Running to a Dream

After the Malta Marathon I took a break from long runs. The physical recovery took about one week, two at most, moral recovery much longer. I feared long runs. The thought evoked moral nausea.

Perhaps that’s why I managed to acquire my first real injury in forty years of running. Perhaps that’s why rest brought no cure; why physiotherapy didn’t fix me; why eventually it hurt too much walk. Surgery followed, together with the instruction, ‘No running for 6-8 weeks.’  Disability became my comfort, surgery my excuse, prohibition my refuge.

***

Almost one year pass without a single further marathon. Finally my legs speak up and today, fifty weeks post-Malta, those legs mandate a long run. I decide I’ll try to run to Cabarete and back, a distance of 23 kilometres. We visited the poor Dominican village of Cabarete a couple of days ago, and we know it a little. Cabarete is the home of a Dream.

Here in the Dominican Republic the air perpetually feels thick and today it is a mantle, heavy on the skin. Very soon a fine rain falls about and upon me, a rain too fine to soak my thin singlet. The horizon disappears in the grey, and with the light Sunday morning traffic noises quelled it is a softer world that welcomes me back to the long run.

In this northern part of the country but a single road runs from Puerto Plata to my turning point, Cabarete, and beyond. Some dreamer designated this road a highway, but the reality is simply one lane of traffic twisting in one direction and a second stream struggling back. Potholes large enough for caving lie concealed beneath pooled rainwater. Three vehicles in four are motorcycles, underpowered and overloaded. The bikes carry a load of soft flesh. Usually two ride but sometimes I sight a third body, even occasionally a fourth – generally children – squeezed between driver and pillioned passenger; and my first-world heart misses a beat.

These frail conveyances seek safety on the verge, where I – likewise a frail conveyance – seek safety as I run. I run facing and dodging  the oncoming traffic.

Traffic regulations are observed in DR in the breach. Red lights appear to be advisory only. In one full week of daily runs, I never see a motorcyclist in a helmet. Life expectancy is low here, human life guarded less closely than in my fretful homeland. However today, ‘Domingo, the Lord’s Day,’ I actually sight in the gloom what looks like a helmeted rider. Is this possible, I wonder? A large roadside sign answers: Con Dios Todos es Possible.

 

 

The rain has thickened but it does not dampen my spirits. Luke-warm, it falls vertically in fat drops, cooling me sweetly. Legs free of self-doubt propel me forward, the kilometres turn into miles, nothing hurts. I breathe fresh air fortified by hydrocarbons and the smell of cow manure.

When I asked my friend Edith, ‘are there snakes here in DR?’, she answered: ‘No. No snakes, unless you count the little green ones. They’re harmless.’

Running beneath a pedestrian overpass my shoe strikes the tarmac just beside a serpent lying in the warm wetness. This reptile is about a metre long, striped in the pattern of Australia’s decidedly unharmless Tiger Snake.  This particular serpent would be a baby tiger in Australia; his thickness a little less than one inch. At present this snake has no volume, he is a planar serpent, compressed flat by some overrunning heavy vehicle. My legs cease their running and I study the deceased. His small mouth gapes venomously, as if to frighten Death himself. He looks neither particularly little, not at all green, and absolutely not friendly. But he is extremely dead.

I run on.

Tottering along on its four circular feet an ancient motorized cart passes me, headed for the tourist district. Loaded chaotically with watermelons the cart conveys undefeated optimism. In the family of a watermelon seller life and sustenance, hang by a filament. I recall my Papa, a professional watermelon seller operating in the waters offshore from the fishing port of Yaffo (Jaffa) in the 1890’s. Hunger drove Papa from school before he’d finished Third Grade. He’d buy watermelons in the market and swim them far out to sea in the hope of making a sale to thirsty fishermen in their boats offshore.

Eventually I arrive at Cabarete’s sole traffic light, my turning point. Nothing hurts, breathing is easy, I’m feeling strong, nothing daunts me. I turn and run for home. Is it raining still? Strangely, I’ve stopped noticing; it seems to make no difference in this damp-never-wet-for-long-never-very-dry place.

