Running with the Cows

One foot in front of the other. That’s how you do it, this running business. It’s not complicated, it’s not even hard, so long as you don’t do it too quickly or too many times. In the marathon I need to do it 42,185 times. My car finds that distance tiring and so do I. But Traralgon is where I ran my first marathon and – on a later occasion – where I ran my quickest. I try to run Traralgon every year. One of the many things I like about the event is the small field, which allows me to boast, ‘O, Traralgon, yeah, I finished in the first one hundred’.

 

 

 

 

In 2017 injury saw me miss the fiftieth running of the Traralgon Marathon. I was sorry my legs would miss out on history. The event is Australia’s oldest and it’s also The Victorian Country Marathon Championship. In 2018 I trained, I paid my registration and I injured my knee again.  Once again I missed out. But last Sunday saw me fit, I was new again, keen, and running faster than I have for five years. I had lost weight, I’d trained hard and consistently, I felt invincible.

 

 

 

 

The marathon taught me something I should have known: I am vincible.

 

 

 

 

I brought my own support team along. Philbert Kayumba from Rwanda is a natural runner. Being on the run from genocide brought him to Australia as a refugee, and Australia grabbed him, and my family grabbed him. Toby Wundheiler is my skinny grandson. He loves running almost as much as he loves his Saba, Pheidipides Goldenberg. The two believed in me, I believed in me, what could go wrong?

 

 

 

 

 

The lady at Registration peered at her spreadsheet and answered my enquiry: there are 105 starters in the full Marathon, she said. This was the first augury: I would have to beat five, or they’d have to get lost, or pull out or expire, if I were to finish in the first one hundred finishers. I looked around me at the start and I did not sight anyone who looked slow enough for me to beat.  

 

 

 

 

 

At the start I heard a couple of blokes speaking in refined accents, their English correct, grammatical. Must be foreigners, I deduced, and indeed they were. They were veterans of many Comrades Marathons. The Comrades is an event run over an appalling ninety (90!) hilly kilometres in South Africa. Respect! These boys looked stronger than their estimated fifty-odd years. We fell into conversation and the kilometres flew beneath my feet. A sparrow flying with eagles, I ran surprisingly fast, fatally fast. By the time I reached the 11-kilometre mark, the Comrades were well ahead, still in sight, if out of earshot, my breathing was hard and my legs felt tired. Only a quarter of the distance run and I had shot my bolt and I was not Usain.

 

 

 

 

 

Afraid I’d ruined my marathon, I took stock and nourishment. My nourishers on this occasion brought Coca Cola and belief. The nourishing duo were Toby and Philbert. I blessed them and heaved my frame into motion. Now the marathon looked better and felt better, as the route left the paved roadways grey and followed the rail trail. The trail is paved with gravel that springs the tired leg and cushions the sore foot. It runs through the native bushland that fringes the pastures. Amiable cows watch and munch and splatter as the runners pass.  A lone human now, I spent some time running steadily in bovine company; the cows and I established a comfortable fellowship, no words needed.

 

 

 

 

 

An apparition in red, a young woman, announced herself: ‘Hello, I’m your sweeper.’ The voice was sweet, the smile friendly, but I knew dread. The sweeper is the official who sweeps clean the Marathon Course of runners, once their allowed time has expired. Her arrival meant I was running in last place. She would keep me company until the fatal hour. I’d need to reach the Finish before 1.00 pm or I’d be swept. Sweep Lady introduced herself: I’m Vera. I told Vera I was Pheidipides. Vera looked at me jogging along. You’re running well, she said. Would it be rude if she asked me my age? I told her my age. You’re amazing, she said. In my turn I questioned Vera. She’d run Traralgon a number of times, finishing around three-and-a half hours. Today she’d volunteered, giving away her own swifter marathon in favour of the slowest.  

 

 

 

 

 

Vera spoke proudly of her daughters, aged 17, 14 and her boy, 11. All were mad about sports, the elder two being elite junior netballers. Vera drove the eldest to training in Melbourne two days a week. She didn’t mind spending four hours on the road. She was happy to keep doing it, until the day she says, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. Then we’ll stop, no pressure.   

 

 

 

 

 

A second red blur appeared in my lateral field. The blur rode a bicycle. She introduced herself: I’m Lucy.  Lucy too had given up her marathon to share the sweeping duties. Had Lucy run Traralgon before? Sure have. I won it seven times.  My interrogation of Lucy revealed she held her Age Group World Record for a 200 kilometre race. A few of my records have been beaten, but I still hold the two hundred. Like Vera, Lucy taught at a local school. The two chatted about mutual friends. Maxine was doing better now her daughter was recovering. Therapy had made all the difference. Madeline was running today, the 10 K, not the marathon. She’d given that up to referee the hockey. Young Robert had been stood down by his school. Despite warnings, he was out. You couldn’t push a classmate into the urinal, you couldn’t pull his pants up while he was taking a pee. No respect. It didn’t make it better that the urinating victim was African. You need to have respect.

