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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 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?
And that was number fifty.
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.
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.
“Rain, Snow, Winds of Storm –
Nought shall make me afraid.”
Flying east from the West Coast every third person seems to be a slim female heading for Boston. All of them blonde, all appear younger than their years, all wear the BAA jacket from a previous Boston Marathon. They bring their own health foods which they chew with religious solemnity; they have no truck with airline pap. Heading east with the same purpose I feel those Boston stirrings. We pilgrims know our Mecca.
I recall my previous Bostons. Amazingly, for a runner of no real distinction, I’ve managed to run four of them. Amazing because you have to qualify for Boston, a feat I’ve never quite managed. In1987 I completed the Application Forms and addressed a begging letter to the Race Director:
Dear Mr Morse,
You might not be aware that Australia celebrates its two-hundredth birthday this year. You might also be unaware that Melbourne – where I live and run, and Boston – where you live and run, are sister cities. As you will see from my application my ‘qualifying’ time of three hours and thirty-one minutes is not quite fast enough. I believe I can run a qualifying time but Melbourne has no recognised marathon for me to run before the cutoff date.
I write to appeal to you: here is your chance to cement the Australian-American alliance. If we wait until Australia’s three-hundredth anniversary, I’ll probably be too old. Please consider.
Weeks passed. Months passed and no word. I needed to know, so I rang the Boston Athletic association and asked to be connected to Mister Morse. A voice came through the phone: Who is this?
I’m an Australian runner, running as Pheidip…
Are you the guy who wrote that crazy letter?
You’re all set. You’re good to go!
So I went.
That was a day like they’re forecasting for Monday – cold, wet, miserable. And triumphant.
Some time after the event I began to wonder whether Melbourne and Boston are indeed
My brother-in-much-more-than-law, John, planned to run the one hundredth Boston with me. A member and regular runner with the New York Road Runners Club, he qualified easily. I planned to run Melbourne to qualify but the event clashed with the Festival of Shavuoth. I sure as shit don’t run on Shavuoth.
I approached the Melbourne people with a plan. I’d run the course one week early and they agreed to provide me with a certified time on presentation of a statutary declaration of my finishing time. They told me they’d mark the course one week early, and I couldn’t possibly get lost. I ran, I found no marks, and I did get lost – repeatedly. I ran with witnesses, doubling back whenever I took a wrong turning. We subtracted the time expended on
extra distance and came up with a net time of three hours and twenty-six minutes, comfortably inside the qualifying time. Boston honoured the Melbourne Marathon certificate and John and I ran together.
Although the arithmetic was scrupulous, it had to be wrong. In 1998 I wasn’t beating 3:30 by that margin. This time it was Boston’s birthday I honoured.
The third time I ran as a charity runner. I wrote to everyone I know, promising them an investment opportunity like no other. I offered an absolute no-risk guarantee: donor-investors would never get their money back. We raised over five thousand dollars to aid research at Boston Childrens Hospital, the great institution that saved the lives of my two nephews, and so many others. As usual in Boston, I ran poorly and felt fulfilled.
The fourth Boston I raised money for the Michael Lisnow Respite Center, yet another local institution where tragedy is transmuted.
That was in 2013, the year of the bombs. I was not permitted to finish.
Now once again I am a fundrunner, this time for ‘Stepping Strong’, the inspiring initiative of the parents of a lovely young woman whose horrific injuries almost took her life in 2013.
Five Bostons without a single dinkum qualifying time. The story of a fortunate man.
In Boston on race day I consult the weather forecast. Yesterday they predicted eleven degrees Celsius. Today they revise it down to eight.
American weather prophets express themselves in percentage probability. Today’s prophecy: one hundred percent likelihood of rain.
While I wait in the meagre shelter of the light rail station my body confirms the forecast. Hugging myself, clapping hands for warmth I wait glumly. The light rail ride is warm but all too brief.
I descend and hike to the bus that will take me to the Start at Hopkinton. Waiting in the line I shiver.