Back to snake overpass and here, on the opposite side of the ‘highway’ lies another serpent, his dead brother’s twin. Something unexpected happens: I feel sorrow for the poor dead creature, crushed, spine broken and wrenched into a violent right angle that is, anatomically, all wrong angle.  D H Lawrence’s ‘Snake’ comes to mind:

Was it humility, to feel so honoured?

I felt so honoured.

Reading the roadside hoardings as I run, pretty soon I crack the code: if the language is English the signboard addresses pink people, Gringos, especially Yanquis. The pink have the money for this spiffy resort, that shmick kitesurf school, these elegant condominiums.

As in Australia, the person in DR who cleans your room, or cooks for you is not pink. He or she is pigmented and poor.

An eatery describes its fare in emphatic upper case:

BURRITO’S

 

TACO’S

 

BOWL’S

It is to puke. The feral apostrophe has invaded the hispanosphere.

Grammar-appalled, I run on.

 

Here’s another roadside notice: an attractive female face beams down at the traffic. On her fitted t-shirt one reads:DREAM PROJECT, Dominican Republic Education And Mentoring. Surrounding her, small dark faces bend over books, desks, small trays; little fingers grip pencils in a rainbow of colours. The scene of infant industry carries a powerful message. Along the lower margin a reminder: WWW.DREAMPROJECTDOMINICA.ORG

I recognise those pleasing features. Together with my Australian-American family I visited the Dream Project a couple of days ago.

Summer Stories 2: Chilled Bill and the Blue Baby

At medical school in Melbourne I met a tall bloke with a hyphen in his surname. His forename was Bill. He was bigger than I and much smarter. Bill came from Tasmania. In Melbourne Bill met Sally, a nurse, also from Tasmania. Sally too had a hyphen. The two married and they hyphenated each other ever after.

My first clear memory of Bill is of finding him in shorts and a short sleeved shirt, seated at his desk one evening in his room at Farrer Hall. The window was open and Melbourne’s winter breezes fluttered the curtains and cooled the room. Bill asked if I’d like to join him in a run. I hadn’t run since schooldays but I said yes.

We ran hard and long through the cold evening. We met and climbed hills, we plunged down the further side, reckless and joyful, we saw our breath white and vaporous in the street lights. Like Falstaff and the young King Hal we heard the chimes at midnight. We ran and our chests burned, and we kept going until we had outrun all chill. From that day to this I have run. It was Bill who started it.

Bill and the hyphenated Sally started making babies. The first was a girl, Joanna. She was born blue. For a year or more Joanna stayed blue; there was hole in her heart. Bill and Sally travelled to Auckland where the reigning champion repairer of babies’ hearts fixed up Joanna’s. A second baby, Jackie, followed Joanna into the world. Jackie was pink, hale and whole.

Annette and I and our own pink baby visited the Hyphens in Auckland. I took a picture of three pink toddlers laughing themselves silly in a bathtub in Auckland.

Eighteen years later I visited northern Tasmania for the ritual removal of a foreskin. While there I visited Bill and Sally. Joanna, by now a physio student in Melbourne, was also visiting. Still pink, Joanna had become a runner. We went for a run together, Jo and I. We ran hard and long through the cold evening. We met and climbed hills, we plunged down the further side, reckless and joyful, we saw our breath white and vaporous in the street lights. Like Falstaff and the young King Hal we heard the chimes at midnight. We ran and our chests burned, and we kept going until we had outrun all chill.

Such a runner was Jo that she’d won the Burnie 10K in open company as a junior. She went on to represent Australia in the World Junior Olympics in Rumania.

Back in Tasmania recently (for medical work that endangered no foreskins) I looked up Bill and Sally. Bill’s total knee replacement surgery of two months ago has been a success. He’s about ready to go running again.

The photograph shows Bill and Sally and the author’s grandson Toby. Toby is a brave and tough runner.

From the Heart 3

 
0600. The rock squats, silent, a massive cupcake among the grasses. Moment by moment the light changes: dark gives way to deep blues, to a steel blue, now to a primrose glimmering. All is quiet, still. Life suspended, the plain broods, foreknowing sunrise.
 