 

 

 

 

 

Kilometres passed pleasantly. So and so had a new job, closer to town. Such and such was working night shift at the hospital which allowed her to help the littlies at school with their reading. A third friend ran the Fire Brigade Coffee Truck. He gets up early Saturdays and Sundays and drives the truck to the local footy – both sexes, to the local soccer – girls and boys – to the netball, the basketball, then the AFL in the afternoons. The profits from the coffee truck go to buy musical instruments form the town Junior Band. The cows and I listened and learned.  

 

 

 

 

Even tired old legs retain some pride. My legs were tiring, certainly they were old, but here were Lucy and Vera, a pair of runners who’d dedicated their day to the slowest of all. Fleet-footed and vital, these two would recognise my flaccid morals if I stopped. I kept going, sustained by pride, bemused by gossip that spoke only good of their fellows.

 

 

 

 

A noise up ahead, a flash of black flesh, cries of Saba! Saba! You’re awesome, Saba! And Saba was me and the noises were Toby’s and the flash was Philbert. More Coke, more embraces, more sunshine pumped up my bum, and here we were at the turn, at the halfway point.

 

 

 

Phil and Toby saw me around the turn, where the Marshall cried, Pheidipides!  Pheidipides Goldenberg! I recognised Barry Higgins, this marathon’s historian. His splendid book, ‘In the Long Run’, records the history of this event and its fifty famous years. 

 

 

 

Toby loped and leaped at one side, Philbert glided at the other. I knew no pain. The halfway mark signals good tidings to the runner; the mind realises every step now leads shortens the road to the Finish; the legs know they can do it. The reality of twenty-one kilometres remaining somehow weighs less simply for having turned for home.

 

 

 

Toby announced: I’m going to run with you to the three-quarter mark, Saba. It’s only ten kilometres. He darted ahead. Vera observed, you’ve got a lovely grandson there, Howard. Lucy remarked, not quite beneath her breath, and your son Philbert’s hot!  ‘Yes, they are’, I agreed.  Hot Philbert left the gravel to retrieve the car. Lovely Toby ran on until, one kilometre later, he sighted the car and decided he’d keep Philbert company.

 

 

 

 

More of the same. Step followed step, perhaps a little slower. The sun shone palely, I discarded gloves, then a shirt, then a singlet. The legs found a rhythm they could tolerate, my brain separated itself from pain; I was spending time in pleasant company, passing though the wintry green. At some stage I must have fallen silent.

 

 

 

 

I heard a question. Someone was asking, are you retired, Howard?  I answered Lucy, who then asked, so you know all about the heart, then?

No.

Lucy pressed on: Have you heard of arrhythmia?

I had.

We had a long chat about arrhythmias, how a runner’s heart muscle might be strong enough to run two hundred kilometres in record time one day, but beat so irregularly the next that running was impossible. But arrhythmias could be treated.

 

 

 

Vera spoke of her youngest, a boy born dangerously premature. They’d prayed for the little mite. He was too sick for the local hospital and ambo’s speeded him to the Monash Children’s Hospital where he pulled through. Ever since, the little fellow had lived his lively life in a body small and frail; it never occurs to him he has a disability. Never mind he has to spend periods at home, never mind that he too is prey to a parlous heart irregularity – all the other kids played sport, so would he. The reality of a brave boy, running the marathon that is his life, made my own marathon a small affair. I was a child, running was my play; Vera’s child on the other hand, runs to the ‘Wall’ every day.

 

 

 

I listened to Vera and to Lucy and thoughts of fatigue never broke through. What was tiredness? Some petty experience, not admissible, lacking substance. Assuredly I was slowing all the time, but the sweepers assured me I remained a legend, I was certainly awesome, thoroughly amazing. You’ll easily arrive before they close the course. You’re way ahead, said Vera. I looked at my watch, but by this stage I was incapable of computation.

 

 

 

 

A small black car peeped between the bushes, and here, in a flurry and a roaring were Toby and Philbert bearing love and belief and Coke and a Mars bar. We’d reach the three-quarter mark. Numb in the brain, sugared into foolish cheerfulness, I picked up my feet and plodded on. At every road crossing and at every aid station, we found volunteers. I’d salute them and the sweepers would dismiss them: You’ve done your job. Thank you, thank you all. This man here is the last runner. I might have wept for thankfulness.