Once aboard the bus the old bloke next to me announces he comes from Nova Scotia. Stick thin, too tall to sit straight in the bus, he wears five layers including a windbreaker. Although he ran his last marathon in Dubai his body remembers the cold.
We introduce ourselves. He’s Robert. I extend a hand, he offers a collection of long bones: Glad to meet you, Howard.
Good to meet you, Robert.
Robert aims to finish under four and a half hours. What about you, Howard?
What about me? Unusually, I haven’t identified a target for myself. I know I want to finish, something they wouldn’t let me do in the year of the bombs. That DNF leaves a scar in a runner whose sole boast is persistence. More than pride suffered wounds that day: belief was harmed as little Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu died at the Finish in Boylston Street.
Before that day ‘The Finish’ never carried a double meaning. After Boston 2013, every ‘Finish’ carries a doubt.
I jolt myself from reverie. Forced to consider times, I know I want at least to beat my last effort, a painful four and a half hours on an Arctic day in Melbourne.
Boston usually lifts my spirits. Even with the bombings two years ago the mood abroad of unity and amity redeemed the day.
But the clothes I wear this day are not equal to the cold. Near me another veteran grumbles: there are only three things I hate at a marathon – rain, cold and wind. And today we’re gonna get them all.
Only minutes after leaving the bus I start to shiver as drizzle fulfills the prophet’s one hundred percent confidence. Memories of bone chill in my last marathon in Melbourne gloom me up thoroughly.
But Boston, being Boston, doesn’t allow a stranger to shiver: Take this jacket, sir. The volunteer has collected the jacket from a runner, one of the fleet of foot whose race has already started. Volunteer lady, twenty years younger than I, mothers me into the jacket, pulls the hood over my ears. There you go sir. Wear it until it gets too hot for comfort, then hand it to any volunteer and we’ll make sure it goes to the homeless. I begin to defrost and Boston brightens within me.
The announcer introduces our Starter. Wave Four, the slowest and the last to start, includes the bent, the broken and us ten thousand fundrunners who’ve raised funds for various charities. The Boston Athletic Association honours our Starter in recognition of her service to this village where she has conducted her family grocery since 1943. Big it up for the Hopkinton family grocer, folks. Usually too insubordinate – too Australian – to big it up when ordered, somehow I join the clapping for the grocer lady.
At some signal that I cannot hear nor see, Wave Four is released for the 26.2 miles. Now I shuffle, then trot, now tread a wary path between speeding legs that weave about my prudent hypotenuse. After one kilometre we start to run. This running is too easy; the steep declines murder muscles.
Before a marathon most runners prepare their ‘splits’, calculated times for each section of the race. My calculation is simple: never run a mile faster than ten minutes: any faster than this, I’ll burn up and be forced to walk the route into the early evening.
For ten miles I stick to my splits. After that time carries no meaning as I interrogate slowing thighs that have thudded down hill after hill. This strange sensation in my quadriceps muscles must betoken something, something portentous. A marathoner is a practised hypochondriac, fuelled by fears, searching ever for signs of doom, teasing meaning from meaningless sensations. Faced with the alternatives of hope and fear I elect to hope: let this thick feeling, this heaviness in the thighs reflect muscles bursting with all that pasta I took on board last night.
In this time without time I run inwardly, communing with my constant companions, doubt and fear. A voice penetrates, the public address: The leading runners just passed Heartbreak Hill. They’ll finish in a half hour.
The fundrunners on every side run for cures. My group seeks to cure trauma. Named for Gillian Reny, a nineteen-year old whose training to become a professional dancer was shattered with her leg, the ‘Gillian Stepping Strong’ team is as inspiring as that young woman, who dances her life yet.
Around me run the Liver runners, the Dana Farbers (cancer), the Cystic Fibrosis team, the Melanomas, the Multiple Sclerotics, Boston Childrens, Miles for Miracles, MR8 (for Martin Richard, aged eight). MR8 – a statement, a protest. Who can forget the carefree image of Martin with his wide toothy grin? The child wrote: No more hurting. Peace.