0621.The rock as image is too familiar. The rock as concrete reality forbids familiarity. I emerge from my small car, and regard the great terracotta thing before me: after all these years its immensity, everfresh, astonishes me. My car winds its way to the carpark. At every bend the rock changes; every aspect surprises and evokes the overpowering question: what immortal hand or eye? My question and the custodians’ questions are the same as Blake’s. The very greatness demands a myth.
I glance at the steep wall at my side and the slope flings my gaze up, up, upward beyond my range of cervical extension. The human neck cannot accommodate the reality; only if I lie on my back can I take it in. The human ant needs a postcard.
 
0623. Time to start: I am alone, the sole ant. The base walk used to be nine kilometres in length. Now it’s 10.6 kilometres. The rock hasn’t grown but the people who manage the Park have decided to keep us at a distance. And I need to finish my circuit by 0730: time to start.
 
Every one of my years finds voice and protests in my lower back as I shamble into movement. I intended to run but for now this hobbling is the best I can do. The gravel path underfoot is soft and red. It cushions and retards. Slower going and harder. But with only a hundred metres behind me slow going and aching back are forgotten. The rock compels, demands all attention, with its folds and bends, its clefts and pits, its elegant curves, its sweep and breach, its sudden secret shades and sulci.
That face – those many faces – prefigure every expression of humanity. The rock gazes down with idle incuriosity, here it is a pockmarked teenager, here a gaunt pensioner, now a lady, elegant in her long dress that falls and sweeps and moves gracefully in concert with my passing. The rock shows the many faces that are human faces: here is calm, here inscrutability, here obduracy.
Three great gouges side by side at great height, these are eye sockets, empty: what is this sight that sears her eyeballs?  The rock gazes out at our killing fields, at Crusades and Inquisition, at Babi Yar, Rwanda, Cambodia, at Holocaust, at the Armenian Genocide. The rock’s eyeless sockets see all. She has no tears. No mouth here, no words.
 
0630. Right on time the sun comes up, shining, burning directly in my eyes as the rockface heads me due east. The wind comes up too, blowing hot hard warnings of today’s forty degrees: you step outside from your cooled habitat, you breathe, your palate dries and you gasp. The second breath confirms the first impression.
For now the hot headwind is welcome: an early headwind promises a following wind in the later stages when I’ll head west and home.
But the sun, this sun, this blaze, this interrogator’s light right in my eyes: son of man, why have you come?
My innocent run is no longer blameless.
Son of man, what business have you here?
What? Why? What do I seek – peace? Innocence?
The light glares: What gift do you bring?
Consciousness. It is all I have.
The bright light relents, winking now, filtered by thin foliage, broken by gentle rises and bends. 
At this point the run might become a chore; the vista is relatively unremarkable, the rock radiating yesterday’s stored heat, the glare, the difficult going underfoot, the headwind – all might sap a runner. Instead the mechanical affair of placing one foot before another feels charged, significant. Plod, plod, breathe, breathe, the ordinary is transmuted. It is said of William Blake that he took a visitor outside, directed him to look at the midsummer sun and report what he saw. “Bright sunshine”, said the visitor. Said Blake, “I see hosts of fiery angels surrounding the Throne, singing Holy, Holy, Holy.”
 
Fires in my throat. I sip my iced water. But first I recite the customary blessing over the water, an act in which this mortal congratulates his Maker on His good idea in creating and providing the mortal with water. Water never tasted better. Like everything here it is charged, touched with the sublime.
 
I have passed twenty minutes alone in the company of Uluru, an uncommon privilege. At my left, hidden in the scrub, is the village of Mutitjulu. Its people live in the lee of immensity. Daily they awaken to the view of deep terracotta that earlier was mine. At sunset, fire flames from the rock’s margins, the rock purples. Echoes follow me – another place, another colour scheme:
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
 
 
Around the bend now, heading south, the greens and greys relieve the eye. I can’t complain of sameness. More faces in the rock, caves that grimace, bluffs that lower, red rock that slopes down towards my feet, down, down, a slow, shy approach. The rock is within a metre of my shod foot. To step on it a profanation. I do not walk this rock. Not now.
 
Around another bend and another, tracing waving folds, the rock shapes here are emphatically, anatomically feminine. Inescapably feminine. Curves that flow, flow, ineffably graceful, to deepening clefts, soft in the gentling light. These mother forms beckon, embrace, call me home.
 