 

 

 

 

Off the gravel now and onto those pavements grey, as Yeats called them. Up a hillock, down another, head down, a dour business. Abruptly a pretty lady in blue burst into my threesome. She flung herself into the arms of my companions. Boadicea! How did you go, Bo?

Personal Worst.

You’re kidding! Boadicea, meet Philopities! Or Howard. He’s a legend. Ask him how many marathons he’s done.

The young lady in blue asked me how many.

Fifty two. This will be fifty three.

Boadicea affirmed I was a legend. I knew she had that back to front. I concentrated on not falling over and I said nothing.

 

 

 

We ran on. Four kilometres to go, four nasty, mean kilometres, each one of them longer than the one before. 

When a man’s afraid

A beautiful maid’s

A cheering sight to see. 

The lines from The Mikado bypassed my brain and came to my lips and I heard myself singing in the empty back streets of Traralgon. The ladies looked at each other. Charitable souls all, they said nothing.

 

 

 

Thus inspired I ran on. I knew I’d find Toby and Philbert in the final kilometre. We twisted and turned in empty back streets that quite befuddled me. Sandwiched between my colourful escorts, I followed wherever they led. I was a dumb machine, a mechanism of bone and gristle and muscle, an automaton untroubled by thought or pain. One limb faithfully followed its fellow, mine was a body as free of volition as if I were falling. I might easily have been asleep.

 

 

 

But here was familiar territory. Parkland, a creek, Traralgon’s sporting precinct must be somewhere near. A skinny stick figure in black tights and top materialised, a great grin flashed, a boy mad with love and joy flung his arms about me, imperilling my dodgy balance. The boy ran at my side, in front of me, across me, then sprinted away into the distance, shouting: See you at the Finish, Saba! Vera said, Toby’s gone the wrong way.

Philbert, smooth, quiet calming, ran at my side. He looked emotional. Next time I want to run this with you – the whole distance.

 

 

 

 

A minute later the sports ground loomed. We turned a weary corner and there, two hundred metres ahead, was the Finish. Go, Howard, said Phil’s quiet voice.

Go Howard, cried Vera and Lucy.

Go Philopities, screamed Boadicea.

So I went. I went fast. EmpIoying bundles of fast-twitch muscle fibres that I hadn’t used in the 42 slow-twitch kilometres that lay behind, I sprinted.

I felt fast. I felt liberty, release, the knowledge of an ending. I pumped my arms, I waved them, I flew and I crossed the Line and I fell into Toby’s arms. The clock read, 5 hours and 52 seconds. Two women in red and another in blue told me I was a legend, I was amazing, I was awesome, as they clapped my back and kissed my face.

 

 

 

 

Later Philbert sent me footage of the final sixty metres or so. I looked and I laughed. The video camera catches me in profile. Had I not known otherwise, I’d have taken the spavined biped in the picture as some strange clockwork creature in green tights. I invite the reader to view the footage and share my mirth.

 

 

 

On the way home Philbert drove and I stretched out and ate and drank. Philbert said, that will be my event. I’ll run Traralgon next year with you, Howard. I’ll run it every year. Toby said, You’re my inspiration, Saba. I’ll run it too. I’ll bring Mancha, I’ll bring Mami and Papi, I’ll bring Nana. Savta will come, my bothers too. We’ll all run.

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

 

1.   Five hours and 52 seconds is not a fast time. It is, however, 30 minutes faster than my previous five or six marathons. By way of comparison, my first Traralgon (in which I ran last) took four hours, thirty-one minutes and thirty-one seconds. My best Traralgon took three hours and fifteen minutes. Today I finished last but I was the first runner over 73 years to cross the line. I am happy to claim the title, Victorian Marathon Champion (male), (over 73). And I have duly added that title to my CV.

 

 

2. Mancha is a Border Collie.

 

3. Savta is my wife, a walker, not a runner. Nana is her 92 year old mother, a Yogi, not a runner.

 

 

 

National Emergency

I should declare something at the start. This short piece is about cricket.

WordPress gives me to understand 364 persons follow my blog, a figure to humble and amaze.

I reckon about one hundred of you three hundred and sixty-four can tolerate cricket. The rest of you wish it out of existence, or at least you wish there were no broadcasts of five-day Test Matches.

I regret this post will alienate 264 friends. I do not write this lightly, however.

Perhaps thirty years ago my wife and I watched a rivetting live performance of ‘Equus’, a play by Peter Schaffer. It tells the story of a youth who attacked a number of horses, blinding them.

Towards the end of the play, a psychiatrist accuses a second character – more in sorrow than in anger – ‘You have done a thing that cannot be forgiven. You have destroyed a person’s worship.’