I recall another image. Standing with his back to the wall, his backpack at his feet, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gazes impassively at the scene near the Line. Only a few feet in front of him he must see Martin and his seven-year old sister. He sees, he walks away, leaving his bomb behind the children.
Boston is healing but a fresh agony tears at this liberal community – the question of the death sentence for the bomber. Survivors and their families are painfully divided on the question. The voices I hear are Boston voices, measured, sober, heavy with unmediated pain.
Boston the town whose largest hoarding tolls the dead. The text reads in part, AMERICANS KILLED BY ASSAULT WEAPONS SINCE SANDY HOOK: 73,835.
Every runner’s singlet seems to memorialise someone. For Dad. Nigel and Luke. Barbara. Nanna and Nick. So many names, so many stories. The rain falls thickly now, drawing a heavy grey curtain and I do not venture to ask.
But the crowds refuse all gloom. Small children reach out and up from beneath umbrellas, high-fiving us grownups. Women whoop, men roar, the air screams benediction. Gloom begone!
We’ve passed through Ashland, running now between dark woods that line both sides of the road. Men dart from the track, turn their backs and drain overstretched bladders. An enterprising woman chases the men from the road. Does she plan to join them? No, instead she pees discreetly in the lee of a conveniently parked car.
Descending alarmingly still we pass through Natick. A lot of big beards here, tattoos, big stomachs. Harleys line the road. Music booms, the air rocks to Born in the USA and we ascetic creatures lift our feet, energized, at one with all them good old boys.
Uphill at last, then down, we’ve reached the Wellesley Hills. Here sing the sirens, the students of Wellesley College. The young women scream and carry placards, some subtle, some nearly subtle:
Kiss me, I’m from China.
Kiss me, I’m size D.
Kiss me, I’m French.
Kiss me, I do tongue.
A very married man, I blush and turn away, suddenly shy. But my legs respond. Lighter now, they want to bolt up the hills until I rein them in, reminding them of my ten-minute rule.
Around the halfway mark my legs declare themselves: they are just tired. This makes sense as my training has been limited to the half distance. Doubts bellow now, in chorus: Will you keep running? Will your resolve evaporate? Do you have the ticker? When will you give up and walk?
A huddle in black moving slowly to my right distracts me. I read the name “Achilles Club” on the black jackets of a group of four people who surround a racing wheelchair. Seated – no not seated – he’s half recumbent, in the chair is a black man, tall, not young. Two helpers drag the chair backwards up the hill, two others push from the front. The man has one operating limb, a leg that extends to the asphalt and pushes against it, helping to propel the chair backwards. I know the Achilles people, named for Homer’s wounded hero; they help people with disabilities to participate as athletes.
The hero in the chair silences my chorus. Abruptly I know myself again. I’ll finish this, and finish it running. This is only fatigue. That, and an exaggerated belief in my own frailty. A life lesson learned: I need to learn to give Father Time his due, but not to pay him in advance.
This certain knowing doesn’t buoy me much. There’s a bloody long way to go, it’s bloody unpleasant in this cold and wet, every step is hard, and there are no excuses.
Labouring onward I am visited by a thought, a sparkling discovery: This is stupid. I am too old for this. This will be the last. And just to confirm the resolution I add, No more! This sort of thinking is not new. I have thought this way during every one of my forty-five marathons. This time the decision feels compelling.
At every milepost I pause and drink a cordial composed of sugars, electrolyte and urine. Or something. I wash it down with a splash of water. These respites of thirty seconds allow muscles to recharge. I pick up my legs and for a time the going feels easier. Perhaps I was hasty. Maybe I needn’t stop doing this. I just need to train properly instead.
We start to climb what must be the outliers of Heartbreak, a hill whose start is undefined and whose finish is a coronary. These undulations have defeated greats: in the 1970’s Bill Rodgers won Boston four times; but on two other occasions he had to stop around here and withdraw.