My old legs move fluently, easily. They swallow the miles. My mouth burns, it sends messages – drink, drink – messages you receive only when it’s too late. Above me rockmouths gape toothlessly, vast, cavernous, inaccessible. My eye searches the sheer face; only a mountaineer equipped with hammer, piton and ropes could reach those high hollows. But in their depths ochreous markings, patterns, declare themselves; these impossible deeps are painting sites.  No white foot might imaginably intrude. Good!
 
Nearing the beginning of the end, here is the Mutijulu pool, a cool, shaded dell between three high surrounding walls. Its waters are permanent. But no, not so today, not in this heat. I gaze amazed at naked sands. Even dry they keep their cool, concealing water close to the surface. This dryness is a mirage; at all hands the growth is green, tender, silvan.
 
0715. Nearer the end and I am not alone. Cars pass on the bitumen that runs unseen, parallel to my path. Above me the rock has mouths with calcific projections, teeth that do not smile at what passes below. I look ahead: there, formicating on the slope, scores, hundreds of whitefellas climb hand over hand along a chain that will take them to the top. They will climb Uluru, they will conquer, they’ll be able to tell everyone.
At the top they’ll see the pits and gullies, the moonscape no-one below imagines, the scales and plaques of red; and the smallness of humans below.
I know what they see. I know the climbers haven’t seen or haven’t understood or haven’t cared what the owners write on the notice: Anangu do not want you to climb the rock.
I am not happy to see them climbing. It seems disrespectful. I feel it as if it were a personal sIight. I know and I care about it because I too have climbed the rock. A quarter of a century ago, I drove up, leaped from my car and ran up the slope. I did not see the notice. Hubris sped my feet: I would conquer Uluru; I would do it at the run, I would not stop.
Of course I did stop – after only fifteen metres – stopped and gasped, ran again, stopped, fought a breathlessness I had not known before. I made it to the top, saw how small we are and descended. I do not climb now.
 
 
 

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.
 

All this Juice and all this Joy

The first signs, mere hints, come creeping into our lives. Mornings aren’t so dark, the air doesn’t bite, birds sing their old early songs, bobbing figures are sighted in the streetscape. The wind turns northerly, bearing scents and pollens. Gardens burst into sudden colour, the sky seems higher, its lowering grey gives way to – to what? Can this be blue? We don’t readily trust these auguries, for this winter has frostbitten our trust in nature’s cycles. But soon it is undeniable: spring, SPRING is here!

Runners come out of hibernation; it is they whom we sight bobbing up and down on our streets, all of them preparing for the Melbourne Marathon. They bob but I bob not. My wretched, traitorous right calf locks and bites with every step, hissing at me, Pheidipides, you can forget the Marathon this October.

Meanwhile two identical envelopes arrive in the mail, both addressed to Pheidipides Goldenberg, both from the marathon people. I open the first and find my runner’s bib and the electronic chip that will time my run. A wry pleasure, these, tokens of a challenge that might yet defeat me before I start. The second envelope contains a second electronic chip and a second bib with PHEIDIPIDES printed across it with a runner’s number below. That number is not the same number as on bib Number One. What can this mean? Am I two persons? (Come to that, am I one person?) My I.T. skills being as they are I must have completed an entry form, hit ‘pay’, sent it off, forgotten I’d done it and repeated the entire process. So here I am, a runner torn, forlorn, with two identities.

This Melbourne Marathon will be – would be – my forty-eighth. Not a novelty then, but yet entirely different. Come October 18 I won’t run for myself but as a companion, a support person to a true hero, one of the very few runners to have completed every single Melbourne Marathon. I wrote of this hero last year: how, recently diagnosed with a serious condition, then treated with rays and our medical poisons, he ran and managed to grind out a finish despite his disease. To accompany this modest man will be a privilege. He responds to my self-invitation, Howard, I can’t allow you to sacrifice your marathon for mine. I’ll slow you down…

Inwardly I laughed. This man who knows fears and deeps far beyond my knowing, cannot know my capacity for running a new Personal Worst. And with two electronic chips, each secured to a running shoe, and each uniquely linked to a bib number, I will follow myself over the Line and finish both last and second last.

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.