A memorable line which I was unable to fathom at the time. I can fathom it today. They have destroyed my worship.

Let me declare a few truths:

1. A cricket ball is a sphere, with two parallel ridged lines around its equator.

2. Australians playing cricket for our country don’t cheat. A former Captain of South Africa cheated. A number of subcontinental players have cheated.

3. Some Australian men playing cricket for our country are appalling sports in their disrespectful conduct towards opponents.

4. Our last four national captains have tolerated or fostered or led this behaviour.

5.Steve Smith does not cheat. He has suffered one episode of ‘brain fade’ as national captain that led him into breaching the Laws of the Game. But he does not cheat.

These things I have believed. I believed them long after ‘The Tour’ (of France) rotted in public; long , long after Ben Johnson destroyed my worship of men’s Olympic sprinting; long after East Germany destroyed the worship of women’s Olympic running. I knew we played fair in cricket, that is we played within the Laws. I watched our present Captain bat and bat and bat, I watched him rise and rise, I looked at his baby face:

butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. The worldcupniks – I mean the men at the top – gave us a World Cup in Russia and will give us another in Qatar. Who can enjoy that beautiful game mired in such filth?

Russia under Putin has destroyed worship wholesale. A nation – an entire region – lived to see democracy, lived under Gorbachev, experienced the birth of belief. Putin destroyed the worship that was belief in democracy. His henchmen have destroyed the worship of sport. America has elected a taxcutter who promised to reveal his personal  taxation details – ‘later’, he said. ‘Later’ came and he promised never to reveal them.

Who in that great republic can believe that paying taxes is fair? Straight? Decent?

Overnight in Capetown, where Australia’s cricketers are engaged in a mighty contest, cameras caught a junior-ish Australian player deliberately damaging the cricket ball. The effect of such tampering is to change a perfect sphere

into an irregular object, one which will not obey the same Laws of physics that apply to a sphere. Opposing batsmen, unable to read the ball, would be dismissed easily, unfairly, inequitably. Australia’s Captain and Vice-Captain have admitted they put the younger player up to it. They have been stood down, ‘pending an investigation.’

After his earlier ‘brain fade’ I believed in Steve Smith. It offended me that others, loudest among them India’s Captain, Kohli, accused Smith of cheating. It distressed me that one of Kohli’s venerable predecessors, Sunil Gavaskar, echoed that accusation. Those men did not share my worship.

In a tale that is as famous as it is unreliable, a child fan of the Chicago White Sox confronted his idol, Shoeless Joe Jackson, who had been implicated in throwing matches: O, say it aint so! –  cried the child.

Jackson and seven others were banned from the game for, life. To understand this, know Jackson was, like Steve Smith today, the greatest batter of his era. He was stood down for life. From this day forward, whenever Smith (or Warner) will take the field for Australia we will be a nation in disgrace. Be assured our cricket bosses will see to it these two will serve terms of derisory brevity: they are, after all, our two best batters. We will sit alongside Putin’s Ministry of Sport and the bosses of the World Cup.

I am not alone. A nation has lost its worship.

Woman from Moldova

I received the following email today.

Subject: ‘Hello! How’s life?’

 

From Alena

 

 

Hello dear stranger!

I’d like to find a man for friendship and may be more serious relationships later.

You are the one Id like to know. Just want to say that I am from Moldova. This is between Romania and Ukraine. I live in the city of Tiraspol.

I’m 33 years old and in next month will be 34. I’m looking for a man in your country because my cousin lives there with her husband and I plan go there in the next months.

I chose this country because it is very good and pure soul of the people. It would be fine to meet you in person.

I’m sincerely interested in knowing more about you. Dating is not just fun for me, I never play games.

I expect that you are also serious. I’m a lonely woman that wants to find someone that will take care and understand me.

Let me tell you more about myself. I assume that I am a strong woman with goals, ideals and ambitions.

I hope that this letter will help us to write the first lines of each other.

I’ll wait for your answer. 

Alena

 

Naturally I was pleased, in fact a little flattered, that someone from a far country, someone quite unknown to me, should seek my thoughts on such a matter: the subject –

How’s Life? – is deeply philosophical, a question that has engaged great minds since ancient times. With considerable deliberation I began to compose my reply. Obviously the question was compellingly important to my correspondent, for Adela had written to me deep in the Moldovan night hours. Philosophic dubiety was depriving the good lady of her sleep.

 

It came to me that I know insufficient of life in Moldova. My new penfriend deserved better than a half-informed reply. So I googled Moldova. I was in luck: the first of very many links led to ‘Women in Moldova’. I clicked and found myself faced with a picture gallery. Instantly I saw that Moldovan women suffer a shortage of clothing – none of the ladies was completely dressed.