Refusing to look up, running now in my dour element, I know the drill. Steady and slow, plod, plod, up, up. Refusing to be lulled by the odd small decline, I remember and respect these hills. My wise legs, hardened on the granite grades of Wilsons Promontory, follow each other slowly, soberly, up, up.
My brain melts. Arithmetic fuddles me. Here’s the nineteen mile mark. The marathon is 26.2 miles. How many miles to go? Too hard!
Snatches of verse swim into my head: here in Emily Dickenson’s territory I seize upon:
I like a look of Agony
Because I know it’s true…
Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude…
Tennyson speaks to my remnant resolve:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…
Scraps from the Song of Solomon:
My beloved skips over the mountains
He leaps the hills.
This last fragment runs and runs, spooling endlessly, following the rhythm and tempo of my footfalls. I spend a long time – is it a long time? – I cannot be sure – with Solomon.
A cry from across the road: Uncle Howard! Uncle Howard! The crier is Ziva, my sister’s firstborn. At her side, sucking an enviably warm-looking thumb, stands her younger son Akiva, holding a placard in primary colours. The placard informs the field of thirty-two thousand that Uncle Howard is a champion.
Akiva’s elder brother Elisha is not with us. He’s in hospital, recovering from a kick in the eye.
The injured brother is represented by Grade Seven classmates, showing solidarity with Elisha. Some neighbours of Ziva have been gathered to watch her grateful old wreck of an uncle gobble a banana, reject a waterproof (too late), ignore the Coke Zero he requested, instead bolting and slurping electrolyte gels.
The uncle says sentimental things, kisses the niece, tries to kiss the great-nephew (who ducks adroitly) and runs off greatly cheered. Ringing in his ears are Ziva’s fatuous words – You’re running great, Uncle! – words he finds entirely convincing.
It is a still cheerful uncle who looks ahead and sights the stiffest and last of the uphills. Today marks the new moon of the month of Iyar in the Jewish calendar. Psalms from the day’s liturgy visit me:
This is the day the Lord has made –
Let us rejoice in it and be happy!
And that’s what happens. The way is long, the body is tired, but the mind is reconciled. I run on rejoicing.
Time to boast. Throughout the race I’ve been working the downhills. Instead of coasting, I’ve lengthened my stride – it hurts when I do this now – grabbing what acceleration I can. I tell myself I’m running an honest race, the best I can run. Steadfastly ignoring my stopwatch, I am yet aware my marathon pace is funereal. But some dumb pride glows as I run on, relishing the minute achievement of my imperceptible accelerations. I will run a Personal Worst today, which will yet be my absolute best.
Another boast: I recall a conversation between a champion marathoner and a commoner.
Slowcoach: I cannot believe your speed – running that entire distance in half the time it takes me.
Champion: And I cannot believe your endurance – running your hardest for twice as long as I can.
Today I will run nearly two-and–a–half times as long as the winner.
Ahead of me runs a solitary figure in pink, a youngish woman, quite tall, strong looking. Powerful shoulders emerge from her singlet; is she a triathlete? Whatever she is or does – this island – she piques my curiosity. Her independence wins my respect.
I recognise another woman, running like a draft horse half a pace ahead of me, the same Dana Farber runner I saw earlier wearing ‘Barbara’ on her singlet. She’s another island, plodding, oblivious of spectators and runners alike who are now jiving and singing along to a pounding ‘Sweet Caroline.’
I’d like to hear about Barbara. I pull alongside, am about to ask, then pause. I don’t want to hurt or shock the lady by referring to Barbara in an inappropriate tense, whether present or past. Please excuse me. Would you like to tell me the story of Barbara?
Briefly startled, the woman smiles: Yes, yes, I’d like that very much.
