheidipides knew Sparta was a long way away. He knew he’d have to run if he was going to be in time to save his people. Pheidipides said, okay, and started running. He ran all that morning and all the afternoon. He ran when the sun began to set and he kept running when it became dark. He ran through the night. He only stopped to drink at streams then he ran on. He ran through the second day and through the second night. After three whole days Pheidipides reached the gates of Sparta. When the city guards stopped him he explained his urgent mission. The guards took him to the city elders. The elders called their wise men, their necromancers, their haruspicators, their soothsayers, their moongazers and their magicians. The wise men conferred and gave their answer to the elders. The elders called Pheidipides and said, ‘Sorry, Pheidipides old chap, the stars are not favourable for a battle just now. Another time, perhaps…’
 
 
So Pheidipides ran home to Athens with the bad news. He ran for three days and three nights, pausing only to drink at streams on his way. He reached Athens at dawn and told the elders there would be no help from the great fighters of Sparta. Athens would have to face the Persians alone.
The elders said, ‘Well, our army is just about to march to Marathon Field to face the enemy. Will you come and fight too?’ So Pheidipides put on his heavy armour, took his shield and his spear, buckled on his great sword, and marched with the army to Marathon. The distance was forty kilometres. My car gets tired driving that far.
 
 
When the Athenian army met the great Persian army at Marathon it was still early morning. They fought the enemy from morning to late afternoon, and as the sun began to sink in the sky, it was Athenians who carried the day. The defeated Persians ran to their ships and sailed away.
 
The Athenian General said to Pheidipides: ‘You are our best runner. Run back to Athens and tell the people the city is saved.’ So Pheidipides ran back to Athens. As he approached the city the old men who stood on watch on the walls saw a lone figure approaching. They recognised Pheidipides and threw open the city gates. And Pheidipides cried to the old men and the women and the children – Rejoice my people! Ours is the victory! 
Then he fell to the earth and died.
 
 
I drank and I ran and I told the story. Just after the forty-two kilometer mark a thin man, Kenyan thin, wearing a yellow jacket, stepped towards me and shouted, ‘Great Running! Unbelievable!’ And with Monaghetti’s words in my ears and Pheidipides in my mouth I plunged for the finish and as I crossed the line I might have shouted, ‘Rejoice my friends, ours is the victory!’
 
 
POSTSCRIPT:
 
After the finish a praying mantis wearing a smile, a stiff elbow and a finisher’s medal, approached me. It was Ralf. He’d finished 30 minutes before me. Thirty minutes! My own time was thirty minutes faster than last year’s. There being no other runner in my age group and Alice being the sole marathon in the Northern Territory I declared myself “Northern Territory Marathon Champion (male, over seventy), 2016”, and duly attached this to my Resume. 

Where Else But Alice?

Where else but Alice Springs can you run through Honeymoon Gap (part of the Macdonell Ranges, not part of the body) and see the world ablaze as the sun rises, greeting a file of self-selected marathoners with silent fanfare?
Where else than Alice can such a mediocre runner place fifteenth in a marathon? (There were only seventeen starters that year).
Where else than Alice do the volunteers – endlessly cheering us, feeding us, hydrating us – outnumber the runners?
Where else in the running world can you run through air as pure as crystal and finish your marathon in the mild golden glow of mid-morning?

Alice has the best kept secret in the world of marathon running. I’ve done Boston (four times), New York (thrice), Traralgon (ten times), Melbourne (15 times) – and Alice just as often. I come back for every third Sunday in August. My wife is suspicious: she should be: Alice Marathon is my secret love.

Let Me Tell You a Story

It’s about the Melbourne Marathon.

I know, I know, there’s nothing more boring to a non-runner than the idea of someone putting one leg in front of another about 42,000 times. And, yes, I did try to your patience with a little marathon piece a few days ago. Yet this is a nice story…

Last Sunday I ran the Melbourne Marathon. The weather forecast was for a horrible day – wild winds, light rain, thunder, more wind, hail. Hail!

We lined up for the start at 0645 and the weather was overcast, still, mild. Perfect for running. The forecaster lied. An attractive young woman approached me: Hello Howard. Remember me? You used to come to my shop in the city.

I don’t really remember: Yes, of course I remember! But I’ve forgotten your name…

Jeanette. Beaming, dimples in full flight: You helped me have a baby.

What a thought.

Jeanette continues: One day at the shop you asked me if I wanted kids. If I did I should not waste time. Thirty five was better than forty, you said, and twenty five was better still. I was thirty five. I did want children, we were trying, not succeeding. You sent me to the right people. We have a child, one only. IVF failed when we wanted a second. He’s wonderful. He’s Lucca, he’s six now. I work closer to home, Closer to Lucca.

I do remember now. I remember Jeanette serving in her shop, that smile, those dimples flashing above her burgeoning tummy.

We wished each other luck for the marathon and lost each other among the thousands.

The promised rain started at 25 kilometres, the slightest fall, a runners boon, like the quality of mercy ‘that droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath’Still no wind. Blessed weather.

By 35 kilometres the quality of mercy had been eclipsed. Heavy rain, rising winds attacked slowing legs, cooling bodies. Brutal conditions for the final, always testing phase of a marathon. If self pity is the sincerest of human emotions, then I was desperately sincere at the 35 km mark.

Running a little ahead of me in St Kilda Road a young couple, both tall, slim, both wearing black, caught my attention. The young man leaned down and across and kissed the woman slowly, a tender kiss, gentle rather than passionate.

I slowed and the two disappeared ahead of me.

One kilometre later I came upon the young blackshirts again. They were walking, the man’s arm around the woman’s shoulders. As I drew alongside I saw she was weeping. Are you hurt?

A shake of her head.

Can I help you? Is it medical?

The man answered: No… Thanks for offering. She’ll be okay.

I jogged on, pondering. The marathon injures your body and your spirit. Tired, deeply deeply tired, cold, unable now to run, perhaps this girl is simply sad.

My own spirit had suffered bruising as I saw my target of four hours disappear, then my fall-back aim of 4.20. Even 4.30 was beyond my moral strength as I allowed the pacemaker lady to glide ahead. One resolution – to finish. Another – not to chase, not to torment myself.

The wind redoubled its force, the rain soaked us, we lifted slow feet in their Nikes, their Asics, their New Balances, which were once lightweight running shoes, now receptacles of water. We moved forward towards a Finish that we could not see.

An hour later? An age unmeasured, the MCG at hand, the Finish somewhere inside and a small lady just ahead of me carried her little flag that identified her as the 4.30 hours pacemaker.

Wise resolutions forgotten, I raised my knees, I swung my arms, I lifted my head, I raced. Through a tunnel, onto the MCG, following the armies in their soaked flags, I raced. Huge breaths sped my new legs. Around a bend, leaning into the curve, chasing my wild legs, I raced. And crossed the line, gasped, managed not to vomit and looked at the digits on the clock that said: four hours, thirty minutes and 18 seconds.

It was a long and shivering walk of four kilometres to my car. Enjoying the sincerest self pity, I was disturbed by a young lady on my right, who exclaimed: Dr Goldenberg! Do you remember me?

The same lie: Yes, of course.

Remember I came to you when I couldn’t get pregnant? You sent me to Dr Raphael and – look in the pusher – there’s Chloe!

Chloe, her round face pink and warm inside her rain spattered shelter, slept peacefully. I thought of my newest granddaughter, Ruby. Same age, same round face.

Yes, I do remember.