A second glance revealed that all were the beneficiaries of augmentary surgery. Now I began to find my bearings – Adela would be a semi-clad philosopher, who was either a surgeon (hence her choice of this medical colleague as her sage) or the survivor of surgery.

 

I clicked on and read the following: ‘Are Moldovan women easy? | Women of Moldova, marriage, dating …

http://www.moldova.ukrnetia.com/are-moldovan-women-easy/

girl from Moldova Moldovan women do not respect themselves. Whom should woman be to stay at 3 am on the intersection under the traffic lights for 15 minutes…’

Seeking more information I clicked to continue this promising discussion and found my software forbade further access. Odd. Apparently my software is not philosophy friendly. Undeterred, I googled Tiraspol and read the following: ‘Tiraspol, the capital of a country that doesn’t exist: Transnistria

 Tiraspol. Did you know that some countries don’t exist? Well, they do exist, but they are not recognized by the United Nations.’ 

 

 

Now I felt I understood poor Adela’s plight: her country does not exist. What is the meaning of her life? She makes clear her serious nature (“I never play games”). I realised Australia will be culturally alien to Adela. In Australia we only play games: our religion is sport. Sport renders philosophy unnecessary, transcending mere speculation on meaning and purpose. This also made clear Adela’s choice of me, of the roughly 23 million Australian’s to be her life guide. She writes: I expect that you are also serious. Indeed. Just so.

 

Modestly Adela revealed her own moral uncertainty. She wrote: I assume that I am a strong woman with goals, ideals and ambitions. ‘I assume’ suggests deep self-doubt. Immediately I thought of a more suitable guide, Ruby, my four-year old granddaughter. That young lady is most certainly a strong woman, positively laden with goals, ambitions and ideals. World domination would be her initial aim. Just this morning, Ruby asked her mother – quite without context or prior discussion – ‘Mummy, why did Mandela go to jail?’

 

 

I decided to hand Adela’s case to Ruby.

After Boston

There is nothing sensible about running a marathon. It is a difficult thing to do. There appears to be a physiological upper limit of tolerance to distance running. At some point around 35 kilometres most runners experience a steep falling away in efficiency. Sports physicians suggest humans were not made to complete a marathon distance, which is a little over 42 kilometres.  
 
People die running marathons. While most do not die, or even suffer serious or lasting harm from the marathon, even a single death is one too many, given that there is no need, no practical purpose, to completing the full distance.
 
Running marathons is not even an efficient means to attaining physical fitness; you can achieve equal fitness with brisk walking as with running, and the risk to life and joints is far lower when you walk.
 
Earlier in my own marathon running ‘career’ (a suggestive term: it isn’t a career in the sense of something I do for a living; something that runs off the rails is said to ‘career’) I had the opportunity to go for a training run with the great Rob De Castella in Boulder, Colorado. Earlier I had discussed with sports doctors my experience – common among marathoners – of slowing radically over the final 7 kms of the race. The physicians had suggested that human beings weren’t meant to run that distance: there was the physiological limit I referred to earlier. De Castella, himself a sports physiologist, was educated by the Jesuits at Xavier College in Melbourne. 
After our run, exquisitely taxing at that altitude, I put the same question to De Castella. It was the Jesuit rather than the physiologist who answered: “If human beings gave up just when something became difficult we wouldn’t achieve very much, would we?”
 
That is the answer. In that nutshell is the reason that Paris and London will see tens of thousands compete in their respective marathons next weekend. It is for that reason that we love to do what we hate. I have run and hated and loved forty three marathons, in places as diverse as Boston and Alice Springs. I hope to run more.
 
If the marathon runner defies physiology the marathon watcher defies sense. In all weathers she stands outdoors and watches an endless, anonymous train of athletic mediocrities, watches for hours on end, feeding these strangers everything from jelly snakes to orange segments to fried snags. At her side her small child claps everyone who lumbers past. Her teenage daughter holds a placard that reads: YOU ARE ALL KENYANS.
 
My mother knew nothing of sport. Her lack of knowledge stood her in good stead for the marathon, indeed for any sporting event she witnessed. At the time of the Melbourne Olympics Mum took us kids to the fencing. She knew only that the swords were not lethal weapons, that the fencers’ precious eyes were safe. Those facts were enough for Mum. She barracked for the victor, she urged on the vanquished. She loved them both equally and generously.
 
IN 1956 the Olympic marathon course led from Melbourne to Dandenong and back to the MCG. The route followed the Princes Highway, which passed the end of our street. Mum stood and cheered every contestant on the way out and waited for their return. By that stage the runners were jaded and strung out. The leaders too were well separated. As the runners passed our street an American was leading. Coming second or third and looking tragic (in a way I came to recognize in my adult life) was a New Zealander. “Good on you, Kiwi”, were Mum’s words from the empty kerbside, a distance of only a couple of feet from the runner. Mum’s sweet urgings encouraged the runner, who visibly accelerated. Later Mum would say, “I helped him to win.” In fact the Kiwi did not win – Mum was no stickler for small facts – but she put her finger on a larger truth: he was a winner: he finished. He did his best.
 
It is in Boston that the runner and the spectator most truly meet. There the amateur runner is embraced by the uncritical spectator. She too is an amateur. She hasn’t a clue who is favoured to win; she has twenty seven thousand favourites; she loves them all. A literal amateur. Extraordinary statistic: of a population of three million persons in the greater Boston area, one million spectators come out to watch the race. The spectator comes out and she remains there, cheering, clapping, waving placards, uselessly feeding, encouraging every last pathetic struggler, every finisher, every champion. These three, as she well understands, are one and the same.
 
She was there, this ignorant dame, when I sailed past her, full of hope, energy, crowd fever and coffee early in last year’s race. She was there as I struggled up Heartbreak Hill. She was there in Boylston street to see the winners – man, woman, wheelchair champions (both genders) – as they crossed the line. She was there when the first bomb went off. Was it the first bomb or the second that took her life? I do not know. 
 
I know this: she will be there again this year when the race is run again; there in her thousands at the start, in her tens of thousands in the middle, in her weaving, praying throngs through the weary late stages, there among the ecstatic crowds that squeeze joyously at the kerbside as crazed runners find speed for the final gallop along Boylston Street. She’ll be hoarse and weeping as the untalented race along those cobblestones in their ragtag glory, arms pumping, heads high, fists aloft as they cross the line.
 
And what of the runners? We are wiser now. Inevitably, sadder. Running – that senseless frolicking of supposed adults will never be the same.
A record field will contest Boston in 2014. Terror will enjoy its limited success – some attention for a cause, or as seems likely in this case, no clear cause; some increased security, some minor oppression of amenity and civic liberty – but the lovers of Boston will meet and embrace as they always do, at this, their festival.
Running, our ceremony of joy, now sanctified, will always be the same, that familiar pointless folly. 
 

A Run in the Desert

The Alice Springs Marathon takes place on the third Sunday in August. Forgetting how cold the nights are in the desert Melbourne people marvel: ‘Oh, how can you bear to run in that heat?’

The temperature at 0630 this morning is three degrees. I manage that terrible heat rather well. But by the time I finish the day is warm, gloriously warm. Is there a more lustrous town in winter than Alice? The skies are blue – I am searching for an adjective – a blue to banish the blues. In winter, no haze, just light. The Macdonell Ranges dominate every prospect. Rugged, richly red-brown, frequently blanketed heavily in green, the colours mutating with the changing light. From one side colossal heaps of burning honeycomb, from the far side purples mauving to pinks, greens to slake a thirsting soul.

You look up and up, the walls of colour so close, so steep above you; you feel like singing praises; you shake your head at these ridges that dominate a town. Such immensity, such liberality, so close!
We runners set off in the last of the dark. The rock still black and near-blacks that will kaleidoscope and explode as we run.
As ever, on marathon eve, I made plans, plotted strategy, devised tactics. I wrote of these to John, my illustrious runner-in-law in New York: ‘This time I’m not running for survival, not running passively, aiming merely to finish. I’ll attack the marathon. I’ll run for a time: after my worsening Personal Worsts of Boston (five hours and nine minutes) and Traralgon (5.14), I want to beat five hours.’ I laid out my plans: dividing the 42.2 kilometres into four quarters, I would run as follows: first 11 kms in 70 minutes; second 11 km in 70 minutes; the next 10 kms in 75 minutes; and the final ten in 80 minutes. I concluded my letter to John with the words, ‘Man tracht, Gott lacht’ – ‘Man plans, God laughs.’
As in all my forty-six previous marathons I gave God a good chuckle today. He might have smiled as early as 2.48 AM, when sleep died and, with an excitable bladder, I arose early for early, and my day began.

IMG_0842
***
My younger daughter Naomi invariably issues two instructions on the eve of my marathons: ‘Have a good run Dad, and don’t come back dead.’ This year she adds, ‘Know with every step how I love you.’ Her anxiety peeps out and shows itself as I age.

I knew I’d have to harden myself against pain and fatigue. I would remind myself, whenever the going got hard, ‘It’s meant to be hard. That’s why we do marathons.’
As usual the field was rich in tattered and scarred males, blokes weathered and tempered by marathons run all over the country; and young women, girls really, all looking too tender to be serious. Yet I knew from experience these girls from Alice, outwardly delicate, are inwardly wrought of gristle and gut; I knew of old how they’d whip me. And today the Army turned out. A contingent of soldiers entered the race.

***
Last year I was injured. In my absence from the race they changed the course. Too deaf to follow this morning’s briefing, I know I’ll be in trouble if I find myself leading. Prudently I avoid that pitfall. After the Race Director finishes whispering his instructions, he raises his pistol. Bang! I’m not too deaf to hear that and I set off near the tail of the bunch to attack the Alice Springs Marathon.
After only two hundred metres, my breaths come fast and hard. I recall my mantra: ‘It’s supposed to be hard. It’s a marathon.’ One after another, runners pass me, as they should. My place is at the tail of the field. But I keep up my attack. In the course of my first two ‘quarters’ it will not be my watch that guides me but my breathing. I resolve to run hard enough to remain always short of breath.

And so I do.
Have I mentioned the beauty of this place? After only six winding kilometres we have left behind the town of Alice and run through Emily’s Gap. Like Honeymoon Gap, the name sounds rude, but the rich deep chocolate rocks grab my spirit and I have no thought for anatomy, none even for respiration; it is glory that transports me.

australianphotography.com

australianphotography.com

Past the ten km mark, I search for the end of my first ‘quarter’. I say to myself – I conduct lots of self-conversations during a marathon – ‘That’s a quarter of the distance done.’ But I reckon I’ve spent much more than that fraction of my strength. I find no comfort in these calculations.
Around the 20 km mark a blur approaches at speed from the opposite direction. Is this a duststorm? A willy-willy? No it’s my midget colleague and new friend Roxi, motoring fast on the homeward leg. This kid can run. She completed the famed Comrades run in South Africa while pregnant. Now lactating, she carries her biology lightly.

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An Outbreak of Bibliophilia

Children, like humans, thirst endlessly for stories. My own seven grandchildren, who range in age from twelve-year old Jesse to two-year old Ruby, love stories. They thirst for story as we elders hunger to give story.

‘My son,’ remarked Rabbi Joshua to Rabbi Samuel (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin), ‘More than the calf yearns to suck the cow longs to give suck.’ How do I know this maxim? That story dates back to the commencement of the academic year in March, 1965, when I purchased the latest edition of Samson Wright’s textbook of physiology. I opened the great tome and found at the foot of an otherwise blank second page the above quotation. The sole yarmulke wearer in the class, I was the only one of 120 students likely to have knowledge of the Talmud. But the passage was new to me. And I was astonished to read the quotation and its attribution in this secular text.

What have the lactation urges of the cow to do with human physiology? Everything, it happens: that interrelation of forces, that feedback loop, that mutual energising is the very stuff of homeostasis, which operates also in markets, in the climate and in the biological relationships between humans. The sage Rabbi Joshua nailed a great truth. But I fear I wander.

The entire purpose of children is to satisfy the need of humans to regale them with stories. The reason children don’t run away is their reciprocal story hunger. The reason we don’t chuck teenagers out is the promise they’ll one day employ their disturbing sexual organs to create grandchildren for us so we can resume storytelling. And that’s what happened: my adult children used their sexual organs for the pleasure of their parents, creating seven grandkids.

All seven served their grandparents well, occupying yearning arms and longing laps, snuggling in and subsiding to the song of the story. Then they learned to walk. Two of seven, both of them boys, took to their heels and never stopped running. In time, although those two learned to read, they never took it to heart; it is in motion that they find themselves, one in organised sports, the other in disorganised sport. (Readers of this blog will recall this boy and the rescue of his fingers when trapped in a bathplug.)

Their bookish grandfather gazes upon the boys and sighs. He calls them to the couch for a story but the call of their balls is louder. Off they run, to soccer, to cricket, to mayhem.

What will become of them? What will become of grandfather?

Later the ball-players have returned home. Grandfather wanders to the toilet. Before him, on the floor, lies a cornucopia of books; the disorganised sportsman comes to a stop in this place. And in this sanctum he reads.

Farewell, Farewell

I used to run six days a week. No longer. I used to run marathons. No longer. Farewell, farewell, a long farewell to all that.

I ran before work; sometimes I ran to work. I ran every day but Saturday, the Sabbath. I ran because I could, I ran because I needed to. I ran up the hills of Wattle Glen, up the endless alps of Kangaroo Ground, and along the river at Warrandyte and Kew.

I ran marathons in Traralgon, on the Gold Coast and in Alice Springs. I ran in the New York Marathon (thrice – never won it – home town decisions, obviously) and four times in the world’s oldest modern marathon, in Boston. The 2013 Boston was my last. I never crossed the finish line, turned back by the police at the 41 kilometre mark. At 67 years I was too old, too slow to be harmed by the bombers.

I ran in the World Veterans’ Games Marathon, and I was a Spartan at Melbourne. About 8 years ago at Traralgon, I became the Victorian Country Marathon Champion (Over Sixty, Male). There was one other sixty year old bloke – a patient of mine. He ran with an injury that I had fortunately not cured. I entered my title – Vic Country Marathon Champ – on my resume.

I ran in Havana and Amsterdam, in London and in Oxford, and on the golden stones and basalt cobbles of Jerusalem. I ran up and down Masada and in Galilee. I ran in Buenos Aires and in Capilla del Monte.

In fifty Aboriginal communities I ran to feel country, running fast to keep ahead of mobs of hungry dogs.

Through all this running I discovered strengths I never dreamed of and weakness I’d always feared. I extended my being, I joined in the joyous commonwealth of comrades that is a marathon.

I ran and I wrote what was a metaphor for my life – a passage, undistinguished, through space and through time, made rich by those I ran with and those I ran for. And always I ran with a doctor’s calibrated sense of risk. I ran with my younger daughter’s instruction ringing prayer and warning: Have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead.

I ran carefully, knowing if I did die I would leave wife, children, and latterly, grandchildren, grieving and aggrieved.

I ran and I gave thanks that my body held up for so long. I knew joy and pain and the joy of pain transmuted. I knew my lands and the lands of others intimately, physically. And in the stiffness and the glad soreness that followed a hard run, I knew pride, I knew joy.

***

An Australian boy knows it is in the sporting arena that his worth is measured. Excellence at sports trumps beauty and wealth. Brains lag last, far behind all. As a little boy I was timid, both physically and spiritually. A large brain served me only to imagine fearsome possibility; it was no asset in sports. Introduced to both cricket and football, in which I overcame fear sufficiently to try bravely, I achieved and sustained a modest mediocrity. I might have achieved more but for two discoveries: the hard cricket ball, travelling fast, hurt the fumbling fingers; and the elusive football, fiercely contested by other boys bigger and less timid than I, led me only to painful and fruitless collisions.20130411-184933.jpg

By virtue of very little, I rose to captain the Second Eighteen in footy and captain of the Second Eleven in cricket. My highly academic Jewish school quickly won fame for academic excellence, while earning only a reputation for awkward strangeness in inter-school sports. Generations of Jewish history had equipped Jewish boys well for debating, mathematics and playing the violin. Our ancestors in Europe learned to run only from fire or pogrom. So the best teams this post-Holocaust Jewish school produced were try-hard failures. And I was never good enough for the Firsts. Captain of the Seconds at Mount Scopus was the ultimate backhanded compliment in sports.

But at the age of fifteen came the discovery of distance running. The annual cross-country run over three miles of hilly scrubland sorted the tortoises from the hares. At the gun all the glamour boys leaped into the lead and quickly disappeared between bushes at the first bend in the course. I chased as hard as I could, my breath burning my throat, my chest aching. In a failure of the imagination I never thought of stopping or slowing. I kept going. Abrupt hills, uneven terrain, a finish line that was nowhere in sight, all conspired to daunt and defeat our gazelles of the track, our hares of the field. But I kept running. I don’t think I slowed at all. Eventually the astonishing sight of my idols bent double, gasping at the trackside, unable to respond to greeting or commiseration told me I was among the swiftest of the tortoises. I finished in the top ten that first year, improving to fourth, and eventually to third place, in the years that followed.

The barren years of sporting opportunity after school saw me gain a medical degree (summa sine laude), a wife and a bunch of little kids. And about five kilograms in weight. I was now a sedentary family man, short in stature, with a small pot belly. Then a schoolteacher friend took me running on the hills of Diamond Valley. He tired me out and he puffed me up, saying, “You have a nice running style, Howard.” One day we ran ten kilometers together. Breathless with achievement I looked at the distance – nearly a quarter of a marathon! – and with fine naivette I said to myself: I can run a marathon. And I did.

***

Seven months ago I drove for six days to and from an outback locum. My left thigh ached and it still does. Two months ago I fell onto my left knee from my bike. It screams with pain whenever I run a single step. The MRI of my spine resembles a bombed railway track – you can recognise the pattern of the original structure but you wouldn’t want to travel on it.

I used to run. Now it’s over.