She tells me Barbara had cancer, but hers is a happier story. Thirteen years ago Barbara received a diagnosis of an aggressive, inoperable brain tumour. She might hope to live six months. At the time her children were three and one. She underwent treatment and was free of cancer for eleven years before the disease returned. This time it was six months.
I am so glad you asked me. I want people to know.
Moved by the telling, I murmur, It’s a sacred remembering her, speaking her name…
Yes, yes, I feel that too.
A young woman runner darts across our path from the far left to the barriers on our right. Crying words I cannot make out she throws her arms around two young women who stand together at the barrier. Three heads clinch in close embrace. The women exchange fierce kisses, then hold each others’ faces for a long moment in searching silence. Something has happened. Perhaps here, at this precise spot. Something tells me they arranged to rendezvous at this point. Was it here they heard the news two years ago, of a fourth – a friend? – when the bombs went off.
Running along Commonwealth Avenue now, only four miles to go. Only. Here’s a smallish lady, female, whose raincoat reads, Baby on Board. I pull alongside and cast an obstetric eye over her belly. Yes, she is.
How many weeks are you?
She smiles: Thirty-one. The doctors say it’s quite OK so long as I don’t overdo it.
Running a marathon is overdoing it – by definition. That’s the point of running the event.
She runs slowly, steadily on, looking quite comfortable. Slow as I am I outpace her. I leave her behind and ruminate happily on a new baby, a new life, some sort of consolation. If they call for a doctor, I’ll be ready.
Another familiar Dana Farber, this the one who wore ‘Nigel’ and ‘Luke’. Emboldened I ask, Those names you wear – cancer?
Were Nigel and Nick twins?
Thud. No further questions asked, none required. The woman’s soft look must mirror my own; a sorrow shared.
Past the Citgo sign we turn. Soon we’ll see Boylston Street and journey’s end. But the 25 milepost forbids excitement. This is one subtraction I am equal to. The one mile that remains feels like a long sentence to serve. But the sentence is not solitary. I share it with the lame, the very elderly, the damaged runners, as well as quite a few who appear young and fit. We leave behind the tall pink girl, now walking, stolid still, and solitary.
From either side of the street the crowds hurl waves of noise, calling, cheering, praising us all in an ecstasy of joy. They love us. They love me. Our effort is theirs, our success their own.
Boston claims us, lives through us. Amazed, uplifted, I burn. And run steadily on. Down Hereford Street now, it’s roses, roses all the way. Here’s where they turned me back in 2013. I look around me. Police again are everywhere, but calm, calming, part of the Boston polity, our protectors.
The final turn. Three hundred metres to go. I can race this. I raise rusted knees, swing mechanical arms, rise up onto blistered toes and chase. No chance I’ll catch that young bloke five metres ahead and to my left; he’s racing too. That young woman just ahead has picked up speed as well. Bugger it: let’s go for gold! I sweep past the racing girl. I chase that young buck, knowing it’s futile, joyous in full-blooded pursuit. The feet beneath me fly over the wet roadway towards the Line, a royal blue slash just ahead. Ten metres out, I find a bit more. I lunge and vanquish Young Buck. We shake hands and I stagger a bit.
Medals, drinks, foods, fruit, Medical – all straight ahead! Keep going straight!
One hundred long metres further on a woman wraps me in an insulating foil robe. Ahh, that’s better. Another lady garlands me with the familiar Boston medallion, the weightiest trophy marathoners know. They are not young, not glamorous, just kindly, just volunteers – Bostonians. And we runners love every one of them, all nine thousands of them.
I turn around and sight Ms Pink, striding slowly across the Line. Her gaze nowhere, she’s mindless of completion. Her face is distorted and drenched. This is not rain, she is crying.
*For quite understandable reasons of security BAA requires a runner’s name to match that of the photo ID. Farewell, Pheidipides the brave, my hero since third grade!
I post this long report so a reader can feel the long slog of the marathon.
Additionally I offer and dedicate this post to the generous blog followers who donated to Stepping Strong.
If you missed out on the privilege of giving, please be aware the fund accepts donations until June 30. You can give soon and give often. https://www.crowdrise.com/brighamwomensboston2015/fundraiser/pheidipidesgoldenber
This blog has spent the Passover period training for the Boston Marathon. Training has consisted exclusively of that intensive form of carbo loading which is the consumption of loads of matza. As matza is highly constipating carbo unloading has presented a challenge. Reminiscent of Martin Luther, who struggled mightily with his bowels, the Passover observer passes little.
In short I have been busy: as a result the blog has followed the admirable maxim of the ancient Sages of the Mishna: “Do much, say little”.
Shortly the blog will have much to report: of a visit to sit at the feet of another Ancient Sage, Dr Paul Jarrett, 95-year old surgeon of Phoenix Arizona; of fetching myrrh to Jack, the new babe born unto us Goldenbergs in San Francisco; of drinking GOOD COFFEE ! in New York City!!! (at ‘Little Collins’, my nephew’s celebrated joint on Lexington Avenue); of learning the latest in neuroscience from Joseph John Mann at Columbia Presbyterian; of Shabbat observing in New Rochelle; of entraining to Boston on the Sunday; and on Monday 20 April of observing Patriots Day in Boston.
On Patriots Day much is afoot in Boston, when this Athens of the United States becomes Sparta. The public holiday commemorates the ride of Paul Revere and the start of the American Revolution. (I refer to Boston as Athens as an incubator of wisdoms but also as the place of Gauguin’s masterwork, ‘Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?’ That painting and its title encapsulate the entire enterprise of human storytelling.
The painting is strategically located in a gallery situated directly across the road from Dunkin Donuts [Aussies must indulge the local spelling] where the donuts are certified kosher. But I digress.)
For us runners Boston is THE marathon. More broadly, Boston, most humane of cities, hosts the most charitable of marathons. The event admits both the athletic elite and the footslogger, those who qualify by their speed over 26.2 miles and those who qualify solely by fundraising. I belong to the fundraising sluggards. This will be my fifth Boston, a further opportunity to put my feet to the service of the good. Unavoidably we come here to evil: in my old home town of Leeton a bride who loved the colour yellow is murdered unaccountably one week before her wedding day; in Boston bombs explode the innocence of thirty thousand runners and one million natives. Three die, two hundred and sixty four injured – many grievously – survive.
And I ask myself: Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?
The small town of Leeton turns out to honour lost youth: multitudes gather in the park wearing yellow; married women hang their bridal gowns on front fences; on the victim’s planned wedding day brides all around the country add a dash of yellow to their apparel.
In Boston the city grieves, runners shake their heads, and return to the marathon with intent. Among them is one Gillian Reny.
“The Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Fund at Brigham and Women’s Hospital will support life-giving breakthroughs in limb reconstruction, bone regeneration, orthopedic and plastic surgery, and skin regeneration. Established by the family of Gillian Reny—a young, pre-professional dancer who was critically injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings—the fund will fuel cutting-edge research and clinical programs in three areas:
Stepping Strong Research Scholars : The Research Scholars project has two components: using stem cells to advance bone regeneration, and developing better methods to regenerate skin and heal wounds to reduce the suffering of amputation.
Stepping Strong Trauma Fellowship : The Trauma Fellowship will train the next generation of trauma surgeons in advanced techniques for treating acute and complex traumatic injury. Fellows will gain proficiency in surgical management, rehabilitation, limb reconstruction, and scar management.
Stepping Strong Innovator Awards: To inspire innovative research in areas including limb regeneration, limb transplant, advanced stem cell technology, orthopedic and plastic surgery, and bioengineering, BWH will offer Innovator Awards through an annual, competitive, request-for-proposal process. These awards will fund high-reward projects by our best and brightest physician-researchers.”
This is the good for which my feet will run on Monday April 20. This, like the wearing of the yellow, is the good that transcends evil. This is the good to which you can contribute. Go to: