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RUN TO FEEL (Running, Marathon)

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Run To Feel documents writer and runner Nicholas Turner’s experience as a competitor in the Gold Coast Marathon. The race was held at 7am on Sunday the 7th of July, 2019. A humorous and human account, Turner describes the runner’s emotions and quirks in the days before competition, as well as delving into themes for friendship, admiration, struggle and what we can learn from pain. This considerably long article is available for free, and we are grateful for those that read it.  Please consider subscribing to Match Day Burger, which will continue to publish longform articles about the love of sport.  

Enjoy.

1.

FRIDAY

“Bower puts one hand on your author’s shoulder from behind your author and says in a voice that’s more than a little eerie in its command; “This is your weekend mate. You’re our marathon hero.” Which for some reason no one actually laughs or even smiles at and the echo of which thus hangs around complexly for pretty much the whole weekend.”

Todd Packer, Henry Wick and Shane Bower enter the foyer lugging duffel bags and a large Esky and are met right away by a cold front of bad news. Unbeknownst to all members of the Realto Peak Track Club (RPTC), as of 2019’s commencement, alcohol is no longer allowed at lodgings. Shane Bower shakes his head and batts his eyelids and goes into sweet-talking mode with the receptionist while Todd Packer and Henry Wick and the author smuggle the Esky into the lift and cover it with bags. Shane Bower is pretending not quite to realise that he’s attempting to use a bus pass to pay a credit card bill. The operation is further aided by a Polynesian backpacker who is at midday already stumbling around the foyer and radiating ethanol and for the sheer size and loudness and instability of him has become a kind of black-hole for much of the lodgings’ employees’ attention. Though he soon turns out to be, also and frustratingly, 100% convinced of having met each of RPTC’s members two nights ago at the pool party and eager to rekindle the imaginary brotherhood through complex handshakes across the elevator’s threshold while Todd Packer furiously stabs the button. Todd Packer, a.k.a. Pac-man, is RPTC’s captain, a position he so organically occupies that no one ever had to announce it was so. He is a short, sinuously muscular thing who this week has shaved out a pretty tidy little oatmeal-coloured moustache, a tribute to Steve ‘Pre’ Prefontaine, the late, great running legend of pathologically deranged competitive principles and mythical talent and premature death. Close enough to forty years of age, Pac-man is not the least bit ironic about hanging a poster of ‘Pre’ in full flight above his marriage bed. In fact not much of anything that Pac-man does lacks sincerity. Finally, the Polynesian gets distracted and Shane Bower and a couple of unknown travellers scramble across the lift floor’s debris and the doors close. The runners look at each other awkwardly, as though expecting some kind of ceremony, the long-awaited race weekend being of that moment officially open. Pac-man simply says, ‘well this is it boys. Grand final hey?’, which is just the right thing to say. And very Pac-man.

Lodgings is Bunker, a five-level hostel with a big communal kitchen and pool and a new bar adjacent to the foyer and, most importantly, a bus stop at the front door that goes direct to the start-line on race morning. RPTC’s contingent is here to race in the Gold Coast Marathon festival. Despite the pitfalls of living (and sleeping, or attempting to do so) among too many backpackers to expect anything like peace and quiet, the private, three-bed rooms the team has taken on the top floor are widely regarded as insanely good value and less widely acknowledged to actually be more fun than individual hotel rooms. It’s probably not worth stringing along for too many pages the tacit implication that the weekend represents for most of these amateur and predominantly male athletes a chance to regress to a level of boyish silliness. There are bunkbeds. There is, as mentioned, smuggled alcohol. Campfire tales take the form of anecdotes from races or post-race debauchery in years past. And there is, of course, the fact that the ultimate event of the weekend is treated with incredible seriousness and sincerity and reverence despite it meaning precisely bupkis in terms of life’s real responsibilities. Oh, and grossing each other out is completely on the cards too, explicit or otherwise. The fairly wild and various expectations put on digestives systems – including a carb-loading phase, an intestinally traumatic endurance race, and a whole heap of beer and Mexican food – in the space of just under 72 hours implies a great deal of toilet activity without much in the way of privacy. Orchestrating the faecal output of all of this is it’s own sub-plot of intimacy and bonding. The author’s room is to be shared with the yet-to-arrive Stanley Gough and his fiancé Shirley. As the only female among the RPTC ranks this weekend, Shirley by her very existence imposes a level of at least superficial bathroom decorum upon the author’s own room, for which the author is grateful. He knows her well enough to strike up a pretty sophisticated discourse consisting wholly of euphemisms later that evening in which it is agreed that anyone requiring a moment’s privacy over the weekend need only make mention of ‘apple sauce’ to clear the room for his or her personal needs. Anecdotally, it is his understanding that the adjacent room of Pac-man, Wick and Bower has altogether shunned the use of a toilet brush for the weekend. The bond must have been thick over there.

For dinner that first evening the squad heads to an Italian place on the near-enough-to-surreal-with-touristic-enterprise Cavill mall. Shirley has arrived before Stanley into what she only then realises is an all-male affair. A sausage-fest, as she puts it. Humorously, but with real and reasonable annoyance. Between the first stages of planning this race weekend and actually arriving a whole lot has changed, including the attendees. Last Shirley heard, there were two other female partners coming along for the race. The author’s own wife had backed out of plans to run the half marathon months ago but, evidently, no one told Shirley. Likewise, Pac-man’s wife ran the half-marathon last year and was pencilled in early to go around again before a new job put her out of the state and ultimately out of the country on that particular weekend. Shirley is a good enough sport to elbow just enough room for herself among all the banter about sport and some pretty grizzly stories about backpacking experiences (“…the condom just flew across the room!”). It is a blessing of sorts that she is a writer herself and has the good sense to sit and absorb literary possibilities. The stories that emanate around the table over a few beers are nothing if not creative and psychologically revealing. Still, over the weekend she pulls a few tactical vanishing acts just to escape the bullshit. And perhaps to dispense peacefully with some apple sauce without the indignity of needing to announce it in code.

“Twice he hobbled the last stages of the course with legs so cramped he looked like he’d shat himself and wished for some reason to transport his business to the finish line.”

Injuries had ripped through the RPTC ranks so thoroughly in recent months that of the five intended marathon starters at the year’s beginning that were pencilled in to take up lodgings, only one would actually be putting a toe on the starting line for weekend’s premier race. The author is that one. Pac-man has been nursing a knee injury since January and had to be content with a tilt at the half marathon (hereby known as simply ‘the half’, which is runner’s parlance). As it turned out he would catch a head-cold on race week too, rendering even the half its own thankless and ignoble slog. Coach Bower has a buggered calf and ran the Boston Marathon not so long ago and fancies a more sensible tilt at another full marathon later in the year. Maybe Melbourne. Shirley herself had floated a run at the marathon but backed out gradually for no disclosed reason. Shirley’s fiancé, Stanley, has a recurrent stress-fracture in his right leg and will be using his $165 race entry merely to catch the complimentary-with-race-number ten-minute shuttle ride in the morning, making it the worst value bus ticket of all time. He eventually arrives later that first evening dressed in lawyerly suit and tie as the squad is set up at a bar in front of the AFL game. Stanley drags his tie off like a feeble boa constrictor he’s been humouring all day and rips immediately into a pint of beer and a wine and a hamburger and then another wine. This for him has turned into a weekend away with zero responsibilities but to carry Shirley’s kit bag. Though there’s something about the way he shovels those vices down that makes his freedom really look pretty bittersweet.

Behind Bower, who is elite by definition, Stanley is RPTC’s best runner. The fact that his best marathon time is at this moment not dissimilar to your author’s is one of those statistical sporting anomalies born of near-enough-to farcical circumstance and ill-fortune and/or hoodoo. A former national schoolboy middle-distance track finalist, on paper which is to say in reality Stanley should be able to match your author stride-for-stride over just about any running distance wearing a three-piece suit and a scuba tank. But in recent years Stanley seems to be some sort of running hex manifest. This is in fact the second consecutive year that he’s trained and signed on and paid for the Gold Coast Marathon only to falter at the last moment and fail to toe the line. Last year he and Shirley both got ransacked by the winter flu and didn’t even turn up for fear of infecting the team. This year it’s the stress fracture. In the two marathons he’s actually managed to start, sitting comfortably and well ahead of schedule beyond the 30km mark, Stanley fell into the crosshairs of the heartless sniper that tends to haunt the back end of endurance running events and lost both hamstrings in quick succession. Twice he hobbled the last stages of the course with legs so cramped he looked like he’d shat himself and wished for some reason to transport his business to the finish line. He’d become kind of haunted by the distance.

Henry Wick is the only one in attendance that never mentioned the marathon. He’s on a long, slow and sensible road back to race fitness, having shed an absurd 20kg in the past six months, gradually emerging from his Christmas self like a cicada from its shell. Had he known it would all go so well at the campaign’s beginning he might have had a good tilt at the longer event, but the conservative and correct play is the half for now. Which he will summarily blitz on Sunday AM in time that everyone asks to be repeated when they first hear it.

The fact that your author is the only full marathon entrant left at Bunker only really occurs to your author for the first time in Bunker’s sole, crammed, often obscenely trafficked, and soon-to-prove-itself fairly unreliable elevator in whose approximate centre he stands with one foot up on the esky surrounded by piles of duffel- and shopping bags and of course Bower, Pac-man and Wick and plus some maybe-Korean girls in the elevator’s various corners and one of those awkward slow-elevator silences that naturally pervades the cramming of strangers and Bower puts one hand on your author’s shoulder from behind your author and says in a voice that’s more than a little eerie in its command; “This is your weekend mate. You’re our marathon hero.” Which for some reason no one actually laughs or even smiles at and the echo of which thus hangs around complexly for pretty much the whole weekend.

Year-round, Shane Bower administers his coaching of RPTC from cafes in his natural habitat of Bondi some thousand kilometres away from the squad. Every Sunday he sends out the spreadsheet that contains the training program based around four weekly sessions; trackwork, the forest run, the steady run, and the long run. Over a six-month marathon campaign, the program is tweaked for intensity and the long run gets gradually longer. Then the load drops to not-much-at-all and taper begins. Then it’s race day. The bones of the program are fairly cut-and-paste. But as the season progresses and individual performances start to shape race-day goals, Bower may pick up the telephone and pull a runner out of the generalities of the program and talk individual turkey. The author received one such call this year, during which Coach Bower reduced the until-then fairly broad possibilities of the author’s race goal down to a single and very round number that until then the author had not quite harboured the chutzpa to believe himself entitled to set. After which phone call the author considered said formerly-formidable goal more or less a birthright. This being fair demonstration of Shane Bower’s running related authority.

Which authority at its core relates to this fact: Shane Bower has run the marathon in two hours and twenty-six minutes. And not so long ago. This makes him genuinely elite, and entitled to run events like the Gold Coast Marathon at the invitation and cost of the organisers. He’s been a serious boxer too, champion at schoolboy and open state level, with silverware to prove it. A relief teacher these days in school hours, he runs his fitness business out of a couple of gyms not far from his beachside apartment and routinely trains himself to the brink of or occasionally beyond the point of collapse. He has suggested that his worldly possessions fit into a cricket bag. It is generally agreed that Shane Bower is something of a wild man living life to some kind of philosophical extreme. Of that fated inner soulfulness that other men tend to admire from a safe distance, just close enough to feel the heat of it. He is to 21st century Australian physical culture whatever Neal Cassady was to the Beat Generation. He seems to enjoy drinking and chasing women in a way that is kind of primal and not merely social; which is to say that he does not essentially require company to drink heavily and chase women. He has dark, narrow, thinking eyes that he’s often squinting to a point of further darkness and narrowness and which contribute at least in part to the sense that he is mostly internally entertained. For public purposes he does have a big, long, toothy smile and a way of sitting back and opening his eyes and smiling almost blissfully which is an indication that he’s open for business in the social sense. He likes banter a lot but expects factual correctness about things he understands well and will step in if such facts are ever misrepresented, sober or otherwise. He is on his phone or computer a bunch, even amid company, to update his social media or administer weekly programs to the other individuals and teams under his professional coaching wing. Though because of the way his face works when he lowers his head to stare at a screen it seems to throw a shadow over itself and his brow furrows in concentration and his eyes seem not only to further narrow but to kind of twist shut like louvers and you just organically accept that Shane Bower is not really there at all anymore. Like he’s just pulled the cord under the old lamp shade of his presence. He is not taking his own race this weekend with much more than a grain of salt. It will be a hard run because he likes to run hard and, pathologically, to hurt himself, but there is no feasible performance that will mean much to him at this stage of his preparation. The weekend presents for him moreover a chance to drink and chase women and witness a few of his stagers at the sharpened point of his program and the brink of their physical means. And no doubt to hang with the RPTC team, especially Pac-man, his very old friend and a paragon of a whole other type of male awesomeness.

Bower, Wick and Pac-man will see out the AFL game that first night and enough pints of ‘Stone and Wood’ to beat off an arctic chill. Stanley, Shirley and your author return to their room and ultimately to bed. Your author reads by a bedside lamp for an hour or so. He sleeps well in the context of some as-it-were ambient distractions, which is both a good sign and, in fact, good.

 

2.

SATURDAY

“…the better part of one’s mind is inevitably and seriously occupied with things like split times and mid-race nutrition and oh yeah not to mention the serious possibility of everything going so terribly tomorrow that the author’s race ends in the back of an ambulance like a whole heap of poor bastards he hobbled past in the death stages of its previous iteration.”

When the author wakes on Saturday morning, Shirley and Stanley have gone out already for what turns out to be a couple’s breakfast, undoubtedly a tactical play on Stanley’s part to give her a break from the guild of sausage. A copy of The Brothers Karamazov is sitting on their bed-side table. Shirley’s father gave it to Stanley. The author (this one, not Dostoyevsky) suspects that Stanley is in part reading it now as some sort of father/son-in-law ritual of bestowal. It is a hardcover version, and Stanley, a stickler of a human, takes the dust jacket off when he reads it. Shirley and Stanley met about five years ago now when Stanley was travelling through the USA and couched with a second-degree contact in New York who happened to be rooming with Shirley at the time. She is a Maryland native, and has a gammy accent to prove it. Their wedding is planned for later in the year and presently they’re living with Stanley’s parents trying to buy a house, which quest is proving seriously protracted and is no longer any fun at all. As well as being of late a manifest running hex and forever a stickler Stanley is also frankly just a bit of a worry-wart and a head-case, which without having the precise means to clarify how so exactly the author feels is at least somewhat linked to his ill-fortune, both in running and house-hunting. Your author knows of just a few things that definitively make Stanley happy. Running is one such thing. Stanley’s worrisome self generally transforms into an optimistic thing in a matter of kilometres. The transformation is radical. It was actually during a run with the author up in the mountains not so far from the Gold Coast that Stanley hatched the idea of holding the wedding up there, an idea no doubt inspired by his being happy at that moment and wishing to extend/share/celebrate that happiness. But moments like these, oddly enough, appear in some broader way to concern or else tax Stanley. And at your author’s most Freudian and analytically arrogant he would very nearly like to sometimes maybe even accuse Stanley of harbouring at times a certain evident distrust of at least certain kinds of personal happiness. Which is why it can be on occasion a Sisyphean sort of task to attempt to convince Stanley to turn up for something that by appearances he seems pretty clearly to be destined to enjoy. And hence, furthermore, the probably-too-far-of-a-stretch-but-what-the-hell inkling that lives way, way down in the darkness of your author’s personal trove of long-drawn psychological bows that Stanley’s hexed life as a runner is in fact in some way a kind of very complex mind/body autoimmunity. Which, even if it were the slightest bit accurate, your author doesn’t even really know how to begin to express to Stanley. Or if it would be of any use for him to have the author attempt to explain. The author being much concerned with Stanley’s wellbeing but – as should be mentioned and immediately reiterated here – himself no kind of Deepakesque authority or example of inner-peace.

In Bunker’s impressive communal kitchen the author this morning begins the serious phase of carbohydrate-loading, for which he has brought along his own meticulously contrived ingredients in two supermarket-branded cooler bags; one for cold storage, the other merely dry. Bunker provides both little pantry lockers and a series of fridges to store your cold foods as long as you’ve labelled them clearly with your name, room number, and date of departure. Anything insufficiently labelled or beyond the marked departure date is transported to the ‘share shelf’ for pillaging. The health and safety status of all of this is unclear, but the system is kind of common-sense and elegant and, as with all budget travel facilities, inherently at-your-own-risk. Your author uses the fridge for storage out of necessity, but prefers to keep his dry provisions in his room and transport them at meal time. It is no hassle really.

“…he evidently spoke not but a co-incidental word of English, responding only to the internationally consistent ‘marathon’ with a nod of recognition and approval, and to all follow-up questions with a raised thumb and nods but clearly nothing like recognition.”

A large bowl of porridge with banana, cinnamon and maple syrup is ingested along with a glass of orange juice and, later, a coffee. The quantity is more than typical but by no means laborious work to get down, just enough to put the stomach’s elasticity on notice for lunch, which is the true crescendo meal. The social background consists mostly of a round-table of red-faced British backpackers regaling their hangovers’ origins. Plus, in fact, plenty of other people who seem not to require anywhere near as much attention to exist. Near enough to every hostel your author has ever stayed at included among its guests a core of travellers that insist on speaking at a non-intimate volume in communal areas, just loud enough to work away at one’s internal monologue like a woodpecker at a trunk. Their stories, lame though they most always are, are non-voluntary listening until one develops a heightened form of concentration, which can take days if you’re out of practise. Your author is indeed out of practise, though thankfully he is in the brief phase of finding all of this kind of novel, and by piecing together the variously retold locales of nocturnal activity attempts to guess which of these shit-for-brains kept knocking on his room’s door last PM and disappearing down the fire escape.

It is at about this point that the author hears of the weekend’s first marathon casualty. A young Canadian traveller, who yesterday, overhearing RPTC’s collective race-related excitement, disclosed herself as a participant, is right now on her Apple Macbook downgrading her marathon entry to the half (which is allowed until the day of the race; upgrading to ‘the full’ is not). There was a goofy smile of excitement with regards the marathon on her face yesterday in the foyer that could only possibly have belonged to someone who had never before actually done a marathon. All RPTC members discussed it, the naivety, which it was unanimously agreed that nothing but experience could hope to undo. The author was frankly and somewhat sadistically looking forward to inspecting whatever version of this pretty, long-haired twenty-something got spat out of 42.2km of hard bitumen and transported back to the hotel on a Sunday afternoon. Today, however, she lets the British lads know that their influence in and around the beer-pong tournament at the bar last night has curbed her overall health and, thus, her marathon ambitions. It seems a shame to the author to see such naivety go to waste.

One down.

This year Bunker seems to have attracted a much larger contingent of half and marathon runners to its beds than ever before. Last year, RPTC’s sole identified co-competitor at lodgings was a young Pilipino woman charmingly called ‘Happy.’ Happy’s breakfasts were the stuff of fascination to the Weet-Bix and toast types in the RPTC ranks. More ritual than means of sustenance, Happy laid out various and variously constituted meats and sea-things and breads and eggs and fruits and dairy and worked her way around three simultaneously sizzling pans and a boiling pot, producing after what seemed like hours two plates of exotic and fatty pleasures that she worked her way through with a fork and spoon and the confidence and patience of a breakfast champion. There was no sense to her being at most fifty kilograms with all her winter clothes and a steel helmet on. On the Monday morning following the race Happy sat with the team and offered around a few of her breakfasts’ mysterious delights. The weekend, she explained, was her annual holiday. With it she had chosen to travel across the ocean, alone, to stay at Bunker and run a marathon in five and a half hours. Swollen feet were her prize. Before leaving that morning Todd Packer would source Happy’s phone number and offer her a meal and, should she wish, a room at his house in Brisbane while she’s in town next week. And, sure enough, one week later Happy is seated on the street-facing porch of a three-bedroom cottage in Herston knocking back a local beer with Pac-man and his soon-to-be- wife. Six months later she gets a Christmas card from him. That’s pure Pac-man.

Your author reckons upon there being about ten to fifteen marathon participants in house this time around. Most are Asian. Three lads from Malaysia are omnipresent in their puffer jackets and brand-new Brooks Ghost runners. Pac-man bails them up in the elevator and confirms them as starters the microsecond after he first wonders if they are starters. RPTC’s agreed personal favourite is the Japanese octogenarian who wears at all times his fluorescent yellow running spray jacket and sneakers and walks with hands behind back, head forward. He was a shoe-in to be this year’s Happy but for the fact that he evidently spoke not but a co-incidental word of English, responding only to the internationally consistent ‘marathon’ with a nod of recognition and approval, and to all follow-up questions with a raised thumb and nods but clearly nothing like recognition. Shane Bower is the first to recognise the fact that something about this very old, very out-of-water Japanese man’s presence frankly inspires. Without really knowing, one suspects that his choice to lodge in a cheap, backpacker hostel for the weekend is a matter of philosophical frugality rather than fiscal need. Myriad presumptions about his capacity are being defied by him turning up here where the value is undeniable, the facilities practical, and the race access second to none. Many-a fancy and safe and clean and doting hotel accommodation no-doubt covets this international senior’s converted dollar. But he is his own man in the world, despite his age, his own assessor of worth, and he see the same things that the members of RPTC do in little old Bunker.

“The next waitress to attempt to appease him and promise the following course’s proximity is met with an unholy scream/full-body convulsion that has all the hallmarks of an exorcism and it’s frankly hard to doubt its sincerity.”

The day before a marathon is a philosophical lay-day, one of those rare chunks of adult time when rest is treated as a serious activity and not to be messed with. An athletic Shabbos. Beyond the age of thirty the only time one can expect anything approaching its like will probably be post-surgical. A light shake-out run has been pencilled for early-afternoon, just to warm the legs back up after a couple of weeks on ice. Fifteen minutes, out and back. The run had originally been planned for daybreak, but the wind was still shaking hell from the trees and the consensus was to hang out and cross fingers for things to settle somewhat both out there in the atmosphere and in the heads of the boys in the next room, who’ll spend most the morning cocked up on their elbows under blankets talking all kinds of nonsense across a configuration of beds including one double (Bower) and a pair of single bunks. Pac-man, who has taken the top bunk and cannot seem to figure out if he needs his thick spectacles on or not to get the best out of the as-it-were conversation – which is anything but conversation, more of a kind of triple-headed riff, esoteric and for long stretches practically unintelligible – is certifiably in his element and cannot get the grin off his face and gets not one bit tired of these long, supine, enduro-banter sessions which constitute at minimum 70% of his waking hours this weekend. Through the wall that divides this from the author’s own room the sound of Pac-man’s wood-splitting chop of laughter is regular and unwavering and cannot but summon a smile upon the author’s own face as he reads.

The author’s book of choice, not-so-incidentally, is David Simon’s snappy late-90s true-crimer ‘Homicide’. In reflection, the decision to bring along ‘Homicide’ against many, many alternatives represents perhaps the definitive, concrete example of year-on-year marathon-weekend maturation the author can now claim outright. There was never any question that the author would require reading material to stave off nerves and clock-watching and general ill-thinking on race eve. This fact was just as well known in 2018. But back then the author perhaps overestimated the type of immersion he required and/or would be capable of in light of the looming event which would of course always have a partial reign over his mind’s real estate. Pig-headedness, perhaps, and a fantastical pursuit of absolute mental control, led your author the last time around to weigh down his kit-bag with none other than Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Mason and Dixon’, which is damn good but about as conducive to the sharing of attention as genital-oriented torture. In other words, the author’s tactical approach to pre-race jitters was, in 2018, some kind of mental fire-bombing. Which failed in its deluded primary objective, of course, because there was just no way on earth that your author was going to be able to eradicate all traces of the weekend’s purpose from his noodle at any time on the actual weekend. The failure was in fact doubly profound because ‘Mason and Dixon’ – the one and only book your author had packed, in his arrogance – proved veritably illegible without the mind’s whole attention, which, as oft already mentioned, simply wasn’t available. Your author contends that Pynchon is literature-as-heroin. There is but one way to take it, which is totally. You lay down and close the blinds and it pervades you and the whole system of you. It is not interested in recreation and does not share you. And only a true fool would consider it the air-filled, savoury-mix-type of brain food to absently pick away at while the better part of one’s mind is inevitably and seriously occupied with things like split times and mid-race nutrition and oh yeah not to mention the serious possibility of everything going so terribly tomorrow that the author’s race ends in the back of an ambulance like a whole heap of poor bastards he hobbled past in the death stages of its previous iteration.

Which race – the preceding year’s Gold Coast Marathon – is probably here worth characterising in its lore because of the spectre it throws across everything hitherto documented and beyond. It has so far gone unacknowledged at Bunker in 2019, alluded to only perhaps twice in your author’s presence and on each occasion with an eerie wake of hush that seemed to have something to do with your author’s presence. Like the mention of a dead relative that one has forgotten is dead. As it turns out, certain experiences in life, because of their psychological invasiveness or total sensorial occupation or sheer trauma, really can only be recalled in little flashes of cinematic and/or impressionistic awe. Their legacy is non-visual and non-translatable; strange, lingering emotions, sweaty flashbacks, flat-out mania or PTSD-type mental shrapnel. All told, it was a nice, tepid morning last year when the starter’s gun went off. Warmer than expected but not exactly sunny or hot. Cloudy. A little muggy, maybe. For two-thirds of the marathon the runners seemed for the most fairly happy, striding confidently, honing in on goals as race-plans played out smoothly. The Gold Coast Marathon runs initially south from Broadwater to Burleigh, then turns back, passes the start/finish line, and heads north for a final ten kilometres out-and-back to the start/finish line again. Among the many mantra regarding the nature of the marathon – and there are thousands – one you’ll hear incessantly is that ‘the marathon really begins at 30kms.’ The course of the Gold Coast Marathon seems to have been laid out specifically to reiterate this point and make cruel fun those who fail to respect it. Between the 30km and 32km point, the runner, already (for mortals) a couple or more hours into their slog, passes the titillating sight of the race’s finish line and its many encouraging spectators and its water stations and toilets and food trucks and the lawns where finishers are entitled to sprawl in ecstatic peace and gratefulness, and then disappears again into the lonely distance with at least (ibid.) another hour of unpleasant work to go. Until the start/finish line is passed and the final ten kilometres in undertaken, the whole event seems kind of glamorous. There is much waving and cheering. Kids in the gutters are getting high-fives. Chests are puffed and arms are swinging almost gaily. Conversations are exchanged between runners. Bottles of water are shared. Some discuss how nice the day has turned out to be. To your author, on debut, the whole marathon experience suddenly seems not only an impressive showing of human endeavour but actually a kind of beautiful one. He begins to feel a sense of something that might be construed as spiritual lightness amid this communal form of physical celebration and/or reverence. He sees his not inconsiderable pain at that point as thing that all of a sudden can be held up and studied, cherished, admired or loved, but with clear context, and without fear or panic, an aesthetic bi-product of this strange and wonderful feat. In fact, pain becomes briefly a thing the author has mastered; it can no longer possess or overwhelm him. He has, in his mind, solved the marathon. And then all of a sudden, just out of eyesight of the start/finish line’s eager droves of onlookers, smack bang on the point of ten-kms-to-go, as if the marathon and its legend were not just a distance but a kind of dark pledge that your author has perhaps upset with his arrogance, things start to go sideways. A sudden thickness pervades the air with all the fury and fearfulness of a kicked hive’s vengefully swarming evacuants. The onset of 100% humidity is the actual phenomenon, though that hardly scratches at the aesthetic experience of it becoming so while one is already balancing on the brink of one’s physical endurance. Bodies start to drop everywhere around your author. First there’s a few signs of hobbling. Then walking. Then it’s real-deal human entities collapsing. Spectators lifting the limp heads of fallen runners. Medics in attendance. Then medics having to ration attention across multiple helpless souls on the same stretch of road. Pure carnage. Your author, afflicted by the same strange madness, though by no means the worst of it, is left just upright enough to get to the line in an ankle-mutilating hobble, lilting and Zombie-like, and to witness more post-apocalyptic horror in an hour than in the rest of his fairly fortunate life. In that time he becomes desensitised enough to shuffle right past actual people spread out and twitching on the road with eyes rolled whitely back, treating them in fact with the concerted digressive regard of topless sunbakers. And his last few kilometres are spent in the wonky wake of Jenny, a strawberry-blonde woman so pale by then she seems translucent. Every few hundred metres Jenny tends toward the gutter and spews or tries to. Her right knee seems very interested in finding its way to the bitumen, and Jenny at times has to kind of tug at the back of it like the leg is actually prosthetic. Despite her frequent stops and vague remnants of directional sense, Jenny is actually faster that your decrepit author, and as such she forges ahead uneasily, only to pull over and give the author a chance to catch her somewhat. And after the first few comically slow stretches of road, your author has taken when he now and then catches her to nudging Jenny between the shoulder-blades with his forearm and grunting something unintelligible no doubt, a strange and frankly illegal thing to do in pretty much any other context, but one that Jenny seems to understand and perhaps even appreciate as she sets off again. There was the live possibility at that point that Jenny was actually a ghost, a lesson or omen that your author’s mind had for some reason concocted. Or else some kind of half-human-half-coke-can that your author was drunkenly kicking toward the finish line.

Its being that day your author’s first ever marathon, finishing seemed important enough to pursue despite all physical panic and spiritual omen/apparitions and common sense. And he did so, in a whole different category of time than he’d hoped for. But the matter of numbers seemed at that point utterly ridiculous.

So that’s the memory that David Simon and his Baltimore homicide detectives are up against with regards your author’s attention. And ‘Homicide’ in all performs impressively. Indeed a couple of hours pass easily in its pages on Saturday morning, and just after midday there is a knock at the room’s door and Pac-man announces that the shake-out is on and your author fastens his race-day shoes and throws on alternate kit and follows the wolf-pack toward the water. Shirley and Stanley have just returned and they settle in for an afternoon nap with a plan to meet your author in the kitchen for lunch in an hour. The wind has calmed but only somewhat and the run is palatable despite the sand in the air. You author feels ok but not exactly spring-loaded, which has kind of been the general feeling of his runs for the last month. ‘Run to feel’ is a classic running throw-away slash truism. But it’s potentially also just a bit of rhetorical dribble; one of those sporting or else living mantra that evolve in the mind over time. Loose enough to survive any kind of logical test. Some days your author runs with great energy and flow and lightness and on those days he worships the notion of ‘run to feel’. On others, sluggish and uninspired, he prefers to think of ‘feeling’ as an unreliable guide. Though perhaps the one thing that makes him most sceptical about it or else most sceptical of his current understanding of it is that at the end of the day it’s probably pretty crucial to the whole endeavour of endurance sport and distance running in particular and probably to the inevitable tragedies implicit to the living of a full life that we’re unable to truly remember what things feel like. That our memories do not really give us reliable access to pain the way they do to things like phone numbers or names or the faces of people we love. As in; not remembering pain very well or perhaps at all is probably what allows us to move on from what at one time seemed like and in fact perhaps really was unendurable sadness. Or else to choose one day to repeat something that has previously brought us to our knees. Your author, for example, can write a whole bunch of colourful reflections on what it was like to run out the last ten horrifying and agonising kilometres of last year’s GC Marathon, but perhaps the one thing he can’t really recall or in fact translate is the pain itself. To summons and suffer from it again, just by thinking. For that particular privilege the runner simply has to lace up and go again. Forever innocent.

After the shake out the author takes the day’s second shower and heads back to the kitchen with his dry-store provisions. He is, for the sake of illustration, in burgundy cotton tracksuit pants with cuffed ankles, a brown microfibre-type zip-up Merrell jacket, and a pair of black Asics DS-Trainers. His hair has that just-exercised-just-showered glimmer and you can smell his deodorant. It is very much a sort of resting-athlete’s look, more streamlined than the long-weekend-binging-on-The-Wire-in-winter-type of tracksuit-panted letting-go. The irony of course is that the athlete’s is a kind of intense relaxation, almost suspenseful in its smouldering energy. Whereas the staycation-brand of slobbery implies a kind of catatonic disinterest and apathy, the athlete in calculated rest-mode is a slowly chiming jack-in-the-box just waiting for some British backpacker to pinch the last available spatula right off the flank of his hotplate while the athlete is rummaging through his bag for garam-masala. Which really happens, and which requires of the athlete, which it to say your author, to move and stir his simmering beef mince henceforth with a teaspoon, and after which it takes whole bunch of deep breathing and mindful stirring of the mince and many-a ‘Namaste’ and ‘Serenity Now’ for the athlete, who just happens to suspect the very same obnoxious Brit for the door-knocking incident of the early AM, not to lodge the much warmed teaspoon into the offending party’s eye-socket and stomp on whatever from the socket drops. What mostly stops him doing so is a sense of its being a considerable waste of a good taper.

“The onset of 100% humidity is the actual phenomenon, though that hardly scratches at the aesthetic experience of it becoming so while one is already balancing on the brink of one’s physical endurance.” 

As mentioned this particular lunch is the author’s most substantial and critical pre-race meal. It is white rice in abundance and savoury mince. Rice dominates the serve at a ratio of three-to-one. Your author has a very large plate of this, and then a medium-sized one. Stanley and Shirley have by now joined him at the table and enough good chatter ensues for the author to stop listening to the British backpacker’s snorting laugh in the background and fantasising about the backpacker meeting a fate not dissimilar to the unfortunate civilian subjects of David Simon’s ‘Homicide’ and to generally loosen his grip on his cutlery and return his hand to a non-stabbing configuration upon his knife. Shirley is eating toasted white bread with peanut butter and banana. Stanley pinches some of her food and then some of your author’s. As Shirley’s race and thus her pre-race routine tomorrow begins a full hour before that of your author there is a matter of logistics and toiletry etiquette that needs discussing. Shirley intends to wake at 4:00AM. She will go to the kitchen to prepare her breakfast, which the author understands will be oats. And to drink her coffee, upon which of course the digestive grenade’s ring will have been pulled, so to speak. The preparation and consumption of breakfast is predicted to take Shirley, who intends to take the 5:00AM shuttle to the race, approximately thirty minutes. Taking into account her dressing, she will therefore be returning to the room at about 4:40. Your author, in turn, wishes to rise at around this time if not a little before, so if he has not done so by then it will be Shirley’s responsibility to rouse him to dress and prepare his own breakfast. Thus clearing the room for Shirley and whatever apple sauce she needs to deal with. Oddly, it is this discussion’s conclusion that alerts the author to the fact that the race is actually really upon him. That he is for the most healthy and ready and there probably isn’t enough things left to seriously obstruct his way to the start line. He is thus, as he rinses his pots and plates, gifted a small ration of calm that is also a kind of panic.

3.

SATURDAYNIGHT

“The senders that are themselves runners and thus sympathetic to the task ahead offer sentiments that are almost unanimously philosophical and call for the author to be most of all joyful and reflective and grateful and to consider in some way the aesthetic experience that is at that point playing out in the author’s body and/or world and about to reach some sort of celebratory climax. Which now that it is looked back upon seems uncannily similar to the words that might be shared with a woman on the cusp of giving birth.”

Aside from the race itself, there are only two formalities to RPTC’s weekend. They happen in sequence on the night before. The first is the team dinner, known in runner’s parlance as ‘pasta night’ and unsurprisingly usually comprising pasta. If there is any further need to highlight the nostalgic psychology underpinning the weekend then the fact that the food for ‘pasta night’ has been provided by the runners’ mothers might just do it. Your author’s mum has gifted a tray of hearty lasagne. Wick’s, a potato bake. Pac-man’s mother passed away a few years back but Pac-man makes excuses for nothing and therefore arrives with all elements of a large salad. Bower, Shirley and Stanley arrive empty handed and apologetic about it until they grasp that no place has been left at the table for their apologies and frankly the table is fully occupied and they (the apologies) aren’t welcome. The meal is sacred and at its silent heart a reminder of how lucky all diners are to be able to do something like run an endurance race. And to have friends around to share the occasion with. Conversation is unusually minimal. Some sort of reverence is observed.

Your author, who eats only a small portion of pasta, keeps one eye at all times on Shane Bower during this meal. He has learned over the years that Bower has a non-original but certainly idiosyncratic relationship to food, which is that he is extremely emotionally dependant on consuming very large amounts of it. And your author’s mother’s lasagne this year is somewhat smaller than last and is unlikely to stretch to second helpings. The weekend will provide your author with at least three occasions to witness Shane Bower’s emotional vulnerability to food. Which vulnerability of course is nothing especially novel among those exceptional human specimens that have extremely high standards for themselves and a supreme understanding of their needs and are not primarily interested in how other people see them and have therefore a toddler’s-level of interest in what others think of their reactions to being unsatisfied. This year’s first ‘incident’ was the arriving lunch yesterday. Pac-man, in his heavenly way, actually went to the trouble of cooking, preparing and separating into distinct Tupperware containers lunch for the individuals he had transported to Bunker. Including Bower, who Pac-man picked up from the airport on the way, at Pac-man’s petrolic expense, no doubt. In the kitchen, around a glass table, Pac-man distributed these meals, which no one could have expected and, needless-to-say, no one had paid for. And mind you your author is not talking about some halved ham and cheese sandwich here either. The lunch is a substantial helping of chicken breast and cooked vegetables. A tasty meal just to look at. And some real work in the kitchen, incidentally. Wick is, humanly, delighted and grateful for this act of almost obscene niceness from Pac-man. Shane Bower does not say ‘thank you’ when he opens his Tupperware (he does eventually somewhere along the line amid chewing), but rather ‘look at this’, which is unreadable from a gratefulness or approval point of view. During the meal of chicken breast he notes that he does not like chicken breast. Prefers thigh. Which is a menial distinction, and more to the point surely not definitive of one’s enjoyment of chicken in general, and not to mention less-than-necessary when someone has just cooked, packed and provided for you a meal of chicken breast, at their effort and cost. Upon completion of his meal, after perhaps fifteen seconds of grace, Bower announces that it was not enough food for him, gets up, and asks if anyone will come with him down the road to get a burrito. Which invitation your author accepts, in part for journalistic reasons, just to confirm that is in fact a burrito that Bower sates his hunger with; (it is). And also because your author is frankly fascinated by people like Shane Bower, who are nuts in a way that relates or else seems to relate to their greatness.

The author should mention here that Pac-man is not Bower’s subordinated soldier or Sancho Panza in life. He smirks knowingly at these occasional moments of discourtesy, knowing all too well that Bower merely serves the deity of his body’s nourishment in way that approaches fundamentalism. They are old schoolboy friends. A pair who bonded twenty or so years ago over a love of athleticism and kind of living effort. They have been all over the world together. The foundational moment of RPTC’s nominal history was in fact a trip to a small town in Colorado, during which Pac-man, Bower and Stanley slept in a tent and ran over something they (for vague reasons) called the Realto Peak every morning and afternoon for a month. Pac-man and Bower are distinguished in the world by their intensity, their military fastidiousness with certain things. Their hard-core belief in process and hard work. Their natural inclination to leadership. The fact that they are both school teachers that have gravitated to the education of difficult-to-reach kids is, in the author’s opinion, one of those examples of things working out just right in the world.

The very next meal on that first day was occasion for yet another vignette of Shane Bower’s food-related petulance. As mentioned already, the team had headed to an Italian restaurant on the mall for dinner. Bower determined that it was necessary for each person to order a pasta for himself and that there should also be large pizzas ordered for the table at a ratio of one per two people. The author declared himself unable to consume more than a sole pasta, and Bower wished to clarify that the author was making an actual, concrete commitment. As in; did the author actually promise not to have any pizza? The author assured Bower that he did. Twice. And then again. And then one last time, right before actually placing the order, when Bower turned and looked so deeply into the author’s soul that the author felt thereafter violated and could only but cross his heart and swear on the souls of his wife and son that he would not, under any circumstance, lay claim to even a fallen parmesan chard off the pizzas that were going to be shared by the rest of the table. Which was enough to dispel the tension if not the sense of suspicion and hawk-eyed watching of the author’s eyes’ roaming for the rest of the meal. Bower, too, made the declaration immediately after ordering himself a Carbonara that a restaurant Carbonara is almost always terrible. Which your author suspects was to put the other diners on notice with regards their own pastas and not to mention the bulk of the pizzas should the Carbonara indeed be insubstantial and/or a failure in the estimation of Shane Bower.

And finally, at a Mexican restaurant the night following the race itself, between banquet courses that are too temporally spaced, your author watches from the far end of a long, noisy, dark table as Shane Bower, sick of being ‘plied’ with serve after serve of compensatory baskets of corn chips, simply picks up the next of such overflowing vessel to arrive and flails it wantonly over his head like any displeased two-year-old might be inclined to do, corn chips thus raining across the dining room. The next waitress to attempt to appease him and promise the following course’s proximity is met with an unholy scream/full-body convulsion that has all the hallmarks of an exorcism and it’s frankly hard to doubt its sincerity. By the weekend’s end your author cannot help but actually feel sorry for Shane Bower and his inability to explain to the rest of the world just how damned important it is that he his machine of human endeavour be adequately and at all times fuelled.

Fortunately, perhaps through the foresight and self-sacrifice of others, Bower manages to scrape together enough lasagne and potato bake to be adequately nourished at the team dinner and after washing up the runners return to their respective rooms with the night’s second formality right around the corner. The traditional ‘pinning ceremony’ sees all members of the team lay his/her running singlet across a communal bed with official race numbers lain flatly on each singlet’s torso. After some non-religious blessings are exchanged, the runners kneel beside the bed and pin the numbers to their singlets with tiny safety pins. Shirley, who does not especially feel like a part of the team, balks at the idea of attending the pinning ceremony until your author convinces her, for anthropomorphic and literary reasons, that the pinning ceremony is flat-out unmissable. And so Shane Bower, Todd Packer, Henry Wick, Shirley O’hara-West and your author lay their race-day tops across the bed where Shane Bower otherwise sleeps. And each then retires to a respectful distance from the bed itself and awaits some sort of magic. Your author is down on the carpet against a sliding glass door. Shirley leans up to a bed post. Pac-man and Wick are seated on their respective bunks. Stanley Gould, the only one without a vest on the bed, sits on the contraband esky against a wall. Shane Bower floats around like a witch-doctor, searching for and then finding and then playing ‘The Unforgiven’ by Metallica from his phone. The occasion’s surface-level treatment as irony is important insofar as it allows for everyone to endure the moment’s seriousness and sentimentality without self-deprecation or squeamishness.

Weeks ago, when it was learned that Stanley would not be running on Sunday, the responsibility to make a speech at the pinning ceremony was put upon him. The first suggestion of it was tongue-in-cheek. But over time expectations grew and now when Pac-man calls for it there is little Stanley can do but deliver. It is obvious enough that he’s done at least some thinking about it, because the speech is far from hodgepodge or bumbling. It is in fact quite serious, and Stanley swings wildly and with all of himself to attempt to drive home its central message. For Stanley, whose year has been themed by failed house-hunting and injury and some bummed out time at work, the most important thing to understand at that moment is that those in the room who have consistently trained, who have been patient and persevered and refused to give in or get waylaid or overwhelmed or even bored over twelve months, what they have achieved already is, in the scheme of things, special. The real race, says Stanley – the long, slow, patient refusal to be lazy or distracted or generally blown off course by real adult life’s myriad frustrations – this has already been run. Tomorrow, he says, is a celebration.

The team agrees that Stanley’s speech was a good one. It gets its long moment of silence, even patters of applause, which is strange in a room of only six persons. There’s some frustration that it was not recorded for posterity. But in your author’s mind what really stung about Stanley’s speech was that it seemed to require of Stanley the task of facing what it was that really made him feel separated from the group today. Because it’s clear enough to the author that Stanley was not sparing himself his message’s flipside. He was then and there confessing that he was not entitled to the things he wanted so badly for everyone else to understand that they were entitled to. That he’d failed, one way or another, to survive the long, slow race to the start line. By which your author felt he meant much more than simply regret over a busted leg. The author wondered if his personal closeness to Stanley made this interpretation unique. Or if it really mattered in the end. And he further wondered if Stanley, who was not generally inclined to believe in his personal fortitude, would agree that it takes some kind of man to expose himself as feeble so that other’s might understand their strength. And to accept what that said about him and his speech.

The runners kneel by the bed’s flanks and attempt to pin their race numbers to their singlets, heads bowed and tongues out in quiet concentration like so many monks doing intricate needle work on a ceremonial quilt. It is not as easy as it may sound. There is debate about how high or low to set the number, what to do with the perforated baggage-claim strip, and what overall method of pinning is best. The safety pins’ points’ depths of immersion are hard to judge by feel, such that the threat of pinning the garment’s front and back together and/or to Shane Bower’s beadspread are constant. And yet lifting the garment off the bed’s surface inevitably distorts the number’s plane upon it, which causes its own problems. All runners – barring Pac-man, whose number is dizzily askew and requires a do-over – nonetheless manage a good enough job of their first effort to be content with it. Shirley’s race number meanwhile has been causing murmurs. Above her five-digit identifier the word ‘weapon’ is printed in large, bold letters. As in, WEAPON. Shirley had thought little of it when she retrieved her number from the official collection event the previous week. She’d laughed when she saw it, since it was a very Stanley sort of word and he had processed her entry. But now the other runners in the room, snickering, explain to her why adding a name to a race number was eschewed among the enlightened populace, generally, and by members of RPTC, unanimously. Thus:

The Gold Coast Marathon and half are well-attended events. Spectators line the roads most of the way. At certain points the crowds are positively thick. And generally speaking the cheering and encouragement are of some small advantage to the runners’ psyches. Early on and for most of the race a certain pride – even vanity – is likely to sweep up the athlete and drive him or her to another level of performance and/or perceived performance. Strangers offer up high-fives and lollies and they’ll even occasionally sing out your name if you’ve taken the step of having it printed above your race number. Which, when one is full of beans and undercutting goal split times and feeling in all honesty like some little Kenyan prodigy that until that very moment has been trapped in a slovenly Western bodysuit that he/she is now ceremoniously discarding, is just great. But, as well enough already documented, there is a very considerable chance of an endurance race showing its potential middle-earth darkness to the athlete in its latter stages. Most humans, in fact, are ultimately put to the sword in one way or another and of any form of personal vanity ceremoniously lobotomised. Thus in every way that the elated, optimistic runner fresh off the start line may relish the calling of his/her name by strangers and the sense of personal glorification it implies, the broken, spluttering, stumbling/crawling husk of humanity that often enough is left to endure the race’s final kilometres is generally speaking of a distinct preference to dig a hole in the ground and be buried in it. In fact the general consensus among runners is that once things go truly pear shaped in a long race and getting home is confined in its possibilities to one of a few versions of basically the same nightmare, the only thing theoretically worth investing one’s near-to-non-existent energy in beside the getting of one’s self to the finish line would be some sort of cloak for the hiding of one’s identity on those final ignoble kilometres. Your author points out to Shirley, by way for example, that he only knows the name of the fabled Jenny of his previous GC Marathon’s final horrifying stanza – she of near-total paleness and a tendency to vomit and drag her leg sickly and veer madly at all times – because she had it (her name) printed above her race number. And spectators, believing themselves an aid against her suffering and an inspiration to fight on, kept calling out her name. And that for much of their unpleasant time together your author was convinced that Jenny’s listing suddenly toward one side of the road or another was a semi-conscious effort to barrel over and/or strangle the onlookers that kept reminding her of who she was. Not that Jenny at that time was even of the physical autonomy to front-shirt a toddler, had that indeed turned out to be what she was up to.

Shirley laughs it off and is cucumber about the whole thing, which of course is the case. Like the curly-haired Canadian with no sense of the marathon’s capacity to torture her, she can’t possibly be expected to comprehend her potential pain’s discomfort or indignity’s extent, nor how the extremeness of these things may affect her psychologically. Because as mentioned there isn’t really a way to make someone adequately frightened of what’s likely to happen to them in an endurance race. And not only because pain is a tricky thing to translate. What’s especially psychologically complex about a very long running race and its pain-potential is that ostensibly speaking everything that happens to the runner is the runner’s voluntary doing. Every step is a choice, it’s discomfort taken voluntarily. You can at any point stop with precisely no consequence outside of your own ego. The threat of unusual and unfathomable pain in an endurance race seems in fact essentially empty and meaningless. Because whatever beating one gets ultimately comes at one’s own hands. Which sounds crazy. And, logically, is. Any yet it is the same as-it-were unspooked individuals that so often find themselves stumbling and retching, weeping and passing out, kneeling and crossing themselves on the finisher’s welcome mat despite never ever having previously expressed but a sacramental crumb of religious conviction.

“…the broken, spluttering, stumbling/crawling husk of humanity that often enough is left to endure the race’s final kilometres is generally speaking of a distinct preference to dig a hole in the ground and be buried in it.”

The author finds theory to be generally in bad taste, and would not like to posit any kind of philosophical position on the notion of pain. But when he thinks about Shirley’s innocent smile at the pinning ceremony and the Canadian girl’s giggle in the foyer and his own curious fact of for many weeks looking forward to very probable agony tomorrow, he is inclined to survey this odd human phenomenon at least in a kind of wonky rhetorical calculus that may only stand until someone brighter bothers to huff and puff all over it. In sum, he thinks this circular mumble of thinking: people who run endurance races are typically not as frightened as they probably should be of their own ability to stubbornly refuse to stop consenting to their own incrementally greater suffering to the point that they actually eventually do truly suffer in a way that there is no plausible way they would do anything but seriously and properly fear if they truly believed they were capable of it.

Shirley, for the record and in defiance of all of this, will tomorrow run a personal best time and make no mention of noticing any kind of exceptional agony or discomfort and return to Bunker to pack up her things and head back to Brisbane as though nothing much at all had taken place that morning. Sometimes it goes that way too.

That night your author lays again in bed with ‘Homicide’s pages gaping while Stanley chips away at Dostoyevsky within an arm’s reach and Shirley sleeps or feigns to. Tomorrow is the race. The author is calmer than last time, for sure. Likely to sleep better as long as he doesn’t jinx it by thinking about it. Someone sends him a message of good luck. The author then pours through his phone to make a survey of the few other messages from friends over the week past. The senders that are themselves runners and thus sympathetic to the task ahead offer sentiments that are almost unanimously philosophical and call for the author to be most of all joyful and reflective and grateful and to consider in some way the aesthetic experience that is at that point playing out in the author’s body and/or world and about to reach some sort of celebratory climax. Which now that it is looked back upon seems uncannily similar to the words that might be shared with a woman on the cusp of giving birth.

Right after the pinning ceremony, while Shirley was brushing her teeth, a knock had come at the author’s room’s door and the author had answered it and there was Pac-man beckoning your author quietly outside to hand him an envelope and give him what would probably be a final hug before the aftermath of tomorrow’s race. Inside the envelope was a single page, hand-written letter from Pac-man to your author addressing Pac-man’s feelings concerning the author through the prism of your author’s development as a man and a friend and a runner the specific detail of which is with all due respect none of the reader’s business. Your author reads it three times and then returns the small note to its high-quality envelope. Pac-man might be the last of something that the world will never figure out how to value. He will one day be missed as eternally as a dead language.

Amid a solid, thirty-page stretch of ‘Homicide’ the author does not notice Stanley put his own book down and transition to sleep. Which (sleep) Stanley does on his back with hands stiffly by his sides, nose and toes his summits. The overall look of him is one toe tag short of morgue-friendly. The author knows Stanley well enough to assume that Stanley’s sleeping posture is well thought through and practised and non-negotiable with regards other bodies in his bed. That its purpose is to limit the uncertainty around sleep and thus to sleep with more certainty. And that Stanley almost certainly sleeps extremely poorly because of how much he concentrates on perfecting it. Your author cannot actually imagine Stanley as a non-headcase and as such your author sometimes wonders if Stanley’s as it were essential problem is not in fact essentially who Stanley is and thus no problem at all really in your author’s opinion. That the funniness or tragedy of Stanley’s reality as the author at times tends to see it is just in fact the culmination of a life that manifests naturally as the Stanley your author knows and seriously loves; running hex, failed home-buyer, headcase and eerie sleeper. That like anything worthwhile and/or interesting, Stanley cannot and indeed ought not be one bit simplified or solved.

Your author also tonight wonders if his fascination with Stanley and Stanley’s condition is in many ways your author’s own way of nutting out some of your author’s own inherent hypocrisies and emotional weaknesses and private struggles without actually having to manage the complexity and terror of having as it were ‘skin in the game’ while contemplating them, and that maybe Stanley even knows this about the author and that in some way therefore Stanley’s willingness to expose and openly discuss his own challenges in order to allow your author to contemplate your author’s own demons’ nature is actually Stanley’s way of helping your author.

Your author would not put it past him.

Your author considers reading Pac-man’s letter again but he does not. He closes ‘Homicide’, whose job is done. He rolls over and eventually is asleep.

 

4.

SUNDAY

I am asleep again now. I am fully, though strangely, dressed. My sunglasses are still on. I am showered. I am fed. I have sat and I have talked and had two cans of beer. I have said goodbye to Stanley and Shirley, who cannot stay for the party. I have congratulated Shirley, who ran like the wind. Like a WEAPON. I have seen my wife and my son. My mother and father. I have thanked everyone I could think of. I have sat in the next room, with my friends, my team, and I have drunk my beer, and I have toasted another marathon. I have come back here to my own room, for a moment, giving a vague reason or no reason at all. I have sat down on the end of Stanley and Shirley’s empty bed, which smells of them. I have laid down to feel weightless. I have closed my eyes. I am finished for the day. For the campaign. For the year.

I am your author. I am the athlete.

How did it go? I woke up at 4:30 and wished Shirley well and went down to make myself breakfast. I made pancakes with maple syrup and banana. And drank a glass of orange juice. I made a cup of instant coffee from Bunker’s giant complimentary tin of Blend 49 that was (my personal mix) so potent I might well have eaten it with a spoon. I watched the few other runners at Bunker skulking around the kitchen and none of us talked though I felt we understood each other like ants. I cleaned up my mess on the stovetop and my pan and spatula and whisk and my plate and glass and cutlery, in accordance with Bunker’s house rules, and I went back to my room. I read ‘Homicide’ on the toilet. And shat, not exactly well but better than expected. In that scrambled body-clock way of a super early flight. In any case, some stuff was moved, and I was happy enough with that. I dressed in my race kit. My shoes. My Bruce Springsteen t-shirt that I had decided was disposable should I require its warmth right up till the starter’s gun, though later will realise I am actually attached to and give it to Pop’s wife (you haven’t met Pop yet) for safe keeping. My Merrell zip-up. I check my race bag for towel and clean shirt and water bottle and gels and wallet and phone and that’s it I think. There is no list. I stand in front of the mirror and look at myself fully dressed and ready to leave and ask myself if what I’m wearing and holding is at very least enough to run a race. I remember my running watch, which I left charging in the bathroom. And I am grateful that I did that little survey-of-self thing before the mirror because the watch is critical. I leave the room and get into the elevator and find myself pressing the elevator’s button rapidly and repeatedly as though it were some combative arcade video game’s ‘punch’ button and I’m having a great time doing it and I realise I’ve probably over done the coffee mix. I step out of Bunker’s foyer’s doors and take literally five steps and am already inside the shuttle bus to the startline. God bless Bunker, I think. It then starts to rain, heavily, and I check with the driver and leave the bus and head back up to the room and get my waterproof jacket and get back on the bus. The bus fills to about half-full and then we are off. The rain comes and goes. I get there in time to catch the half-marathon’s start and I scope the thousands of runners that pass the start line but find no sign of Shirley or Pac-man or Bower or Wick. I find the toilets weirdly empty and go in almost out of curiosity and to my surprise produce an even better stool than earlier and now feel something like digestive equilibrium, which is unheard of on race mornings. I walk back to the large, grassed area where the baggage claim is and where the race finishers spill onto and where there’s some benches and tables and a big screen where the half-marathon is playing out live. The rain has stopped there but it’s positively torrential on the runners on the big-screen who are not five kilometres up the coast. I link up with some non-Bunker-lodging RPTC marathon entrants, Pop and Jed, with whom I exchange many rapid-fire pleasantries amid hopping up and down on the spot and thinking still that the coffee was dangerously strong and hoping there’s not some philosophical crash on my horizon. Pop is a relative marathon veteran and known as the metronome around RPTC because of his meticulous and frankly extra-sensory ability to run at a designated pace and/or cover a distance in a specified time and today he’s aiming to run five minute kilometres exactly which will yield him a three hour and thirty minute overall time pretty precisely. Jed is a marathon virgin and is not 100% sure what time he’d like to run but reckons on roughly four minute and forty-five second kilometres which will yield him an overall time in roughly the three hour and twenty-minute range. You might as well know now that Pop succeeds in his goal today and Jed does not. We are joined then by Benson, a friend of Jed’s that I don’t personally know all that well since he mainly attends the one weekly RPTC session that I do not attend and therefore I have as-it-were mostly paper knowledge of him as a runner and nada as a man up to this point. His goal is the same as Jed’s and they plan to run together; unlike Jed, who kind of capitulates at around the half-way mark, Benson hangs tough till the last few kms and misses the mark by only five minutes or so. The one other RPTC marathon runner not accounted for by then is Olivier, who is staying a few beaches south and whose father-in-law shirked on a drunken race-eve commitment to drive him to the start line by not even pretending to wake in the AM, and who (Olivier) therefore adds an effective three up-tempo kilometres to his race by jogging along the coast to the start line and just in time for the gun. He, too, plans to run with Jed and Benson. He too will go the way of Jed somewhere in the race’s middle and hobble home a broken version of himself, not even close to his projected time. But they will all fight on to finish, which is on any Sunday of any year one hell of a thing to just do. My personal goal, for the record, is three hours. Pop and Jed and Benson and I go for a warm up and some dynamic stretches a little away from the action and we talk to kill time that would otherwise be spent fretting about the race. While we’re doing our warm-ups I realise all of a sudden that what strictly separates the Bunker-dwelling RPTC runners from the non-Bunker-dwelling RPTC runners this year is the threshold age of forty and having multiple children. We return and check our bags in and watch the half-marathon’s conclusion on the big screen and then start to think about lining up at the start. That’s when I give Pop’s wife my t-shirt for safe-keeping. She, being a decade older than I and of a more likely Springsteen-loving vintage, finds it curious that I like Bruce Springsteen so much and later that night I’ll have to justify my love for The Boss over a restaurant table in order to get my shirt back, which is not all that easy to do without some seminal Springsteen playing to get everybody singing along and thusly do the argumentative legwork. I leave my fellow runners alone on the way up the hill to the start-line and squeeze myself in to the busy area just in behind the three hour balloons, which if you don’t know are the balloons attached to a few runners that are comfortable running the marathon in three hours and have volunteered to do just that with balloons attached to themselves so that runners less-comfortable and/or incapable of doing so may closely follow them for as long as they like in the assurance that if they manage to do so all the way to the finish line they will indeed have finished in under three hours. I busy myself with taking a survey of all the running shoes on the runners around me and wondering how much they paid for them. I introduce myself to the runner to my immediate right just before the gun, which is a tradition-cum-superstition of mine by now maybe. Then it starts to rain heavily and all of us are looking at each other and smiling in a strange way which I think is the collected knowledge that for all the incredibly meticulous preparation and planning and buying and trying of race clothing and shoes and different brands of gels and strategies and so on and so forth that go into trying to snatch this or that tiny advantage in the marathon there is of course the possibility that while you’re standing at the start line, corralled and unable to escape, fully exposed to the elements, having already of course gotten rid of your rain-proof gear, God may simply decide to saturate you and your aerodynamic singlet and precious light-weight running shoes for no other reason than that it’s ironic. The rain stops about two minutes before the race begins and everyone is just standing there soaking wet and with no other choice but to feel circumspect about it. My GPS running watch by the way is refusing to pick up my pulse so when the gun does actually go off it still hasn’t started working and then does while I’m too busy to notice and for about the first kilometre or so I run effectively without it which is no big deal since at that point it’s just a bit of a jostle for road and a whole lot of looking around and hoping not to get caught up in someone else’s fluttering legs, though funnily enough when I do check out my race data the next day it turns out that my first recorded kilometre when I didn’t realise my watch was working was run at a pace that I had no right to be running, as in a top-end sprint for yours truly, which if nothing else probably confirms that that coffee I mixed up could indeed launch a space mission. At some point I don’t quite remember ever actually happening I have decided to run with the three-hour balloon I think because it is the easiest of all things to do mentally. To chase a physical object, for as long as possible. Or bust. In theory, a three-hour marathon requires the runner to cover each kilometre in four minutes and seventeen seconds. The balloon today moves a bit quicker than that, at least for the first while. Not radically so, but enough to register. Though truth be told for the race’s first half I find myself in a state of perpetual impatience and confusion and I worry strangely enough that precious time of my marathon experience is passing and I am not yet really pushing myself to the point of soul-searching discomfort. Which makes me sound like a tough guy or masochist which believe me I’m not. Just rather someone that likes to choose things rather than simply cop them. The God-honest truth is that I’m confused out there and I actually want the mentally narrowing comfort of being seriously busy with the task and effort of running at a rate that challenges me. And so, in some more-or-less farcical illustration of endurance running-related ignorance, I actually run off ahead of the balloon, a shift from what I now understand to be an already slightly-too-fast-for-me pace to a definitely-too-fast-for-me one, and of course this means that I’m happily advancing past other runners and working at a more immersive rate of intensity and everything has been simplified for a while but of course I’m still almost two hours from home and, you know, doomed. Sometime around half way I begin to sense this. But of course the whole thing about endurance running is that you learn to doubt and defy some of your fear of your pain’s trajectory’s terminalness because you’re fit enough to sometimes recover on the move and as a result in any good race there’s at least a couple of times when you think you’re about to completely fall apart but you don’t and sometimes you even get faster in spite of all sense and logic. Which epistemic puzzle perhaps goes to explain why endurance runners more probably than any other kind of athlete have a long and sordid history of continuing way beyond every conceivable alarm bell has gone off in his/her body and/or psyche with regards panic about pain’s present and future likelihood until such a point that they actually just really do collapse as though (to the onlooker) without warning. It’s also what’s generally being alluded to when people describe endurance running as nuts. Because in light of all this I don’t actually think there’s a way to argue against the fact that is it. Anyway, at kilometre twenty-five, just after the drink station, I make the Granddaddy of all suicidal psychological moves by wondering what’s left to salvage from this race. I have peaked laughably early. I will continue to hold my pace for a few kilometres yet, but there is a distinct qualitative change in how I’m holding that pace, which is to say that I’m defending it and I know it and it’s way, way too early for me to be defending a pace that I cannot easily run on completely fresh legs at the best of times. But then all of a sudden at much the same point I look up and see on the side of the road Bower, Pac-man and Wick, who are cheering madly, and who can see clearly enough that I’m still physically ahead of the 3 hour balloon and thus technically on pace for my goal, though what they don’t have available to them is knowledge of the slippery slope I’m on in terms of my pace and the irretractable tactical errors I know I’ve already made, as well as the fact that my knowledge of these errors and their irretractibleness amounts to more or less full-blown mental concession to a non-heroic destiny today. Although, also and despite all that, it actually occurs to me as I pass them that at my age I may never ever experience cheering for me again. As a child I felt like I was cheered for all the time. I can remember back as far as my mother cheering me on for cleaning my teeth. For doing a handstand in the yard. One time I helped my dad fix something by bending a paperclip and he looked at me like he was meeting me for the first time and then he just started clapping. I remember playing soccer and kicking goals. I remember winning swimming races and getting medals and being cheered for it. I remember playing rugby for my club and doing something right and having a bunch of people surround me and, one way or another, cheer. All of this happened in either underage or low-grade and certainly amateur competition. It didn’t and doesn’t matter. But it’s been a while. A long while. And one sure thing about adult life is that any kind of normal existence is generally speaking dragging you further and further away from any kinds of podiums and applause. And so for that brief moment, though I’ve been hurting bad, I puff out my chest and I let myself be worthy of their applause. I pretend, I guess, that I really am in good shape. That I’m on top of everything out there on the course. That’s it’s going to happen today. For a moment I just let myself be their Marathon Hero. And maybe I even believe myself for a while too, because I make another little surge past my immediate competitors just to feel like I’m going the right way. And I’m almost happy. And then something like hope even starts to flicker somewhere in front of me. And I study it for a while like a pleasant dream. And I want to keep it. Though of course my desire is revealing; of course it is a thing that I have made to fool myself. Of course this thing before me cannot be weighed or measured or taken like a drug. Of course this thing is made of nothing more than my distrust of it. And yet, just as obviously, I do reach out to it, as hopeless to resist as any child to the chasing down of a glimmering, warbling, soapy bubble dancing through a neighborhood yard just above eye-height. And of course it bursts into nothing before me like the bubble at the end of that child’s outstretched finger. And it is then that I submit to what truly I am, which is, in essence, a thing falling apart. And for the first time my legs slow down and I do not fight them honestly, and those runners I just passed moved past me and must be sneering at my audacity, which is their absolute right. And then a few more runners I haven’t seen for ten or fifteen kilometres start to appear beside me. I recede. At precisely the thirty kilometre mark, as I prepare to ascend the long bridge and pass the start/finish line on its far side, the three hour balloon appears on my right. It is the last competitive straw. I let it go. Up and over the bridge’s horizon. I am done. I know that my family are on the other side of the bridge, standing against the barricade as they were last year. And I decide to run to/for them. My father is the first I see. He is getting old. I know it sounds all-too literary but the God honest truth is that I almost don’t recognise him at first because of just how grey his hair looks to me and then I really do somehow find time in that couple of seconds to think about his greyness as a meaningful thing. I see him way before he sees me and by the time I’m upon him I can just about reach out and touch him and he’s almost shocked and he looks at me with a big smile and gives me a lonely little half-cheer and starts fumbling for the camera around his neck before I guess he registers the look on my face which is probably something a father remembers from a time when he son was more disposed to showing his vulnerability in front of him. I shake my head and ask him where my wife is and he says she’s further on and then I disappear not knowing how much I’ve explained to him by looking at him that way. My wife also seems unprepared for me, and as I come toward her she actually panics and moves a step back like I’m some real-life thing emerging from a TV screen and then finally she returns and hugs me and kisses my cheek and I ask where my boy is and she says he’s off playing somewhere. And then I step back on the road and run until I’m well out of their sight and then I stop for good.

by Nicholas Turner

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About the author: 

Nicholas Turner is a novelist and the co-founder of Match Day Burger. His novel ‘Hang Him When He Is Not There’ was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize in 2019. 

Dog Day Afternoon As Students Throw The Book In The West (Deflated Lady Beckons Literary Gusto To Save Mismatch)

"Looks like Fido just chased his last ball..."

“Well I don’t know about you doctor, but I’d say Fido just chased his last ball…”

University of Queensland vs Western Districts; Queensland Premier Rugby, Round 13; UQ Field 7; 11/6/2016 

“…the scrum is probably the only place where the disparity of this contest can actually be pointed and snickered at…the ball shuffling around in there like it’s some kind of random fate generator that basically always has bad news for the dogs.”

Report by Nicholas Turner

The University of Queensland are hosting the Western Districts Bulldogs and no one is really looking forward to it. Approaching the half-way point of the competition’s second round, these teams are a whole ladder and more than 300 for/against differential points apart. The dogs have won just a single game this season. And the only side to beat the students did so in the first game of the year and just got vengefully and very thoroughly lynched in the second round rematch.  UQ are going to win and Wests are going to go home sore and disappointed. Everybody knows this at breakfast time. It doesn’t even qualify as prophesy.

The Gods, who evidently don’t give two hoots whose playing, have served up a belter of an afternoon. Cool and luminous, the sun uprooting the shadows of everything as it descends toward the stadium’s rear, with a neat little Champagne-chill breeze over a virtually neon green varsity pitch. To which you can add the tacky pitter-patter of spindly runners working up and down the straights of the field-encircling synthetic track amid the perpetual hum of a jumping castle keeping kids amused up near the steeple-chase pit. Sometime around the toss a magpie cracks the shits with a crow and chases it tauntingly – all clicks and claps – in a giant, florid, south-north arc the length of the field.

Game on.

For a few minutes nobody scores. Then Uni does, repeatedly and systematically and unrepentantly, for the next hour. They annihilate the dogs. The final score is 49-19, but all of West’s points come in a late bundle after most of UQ’s key players have been put back in cotton wool. Make no mistake; it’s an old-fashioned blood bath.

This of course leaves your correspondent with the seriously creative literary task of teasing out a good siren-to-siren yarn of what went down out there, the game having, truth be told, all the emotional intensity of a blow-up doll. And so in the interest of not just exhaling a whole bunch of rhetorical wind into a limp sack of plastic and making a one-way mockery of passion, what seems more appropriate is to drag the carcass of this game into a sterile room, throw on a white lab-coat, and perform a kind of CSI-type autopsy of a ruthless and indifferent slaughter.  To learn a little about the John Doe and the perp.

(Your correspondent will play the part of that smart-ass investigator that removes his glasses and strikes puns.)

It must be said, first up, that this was not one of those open slather games wherein some radical mismatch of individual size and/or skill makes for a long, unbroken blooper reel of dopey tackles and absurd, individual, Lomuesque tries. Wests, though undoubtedly the victim and the inferior unit here, are, man-for-man and cheek-to-cheek, pretty much UQ’s equal. Their defence is upfront and hard, they run unflinchingly with ball in hand, and they are determined, if nothing else, to make the students work.  With a little broken play, they have players capable of stealing big meters; 8 and 13 being especially good ball carriers.

In fact, the scrum is probably the only place where the disparity of this contest can actually be pointed and snickered at, Wests taking a backwards walk all day, the ball shuffling around in there like it’s some kind of random fate generator that basically always has bad news for the dogs. And maybe for a scrum specialist this would all seem much more granular, but for the rest of us a ‘Funniest Home Videos’-type voice-over probably qualifies as hard analysis. UQ’s first try comes through a casual eight-man stroll, arm-in-arm, from fifteen meters out. The halfback’s job of scoring is as close to a formality as you get.

UQ’s real dominance is ‘meta’ and must be appreciated across clumps of game-time if not the entire game. This is a win that they construct. They’re a smarter, better organised team, indifferent and disciplined as worker ants. They string together these long skeins of phases that unwind their opponents’ guard like some slippery cult-leader’s utopian promises.  Their second try is a pitch-perfect example of what practised, well-drilled sides like this do best; sitting well within their own defensive half, their opponents with plenty of field to defend, the students nonchalantly go about what looks like a fairly thoughtless attack, playing short pick-and-drives, a few one-outs, occasionally throwing flankers at centres. But over time they basically mine the structure right out of Wests’ backline defence so that it keeps compacting toward the ruck. Suddenly UQ flicks it wide to a deep, patient backline that never flinched or flattened all the while.

Which is one of the oldest tricks in the book. But so perfectly is this executed here, and so thoroughly have Wests consumed the proverbial Kool Aid, that from almost seventy metres out, and without yet technically having passed a single defensive player, the moment the fullback catches the ball he is home. There’s no question, no razzle-dazzle required. Just an afternoon cruise around the out-positioned winger who already knows he’s beat. Keep in mind that this is not a counterattack; there is no broken play here. Wests are basically ready. At least they probably think they are. And yet the last man on the field, the deepest player in his own territory, which is to say the furthest from the scoring zone, manages to receive the ball in such a way that he is already somehow undefendable. The students have effectively bent the advantage line toward themselves.

While it’s not exactly the thing of You Tube, purists will tell you that it takes a special sort of structural dominance to achieve this. But for it to go off this smoothly you’ve really got to be facing an opposition that buys the entire shebang wholesale, and in bulk. Wests, today, are evidently ripe for the plucking.

In fact, the dogs even manage to attack in a subordinate way. Late in the first half they win an offensive line out and finally have a chance to unleash some clean ball theatre on their own terms. Sadly the crescendo of this inglorious three-phase opus is a one-out pass to a vast blind-side where just two lonely props are standing in each other’s pockets and as flat footed as a pair of ducks looking over a cliff. The UQ defenders descend like ravenous hyenas on a pair of sunbathing hippos and come out with the pill that’s soon enough over the try line.

It’s the day’s low point for the visitors, who, though unquestionably valiant, are ultimately neither creative nor organised enough to handle the hosts. They’re caught in a web that enwraps them more thoroughly as they writhe. Which is of course the web’s genius.

The students are in their own sort of crow’s nest atop the Queensland Premier Rugby ladder.

 

Match Result: University of Queensland 49 – Western Districts 19

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Riverview’s Fiefdom Defended Against Coming Of The Kings (Blue Poles, Stubborn Tomatoes and Howling Carpets; A Rhyme For The Times)

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Reporter emerges from Motorway

St Ignatius College, Riverview vs. The King’s School; AAGPS (NSW) 1st XV Rugby, Round 4; Riverview No. 1; 28/05/2016

“The hosting team are lead through a tunnel of students by (in this order) a multi-rotor drone, a large flag bearing the Riverview emblem, the drummer, and finally a student wearing a discarded floor rug with teeth that it takes some deduction to realise is supposed to be a wolf costume.”

Report by Scott Gittoes

Exiting the M2 Motorway into Lane Cove is like stepping from a blizzard into a warm log cabin. The terror of Sydney’s arterial road network – a Jackson Pollack of multi-lane, eye-twitching anxiety – is now but the pillow-sweat of a bad dream from this bosom of expansive, rolling-lawn affluence.  From here, the car itself seems to sigh and ease into a sort of mechanical canter as it moves along an ever descending ridge into the immaculately hedge-rowed suburb of Riverview, a horseshoe shaped enclave carved in the east and west by wooded creeks that flow to two sparkling boat-loaded bays of the Lane Cove River.  It’s one gingerbread house away from a nursery-rhyme.  At the horseshoe’s southernmost tip, behind sandstone pillars on a landholding that would make a feudal lord flinch, lies St Ignatius College, best known by the name of the suburb in which its not insubstantial acres reside.

Today Riverview is hosting rugby fixtures against The King’s School and with respective first fifteen sides both undefeated, the afternoon’s final fixture has a big red ring around it for those closely following the premiership.

A bass drum thunders through suburban avenues, washing out the avian cries and the whisper of wind-swept leaves. The repeated boom beckons your correspondent and all those about him, lemming-like, downhill.  Riverview’s terrain (and not just the school but the suburb itself) sinks into a green basin that is the main oval of today’s contest. The first breaths of winter have recently brought rains and with tag-shoed feet churning the moist topsoil since the dew-sweeping slog-outs of the early AM, the oval has come to resemble a dill pickle slice, dark green on the fringes graduating to a paler, yellowing centre. The ellipse is divided in two; a rugby field closest to the western hill that rises up and under the university-scale campus buildings, and a soccer field to the east.  Into the hillside is set a concrete-block structure roughly 15 metres square; canteen and change rooms.  Recessed into the base of this building is an eight-row grandstand. White-shirted, dark blue-blazered students are crammed in there like rows of teeth set into a jaw.  As the showpiece game approaches, they spill out either side onto the wet grass like thickening strands of spittle, roaring in unison when prompted.  Teachers hover like anxious birds waiting to pick the gums of a yawning crocodile.

When Riverview’s first fifteen do appear, silence descends. They all but float down the hill on the autumnal breeze, between old gum trees, glimpsed but largely out of sight, before truly disappearing again into the change rooms behind the grandstand.  The student supporters promptly organise themselves for the send-out.  If one were in any doubt as to the coveted nature of the bass drummer role, maker of that near subconscious murmur that hitherto has themed the pre-game titillation, it becomes plain enough when the instrument is given to he who is preordained to thump its belly for the main game. The hand-over ceremony has all the quiet grandeur and gravity of a father receiving a blood- and placenta-speckled first-born.

The hosting team are lead through a tunnel of students by (in this order) a multi-rotor drone, a large flag bearing the Riverview emblem, the drummer, and finally a student wearing a discarded floor rug with teeth that it takes some deduction to realise is supposed to be a wolf costume. The visitors’ fifteen are released through a tunnel that is equally long but much leaner on fanfare.  Playing strips are identical but for the varied shade of blue hoop on guernsey and sock. It’s all and only white and Oxbridge blues out there.

In the opening stage of sporting contests there’s a ghostly uncertainty that stirs somewhere inside most participants. In rugby, it’s present in those moments when the players, technically ‘playing’ but as yet awaiting first contact with pill or opponent – milling with clean uniforms on the fringes of rucks or basking in the backline breeze – find themselves unable to express their excitement, a little lost, and generally jittery. Some players get yappy, others jump up and down or rub their hands together. Some go quiet. The scientific name for this condition is nerves. Transitioning fully into a game is, funnily enough, where evenly matched contests can be won or lost, and today this phenomenon appears to be up for proving.  Within three minutes, the visitors are on the receiving end of tries in either corner.  The first is a mercurial kick and recover individual effort from Riverview’s right winger.  The second germinates from some fundamental drawing and passing that creates space for a left wing who knows what to do with all that daylight and has the jets to act on his impulses.  To steal a military phrase – and with all that bass drumming and bellicose war-crying it’s surely not out of place – Riverview has seized the initiative.

Following those first ten unconverted points, in what proves to be a consistent theme throughout the remainder of the fixture, the team conceding a try immediately goes on the offensive. It’s as though the players are expecting an even contest and are intent on honouring the script.  King’s set up camp for a prolonged period inside Riverview’s quarter and leave with three points. Were it not for repeated infringements – albeit not repetitive enough for today’s official to reach for something yellow – King’s may have ended this stretch of honest toil with more.  As it is, the score remains locked at 10 – 3 and will remain so for all but the last dying minutes of the half.

Some patterns have emerged. Firstly, it’s evident that the backlines are willing to play expansively, but their skill in execution, primarily passing, is not in step with their plans.  Passes are lofted and frequently terminate below or behind the man.  Perhaps it’s the greasy pill.  Secondly, and possibly in support of the greasy pill theory (hereafter, the GPT), expansive forays are far outnumbered by hard, welfare-be-damned running at the advantage line, principally executed by hulking lock forwards and two fearless, fast moving inside centres, all of whom latch onto halve-fed shortballs with a bloodlust for metres.  Last, and by no means least (and approaching absolute proof of the GPT), the offensive commitment at the gainline is similarly matched in defence and it’s here that the (greasy) pill pops out regularly in all directions like a cherry tomato under force of a blunt fork.  And so it is that the teams spend the best part of the rest of the half trading blows in this fashion, mostly in neutral territory.  That is until the visitors’ rangy fullback, who’s shown flashes of his deceptive speed – long legs taking slow-cadenced but yard-devouring strides – swoops on loose ruck ball to run untouched to the line for seven equalling points.

The twilight of a rugby game’s first half is another one of those ghostly periods in which things can – and often do – go haywire. Here the nerves are a problem in reverse; certain players shelve the excitement one or two plays early, assured of a job more-or-less done. It’s as dangerous, if not more, than those opening minutes. And it’s just as often here, in these fatigue-filled final seconds, that tight games turn.  Indeed, in what proves to be the last play of the half, Riverview smell complacency and dump a heap of coal on the furnace. They get seven points for cunning, their right wing collecting a brace.

At halftime, relatives and alumni compare notes. They’re scattered across the western hill, donning oilskins or brandname outdoorsman jackets.  Most wear caps.  Behind them, ten or so men busy themselves on the grills.  In the canteen, women serve the sweet stuff.  And over on the eastern touchline, squinting into the lowhanging sun, middle-to-late aged old-boys talk commerce, mostly finance and real estate, or trade stories on their sons’ achievements.  And when play resumes, they’re not afraid to wear their old-school-allegiances on their sleeves, boisterous but reverent.

Much of the second half proceeds like the first. That is, repeated one or two-off kamikazes at the gainline that end in audible collisions or else mistimed ball movement when it does go wide.  In either case, the GPT is in full articulation and the ball develops a near-monogamous intimacy with the grass.  Riverview’s flyhalf squanders a couple of opportunities to extend the lead off the tee (he ends the game with 2 from 7 attempts).  Conversely, King’s take the only three points that are really on offer for them, their halfback knocking it over from forty metres to bring the visitors within four points and give them a sniff.  But it’s not to last.  The hosts shun a very kickable penalty, opting instead for the line, and one wonders whether it’s a decision born of genuine confidence or a kicker with an ever-worsening case of the yips.  The hypothetical proves moot.  Riverview apply more pressure, steal a defensive lineout a few plays later and cross for a try that is converted by the barest of margins.  In step with the game’s theme, King’s are instantly and intensely on the attack. They do enough to cross the line but fumble the ball just before the vinegar stroke. Riverview close out a deserved victory and take their place unaccompanied and undefeated at the top of the table after four rounds.

As triumphant drumbeats hark across a picturesque pocket of Sydney, your correspondent takes a deep breath and ascends into the harrowing truth of abstract impressionism.

Match Day Burger Rating: 6/10

MDB Service Atmosphere: 6/10

MDB Cost: $8.00

Match Result: Riverview 24 def. The King’s School 13

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ENJOY THE PROSE? You can follow us by entering your email in the ‘follow us’ box at the end of the page or by clicking on the black ‘follow’ tab in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.  You’ll then receive our reports fresh from the grill.  Stay hungry.

Brother Francis Bears Witness As Maxi-Pads Supersoak Marist College’s Cotton Curse

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Marist College Ashgrove vs. Padua College; AIC 1st XV Rugby, Round 3; Brother Francis McMahon Oval; 14/5/2016

“From the moment the visitors began their warm up on the field’s far side – tackle bags wheezing and whistling like emphysema-riddled geriatrics escaping house fires – it was pretty clear that they were a bunch of butchers ready to do unspeakable things to whatever flesh they got their steel-gloved mitts on.”

Report by Nicholas Turner

The annals of bonehead sporting plays are a long and sordid record, and it is the quiet desire of all competitors to go undocumented therein. Sport is a contest first, but it’s also a performance, sometimes even a spectacle, and an unforced failure will make the most seasoned competitor wish she was water for the turf to drink up and vanquish forever. And if there is a stage more intimate and personal than schoolboy competition, your correspondent considers it rare indeed. Indeed, the Padua College 1st XV’s burly hooker is not the first player to upend a defenceless receiver in the echo of a rugby game’s opening whistle. He’s not the first to have a fixture brought to an affected halt before the pill has so much as kissed the grass. But as he waddles head-in-hands to the sideline, there’s little doubting he feels like an original kind of idiot.

In the context of a game here that matters mucho to his team and the thousand or so supporters that have travelled across the city to see them battle the spiritual giants of Marist College Ashgrove, to call this an ‘unfortunate brain-explosion’ would be seriously underselling it. Even for a dispassionate observer with a notepad and pen, the compelling hypothetical thrown up by the team sheets and history books for today’s contest between table-topping AIC teams seems to lose its titillating hiss and unveil an awkward silence, like a Webber that someone forgot to replace the gas-bottle for before a long weekend away.

For one, the home side of Ashgrove are not a team that requires extra confidence. At the beginning of the third round of the AIC 1st XV competition they have scored 136 points and conceded zero. Nor does any opponent especially want to kick the rather magnificent hive of destiny that is their history of success. In the sixteen years of the refined, eight-team AIC competition, Ashgrove have won ten premierships, seven of which were outright and undefeated. It has finished the race worse than second only twice, and never finished outside fourth. And nor, finally, does one wish to give them a special invitation to put on an exhibition for a big home crowd that isn’t used to concession speeches. Indeed, something self-fulfilling really does seem to be happening when after a few minutes of firing a potent-looking backline at a reeling defence that stumbles backward, helpless, the Ashgrove boys claim a seven pointer that looks, well, ominous.

You never in your life saw a sixteen year old boy who wished more that he was made of the kind of matter that could evaporate. The hooker’s ten minutes in the sinbin looks like it might get eternal.

It’s a cool twenty-two degrees, cloudless and crisp, one of those pseudo-wintery Brisbane days where it’s so nice in the stands that you could literally watch the grass grow. And Ashgrove’s home turf is a beauty. Beset on a sunny crest in the suburban north-west, its immediate surrounds describe a Neenish tart of tranquil Catholic school grounds abounding in pointy buildings and monuments, and a charmed neighbourhood of trees and stilted cottages lined up like dominoes. The playing surface’s fine, short-grassed ellipse of tree-snake green appears so rich and healthy it looks like the field is silently breathing. The western grandstand is teeming with mums and dads and boys in uniforms distracted by girls not in uniforms. While to the east two opposing wolf-packs of old-boys in thongs observe a cautious truce on either side of a picturesque scoreboard. Plenty of blazered schoolboys are scoffing down the output of a well oiled canteen production-line the way only teenage boys can scoff. Those non-uniformed girls try not to look disgusted.

The field is encircled by sinuous driveways across which C-Class’s and SUVs pump boys in and out of the place on a busy Saturday afternoon of hosting sport. But no doubt the more dramatic way to approach and appreciate the real estate here is to make the back-door pilgrimage from Enoggera Creek, compelled up a steep goat track and across a dramatic giant’s-footprint of a second field by the haunting vision of a bone-white 1930s seminary hanging in the clouds. One gets to feel the air as it thins.

As ten agonising minutes end for the banished hooker and he begins again to stalk the sidelines, the seven point deficit offers relative mercy to his shame. He soon gets right down to business, putting the blunt finishing touches on an utter scrum dominance that even a seven-man forward pack had begun imposing on the leaner Ashgrove frontline. As yet unmentioned, and absolutely crucial to understanding how today’s contest unfolds, is the almost exhaustive physical superiority of the leviathan Padua forwards; from the moment the visitors began their warm up on the field’s far side – tackle bags wheezing and whistling like emphysema-riddled geriatrics escaping house fires – it was pretty clear that they were a bunch of butchers ready to do unspeakable things to whatever flesh they got their steel-gloved mitts on. And without exactly needing to put eyeholes in your newspaper and sit inconspicuously to grasp the hubbub, one was aware long before the whistle that any spare spiritual currency among the Ashgrove supporters was paying for prayers that Padua didn’t really know how to manage all that heft.

And this small but critical bit of psychological second-guessing is why the hooker’s madness in the game’s opening moments almost blew the whole ambush that his team had conceived for their opponents. Because one has the distinct sense that Padua’s plan was to come out firebombing villages before their enemies could so much as get out of bed, and now there’s a thumb-twiddling sense of having to sit back and wait for a trooper that’s fallen out of line. And you just know that up here on Ashgrove’s thin-aired patch of paradise the home side aren’t going to sit around waiting to be incinerated once they’re wide awake.

No, sir. Instead the Ashgrove team down a heady elixir of their own favouritism and gravitas and bolt out with pitchforks. Their halves play like a pair of old friends that can call a three phase move with a wink. And the uphill task of stealing a win up here on the toughest roadtrip in the comp gets significantly graver for Padua.

When a full thirty boys are back on the park the game hits its stride, and spectator asses separate from seats. Big hits go off hither and thither like landmines. Padua’s towering forwards go straight for the stubborn, outsized Ashgrove defenders who, desperately protecting an expectation of success, punish any high running with ball-and-all tacking that more often than not earns them scrum feeds. Which scrums, unfortunately, turn out to be not much of a victory for them because they’re basically a hockey puck going one direction and Padua might as well just put out their hands and be given free kicks directly.

While the contest remains dogged and compelling all afternoon, pure rugby’s flow-chart of virtuous play is in a state of systematic frustration. Ashgrove simply can’t win a set piece, and their much-touted backline barely sees the clean ball they so very much need to rack up points. On the other hand, Padua for all their power up front don’t seem to have a line out, so while they charge up the field through scrum penalties, more often than not they relinquish the advantage anyway.

Scattered running rugby punctuates all this but is frankly at a high premium. Ashgrove’s fly-half is a talent that requires a maximum-security prisoner’s attention round the clock, while Padua’s fullback makes two individual efforts that ought bookend any decent highlight reel of the match. Throughout passages of broken play, both teams tempt the sidelines, the torch passing again and again to eager, fleet-footed runners. Desperate defence scrambles, and the one try that does come on the flanks is belatedly disallowed to the bemusement of everyone but the touch judge. Even the scoreboard has to be wound back.

At the twenty minute mark Padua level the scores in a surge at the line that puts the game back in parity where it at very least belongs. In fact, Padua’s rugby is proving simply better. Their size has well and truly been legitimised and their battery life looks good. Ashgrove’s backs have bugger all chances to throw their much talked-up smoke around. And the best the home side have come up with for the scrums is to make them a lottery; the hooker swings the heel to the effect of a sort of pinball machine from which the pill could emerge just about anywhere. The odds of winning from the feed move back to even, which is indeed a solution of a kind.

But if the interest of the game has an epicentre now it is the question of Padua’s mettle and nerve. Their suitability to victory. Because if the visitors really are still underdogs it is not for reasons of rugby merit. Though here at the centre-stage of schoolboy rah-rah there is always some kind of meddler that ain’t on any team-sheet or game-day program, so as the half-time whistle looms Padua find themselves mystically on the back foot again. Ashgrove marches toward the line through short, tide-defying runs, taking the field piece by piece until a single human effort is enough to cross. And then suddenly, like a bolt of lightning on the clearest of days, a pair of legs involuntarily breech from the smouldering bodies, and the trilling of the referee’s whistle signals more trouble for Padua.

The net result is three conceded points and another forward in the bin for ten. But what’s perhaps most cruel, and most telling of the histrionics that engulf all aspects of this occasion, is the way this feels among the Padua supporters. Kind of necessary, or foretold. Like old Sisyphus watching the boulder roll back down the hill again.  The colour of the half time atmosphere is uncommitted, barely off-white. Despite everything they’ve already shown, the second half finds Padua at ground zero, burdened with the luggage of their own ill-discipline, and with everything and more left to do.

Yet to their undeniable credit they emerge unflustered and intent. Their first milestone is to keep Ashgrove scoreless during the manpower disadvantage. Which they do. The next is to find some points. To this end they launch an unbroken sequence of forward assaults that rock defenders one after another, the pick of the ball-carriers a brutal tighthead with all the hallmarks of a mobile, modern front-rower. One suddenly realises that Padua has been overly loyal to the underdog’s uniform, constricted by its no-longer-suitable cut. Now, in their most explosive phase of the afternoon, which culminates in a try, the whole heavy outfit drops off like an old skin and they play freely and very much like the superior side they are today. More points are certainly coming.

In a last bid at hoodoo, at the height of his side’s capitulation the Ashgrove flyhalf emerges from the sideline and shuffles eerily back into position. Unrecognisable following the rearrangement of something on his face, he is all blood and eyes and white bandages now, like some sort of life-sized cotton bud that’s just been drawn from a horrific wound. This blinking, running, run-calling horror – half athlete, half surgical-aid – seems for a moment like a kind of imp that’s come to put one more curse on the visitors’ improbable campaign. But by then the Padua boys have decided to deal only in material things. A superb run from their fullback to beat three if not four bemused defenders puts the game beyond a score and the visitors in a position to win that it seems they only now have permitted themselves to really occupy.

And not long after that an age-old rock finds a place to rest up there in the hills of Ashgrove. Scenes ensue.

MDB: untested

Match Result: Padua College 19 def Marist College Ashgrove 17

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Students Wield The Cane As Beastie Boys Turned Back To The Bay (Parentheses Overhaul: Thanks For Staying Hungry – We’re Back Baby!)

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Sydney University’s members toast new grandstand.

Sydney University v Eastern Suburbs, Shute Shield, Round 7; University Oval No.2; 30/4/2016   

“Early in the second half, Uni’s fullback lines up for an absolute gimme….a kick whose sole plausible difficulty lays in the risk of letting oneself be distracted by the absolute shame of discovering a way to miss it.  Which he does.”

Report by Scott Gittoes

Sydney University are warming up.  There’s about thirty of them all told, including coaches and support staff.  The players stand in two tight circles, observing rugby’s most fundamental of divisions, forwards and backs, each man interlocked about the waist of his neighbour via thick arms and bloodless hands, to the overall effect of big, crudely woven baskets of polycotton and flesh.  An incessant, almost quarrelsome din rises from these huddles, reverberating through the near-empty courts and corridors of a university campus on weekend hiatus.  Bass or baritone is the vocal delivery of choice, feigned or otherwise, always harried and ideally raspy.  From a distance of less than fifty feet, the only intelligible word that one can reliably discern is the f-bomb or its myriad not-so-Shakespearean derivatives.  One wonders at the innocent ears of a four year old girl playing in the grass nearby. But she’s more compelled by bugs.

The warm up itself, the actual movement of bodies and ball, exudes the same nervy intensity. Today Uni is hosting Eastern Suburbs, the boys in navy, red and white from Rose Bay, known locally as ‘the Beasties’.  Both teams have four wins to date and mid-season confidence and ascendency are the prize.  The University coach now admonishes a prop for spending a moment too long on his back.  He’s an archetypal (even old-fashioned) front-rower; flesh lumping out at the fissure between an undersized training shirt and the waistband of footy shorts, neck extending seamlessly to mug.  All horizontal power.  To the harangue he pays not too much heed.  The captain yells repeatedly, hoarsely, and to no one in particular.  Something about fitness.

Over at the main oval, the playing field is quarantined and obscured by a ring of temporary fencing that challenges spectators to choose between one of two entrances: one, into the new grandstand on the western flank or, two, into the sun-drenched north-eastern corner where a melange of perfume, liquor, hay bales and hormones spills from under a marquee tent.  Today is ‘Ladies’ Day’.  It’s also an inner-city derby so, in theory, the ladies haven’t had to cross the harbour or venture far beyond the gilded avenues of Sydney’s most prosperous suburbs to get here. They’ve certainly dressed for a good time.

University’s game plan seems obvious enough from the outset; run from anywhere and back your fitness.  And it seems to work.  Aside from a fullback who habitually passes left to right without looking, the Students’ backs possess dexterity and speed and the forwards’ doggedness is both authentic and admirable.  Uni’s wingers are a contrast of complexion – one ghostly white, the other dark Mediterranean olive – but otherwise they’re virtual twins; short, stocky, spatially savvy and blisteringly fast.  They find the ball regularly and are stymied only temporarily by Easts’ desperate last-line defence.  After ten minutes, the left wing crosses in the north-west corner, the recipient of a selfless pass from a hooker who in the heat of the moment shows a flyhalf’s touch.

What makes the opening quarter of this fixture rather mouth-watering is that Easts – whilst occasionally kicking to open corners for easy territory – display a similar inclination to play expansively with ball in hand.  Their outside centre runs from deep starts, connecting with the ball at just the right times and at just the right angles, the realisation of some sort of beautiful intersection on a physicist’s graph.  In fact, the outside backs from both teams do this as habit; he’s merely the pick of them and has an enviable knack of exploiting half-gaps.  With all this deep running and speed at the advantage line, opposing defenders are lining up with bulging eyes, spring-loading their bodies in anticipation.  Colours fly in many-a fleeting gain-line encounter, though genuine hits are relatively rare. So far it’s a game of attack.

Easts cross in the south-east corner in much the same way their opponents had in the north-west; through unremitting, opportunistic support play.  It’s compelling, skill-and-speed-fuelled rugby, eye-candy for both the purist and the novice.  The Students respond shortly thereafter, left wing and hooker again combining, the latter flicking a no-look back-of-the-hands pass to pave the winger’s way to the line.  As half-time approaches the rhythm of the game inevitably slows and poor decision-making creeps in.  Uni skies a number of aimless bombs, straying from their ball-in-hand play.  Easts’ fullback hobbles, injured, and their prop is left stranded in cover, forced to kick for touch for perhaps the first, and hopefully last time in his career. The Students lead 13 – 10 at the break.  And in case you were wondering, the prop chose the banana kick.

Sydney University’s 1200-seat capacity grandstand is new, barely out of its wrapping, and the air of pride among the club’s administrators and supporters is as palpable and powdery as a mouthful of misaimed deodorant.  A grandstand attendant presses a finger to his radio earpiece, eyeing a crowd which includes the most senior ARU brass and plenty of silver hair and gold watches.  This is a club patronised by notable men, with seven premierships from their previous ten attempts. Their record of success in the new millennium is equal to that of the Randwick sides from the eighties and nineties.  The new grandstand is a bricks-and-mortar embodiment of an underlying power that has a certain sort of foregone success written all over it.  Behind the blue theatre ropes that demarcate an area either side of halfway, spectators are waited on with bottles of champagne and hors d’oeuvres.

Early in the second half, Uni’s fullback lines up for an absolute gimme.  A penalty attempt; directly in-front and so close that the girl previously spotted on the grass would be odds-on to nail it. A kick whose sole plausible difficulty lays in the risk of letting oneself be distracted by the absolute shame of discovering a way to miss it.  Which he does.  Thereafter, goalkicking duties are assumed by the left wing, the scorer of Uni’s two first-half majors, who ends the game with four tries, three penalties and two conversions to his name.

Easts score no further points.  Although the Beasties continue to move the ball around, their passes fall flat and possession is squandered.  Conversely, the Students’ fitness and ball retention is telling.  Forwards hold and recycle, wingers seize their opportunities.  Their pack is fit enough and inside backs well drilled enough to support outside backs when they’re on the deck. Rarely are Uni’s speedsters found isolated, despite testing outside shoulders and running many metres into space and away from the scrimmage.  As both sides tire and the realisation of defeat washes over Easts, individual confrontations and frustrations simmer. And so the referee – whose hair is cut cleaner and tighter than the edges of the Sydney University Quadrangle – reaches twice into his pocket.  The home side squeezes the game to a clinical conclusion.

Over in the north-eastern corner, the Ladies’ Day revellers have hitherto been formerly delineated along the touchline into distinct tranches of clubmen and women. As the whistle blows the genders now dissolve into each other like two parts of a cocktail that needs little shaking. The men are no longer preoccupied or feigning preoccupation with the fixture.  Some ladies depart, friends leading wearier-legged friends home.  Most stay.  In the long shadow of a grandstand where cleaners lurk like ibises, scooping up empty Moet bottles and oyster shells, the evening begins.

Match Day Burger Rating:  N/A

MDB Service Atmosphere:  N/A

MDB Cost: N/A

Match Result: Sydney University 33 def. Eastern Suburbs 10

Enjoy it? You can follow us by entering your email in the ‘follow us’ box at the end of the page or by clicking on the black ‘follow’ tab in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.  You’ll then receive our reports fresh from the grill to your inbox.  Stay hungry.

Shameless Plug Indulged as MDB’s Correspondent Launches Book in Brisbane (Borderline Spam From Usually Credible Outlet Brings Patience of World’s Most Loyal Amateur Sports Readership To Its Proverbial Knees)

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“Come one, come all…”

Match Day Burger’s own Nicholas (John, excuse us!) Turner will be launching his book of highbrow fiction at Brisbane’s ‘Avid Reader’ bookshop next Wednesday the, 13th of April.

As well as reading from the book and signing copies, Turner will be chewing the rhetorical fat with none other than Luke Stegemann, a man with literary credentials coming out of his ears (former editor of The Adelaide Review & Melbourne Review, and author of mucho esteem; now associate publisher of The Griffith Review) and much, much more compellingly, a devoted amateur boxing referee and judge (NOW we’re talking).

You never know, if the MDB fanatics outnumber the bookworms and start banging on the aluminium fences, these two hard-bodies might even punch on to satisfy the bloodlust.

Breast-and-or-ass-cheek-signing has/have been pre-approved by Avid Reader’s management, so make sure your MDB tattoos are buffed.

Keen punters should register here – though the event is FREE.  Kick-off is at 6pm. Avid Reader is located at 193 Boundary Street, West End, Brisbane.

Your support is, naturally, enormously appreciated.

MDB correspondent publishes long awaited feast of delicious literary fiction – get in line for a hot one!

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Turner’s opus hits the shelves. Hiatus explained…

It is with anthemic, hat-on-heart pride that Match Day Burger announces the publication of a work of fiction by one of our founding contributors, Nicholas (John) Turner. We’re enough thrilled to have birthed this little baby among our ranks that MBD today appears for the first time with a lick of colour- the swirling, facially suggestive Oxford and Cambridge blue of this tome’s tidy cover.

In a spirit of disclosure for those devoted MBD readers tonguing for electrolytic grassroots sporting elixir or a few post-match, elbow-on-mahogany, chortle-inducing war-stories, Turner wishes to make the following declaration, here paraphrased: “This is NOT a book about sport. It’s not even funny. In fact this is flat out high-brow. More grass- than grain-fed if you know what I mean. Wagyu, really. Japanese. Don’t even talk to me about marble scores.”

To give you an idea of what it’s about, we’ve stolen a few words from publisher Savage Motif‘s page:

The debut collection of fiction by Nicholas John Turner describes a world on the fringes of great art; editors, audiences, academics, amateurs, lovers, failures, onlookers and innocent bystanders.

Written predominantly in first person, each of these elusive stories emerges from its narrator’s mind and works its way under the reader’s skin. From a Centenarian stuck in a shrinking Parisian apartment, to twins arranging escorts on the Caribbean Coast; in place of clear narratives, straightforward logic, and neatly extractable meaning, Turner imposes the strange and irreducible philosophies of his marginal narrators. The effect is a series of curious and intimate profiles that brings an unnerving denominator to the surface, and takes the reader where mere pointing will not.

Darkly comic, intellectually playful, its complexity unfolding with originality and deftness, ‘Hang Him When He Is Not There’ is a meditation on the relationship between artists and subjects, creations and beholders, and ultimately between violence and victims.

 

So if that sounds like your kind of bun-filler, grab your tongs and whip one off the grill.

Available  at independent bookshops across MDB’s locale:

Avid Reader (West End, Brisbane); Little Gnome (Wynnum); Berkelouw Books (Eumundi)

And for interstate, internationals, and the inherently lazy…

AMAZON

 

Oh, and since this little literary nugget has finally left the lower intestine, MDB is coming back.

Thanks for #stayinghungry!

 

Match Day Burger Appearing At The Brisbane Writer’s Festival, TODAY (Hibernating Scribblers Go Half-Cocked Into Battle At Literary Chin-Wag In State Library)

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Going in blind – Match Day Burger, live and unedited…

Apologies to those of our loyal readers with shirtfronts drenched in Pavlovian drool for a big, tasty burger amid the sheer starvation rations of our off-season. This, sadly, is not a genuine MDB; instead, it is a bit of news, which we consider to be of reasonable public interest for those in receipt.

Match Day Burger will be appearing at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival – and on your radios – at 2pm TODAY! (Friday, 5th of September)

MDB will be sitting on a sportswriting panel called ‘IM YOUR FAN’, along with real-deal public entities, Geoff Woolcock, Lee McGowan, and Kelly Higgins-Devine. The panel endeavors to talk turkey about what it’s like to write on sport, the nature of being a fan, and how well these things go together. It’s a free event, as part of the annual Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and will also be broadcast live on ABC radio (612 AM).

We’ll be sending along our contributor, Nicholas Turner, to talk his way around the subject and harvest a healthy crop of dead air. So please do come along.

When: TODAY, 5th September

Where: State Library, Auditorium 1, South Brisbane

How Much: FREE

Broadcast: Live on 612 AM

 

Stay Hungry.

 

Masked Cowboys Hogtied As Hopping Hamburgers Impress At Brookfield (Of Meat and Men: The Secret In The Stool)

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National Rodeo Association Brookfield Show Bull Ride; Brookfield Showground; 16/5/2014 

“the rider…is about as influential over the bull as a grasshopper is over the truck to whose windscreen it has attached itself.”

Report by Nicholas Turner

Ozone is led into a roofless cage of about his own dimensions, and then a man climbs over the cage and lowers himself down onto Ozone’s back. The man is skinny, dirt-faced and stubbly. He smells of cigarettes and gum, and he wears glittery chaps and a tight checked shirt and one of those metal-grilled goalie masks they wear for ice hockey. Ozone does not like being sat upon. And now lots of faceless people make themselves busy helping the man fix himself onto Ozone’s back, their limbs working through the cage like robot arms making a Japanese car part. Ozone would prefer not to be touched at all, not by any of them. One of the helpers, a burly fellow with forearms like Christmas hams, is using a leather strap to fasten the man with the chaps’ hand flat onto Ozone’s back, right between the shoulder blades; the strap goes all the way around Ozone’s ribs and is so tight it needs someone with forearms like Christmas hams to hold it. And plus the guy that’s getting strapped to Ozone is starting to clamp his legs around Ozone’s ribs too in a way that says he plans to stay there for a while. Ozone finds this both disagreeable and ominous, and he gives a little shrug that’s more ‘point of interest’ than attempt to actually fix things – Ozone’s own version of an omen – though when you’re weighing in at just under a tonne even a shrug is enough to make your metal cage and all the metal cages attached to it shake like shrubs so that everyone perched on them clings for life as they sway in the night air for a few moments.  Now someone else is synching another strap around Ozone’s belly, just under his ribs. This strap is not the worst of Ozone’s issues but it’s annoying for sure, and the annoyances are really starting to stack up. Ozone’s eyes are slender and dopey, and amid all this the right one wanders out of the cage and to the big, floodlit expanse of dirt that’s all pocked and rippled and patterned with shadows like the surface of the moon, which Ozone, whose seriously disposed to the head-down comforts and general quiet of herd life, isn’t real keen on the ‘centre stage’ vibe of either.

Once they open the gate, Ozone troubleshoots all this with the efficacy of a high-priced consultant. First, he darts quickly right, buries his front legs in the ground, and then throws his head down at something invisible, like he’s head-butting a rat (to death, it probably goes without saying). The effect is that all of Ozone’s monstrous weight rocks forward and down and then shudders a little as he flicks his head just a little up and right (if you’re still following the imaginary rat, it’s landing in the next suburb by now) and stops dead, and the rider, who probably feels like he’s straddling a hi-speed train that’s just put on the emergency brakes, goes flinging forward and all but finds himself eye-to-eye with Ozone over the proverbial handlebars. Still, he clings on, uneasily, and so Ozone goes to the air, head first, and then the whole of him is suspended a metre off the ground. The rider’s thrown back and onto Ozone’s hind, which in turn kicks up and throws him forward again, and with a tiny rotation from Ozone he ends up slipping to the side this time, and once he’s off-centre, Ozone spins and kicks and finishes him off.

This all happens at the Brookfield Show Rodeo, in front of a small spectator’s hill with long runs of hardwood sleepers that sort the earth into tiers that make for rustic seating, behind which the woozy lumi-cocktail of sideshow alley throws a glow into an overcast sky of a morphing colour scheme best described as bubblegum rainbow. Experienced punters have brought along picnic rugs and arranged themselves in family pods on the grass, territory strewn with showbags and inflatable hammers and massive bears stuffed with squeaky Styrofoam balls. The suburb of Brookfield, nestled against a long, northward stretch of protected forestry, is surely the most convincingly semi-rural land within Brisbane’s sub-urban ring. It enjoys a glut of tall trees and clean air and windy, traffic-lightless roads, the kind you throw your high-beams across late at night while you flick the radio over to a mellower channel.  It’s not any real surprise that it acts a little like its own small town in matters of spirit, and has a society that puts on a cosy weekend show every year with rides and candy, and where horticulture and woodwork and baking and all sorts of arts and crafts compete for ‘best-in-show’ sashes.

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Moving down from the upper tiers toward the rodeo’s fenced arena, one first spots at its murky far end what looks like blood cells under a microscope – a sort of shifting huddle of pale, soft, ovalesque things that bump and move and spin. These turn out to be the near uniformly white cowboy hats upon the head of every rider, helper, gate-mover, prodder, wife and child of the good folk who’ve blown into town to put on the show. Though tonight will be a night on which the bulls do most of the impressing; by the time the emcee bids us adieu after two full rounds of competition, no rider in the adult classes of Novice or Open will have registered an eight second ride.

The ‘behind-the-scenes’ area is a labyrinth of tall fences and gates that somehow sort all the bulls into the places they need to be without anyone having the get in there and actually push them. When the cowboys (and possibly the cowgirls, though none was witnessed) climb over the fences they almost always balance a packet of cigarettes and sometimes a wallet on top of the fence while they straddle it, then pick them up again to jump back down. There’s a series of at least ten Australian flags raised at the opposite side of the arena and the emcee is a quick-talking funnybox of one-liners (e.g. “rodeo is all about thrills, spills and medical bills”, “he’s off like a five-day old hotdog”, “how about these hopping hamburgers”, “that bull’s got more moves than a King’s Cross pole dancer”, etc.) who’s both shamelessly partisan and seriously determined to spread the fairly implausible opinion that all the bulls are cranky tonight because of the recent federal budget’s general tight-assedness. Music over the loudspeakers ranges from AC/DC to country and back to AC/DC again. The country songs are thematically fairly one dimensional (e.g. ‘Ladies Love Country Boys’ and ‘Chicks Dig It’) and all songs, in terms of vocal delivery, lyrical dexterity and poetics, are largely Nickelbackian.

Like many capital cities in largely rural states, Brisbane is teeming with country folk who’ve made the move to the big smoke at some stage, and who tend to step out in boots and jeans and mingle with their own when these shows come to town. Your correspondent is fortunate to have tonight’s competition footnoted by one such farmer’s son who drifted in on the nor’ westerly for a decade of schooling from before the onset of puberty, and as yet has not returned. He’s a leggy blonde with big hands and a refined drawl, and though you’ll sometimes catch him in rolled-up chinos and suede loafers his preferred footwear is R.M. Williams and brown. He’s posted up in the bar area with a prime view of the bullring amid lots of real and current country folk with bull tags in their Akubras.

Which is helpful, because understanding what makes for a virtuous bull-ride is not something you can pick up by simply looking. It all happens so fast that your camera can barely get a still image, and there are virtually no clear moments at which one can analyse the decision-making of the rider, who really is about as influential over the bull as a grasshopper is over the truck to whose windscreen it has attached itself. According to the chaperone, a good rider will keep his eyes down on the bull’s head, reading and preparing for what its horns’ current direction says about the body’s next movement. And, of course, the rider must negotiate with gravity. Furthermore, he must keep his backside right down on the bull, because bulls have a lot of skin that’ll just roll around them like a loose sock unless the rider’s got his legs basically wrapped right around his belly and his heels digging back up at the guts.

When Ozone the bull finishes the first of his two rides tonight, a gate at the side of the arena is opened by a big fellow with a pink shirt, and since Ozone isn’t keen on the arena and its fishbowl atmosphere, he heads for the opening quick smart. There’s then another narrow passage through which he’d like to go, and since he’s got a clear run at it, he does. But suddenly a hidden gate slams in his face, and another right behind his rear, and now he’s got nothing to do but stand there and blow off steam in yet another enclosure that’s not big enough to turn around in. The wise, wily tricksters who managed to outwit Ozone here are around ten and twelve years old respectively, and they are wearing boots and cowboy outfits that one must constantly remind one’s self are not costumes.

It’s then, within spitting distance of your correspondent, that Ozone lets go an oozy stool about the colour of French mustard, which slides out of his anus and then cascades down the three or four metal bars of the gate behind him on its way to the ground. It’s at this very moment, and not before, that it becomes plausible to think of Ozone as a being rather than a bit of entertainment or a toy. To really actually admire the unfathomable physical display that this animal just smeared across three seconds of real time (the ride, that is, not the excrement). Because rodeo is one of those things that’s positively frozen in stereotype, and those (including your correspondent) who’ve seen it a thousand times on TV and movies probably think they know what it is. And even when you do sit in the stands and watch one jump and buck and throw a rider, it all seems to happen under a kind of anti-critical cinematic or televisual glass, and you really don’t allow yourself to be impressed the way you should be until you get up real close and just have a good old ogle at one of these things and a think about how unbelievable it is that they can move the way they do.

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Ozone’s a creamy, yellowy, white colour with a strange dark shape that runs across his side like a long, low cloud. His eyes are cool and timeless and patient, like some kind of wet, black, volcanic orb that’s so svelte and soft you couldn’t hold it in your hand. There’s a deadpan look on his face, as inextricably sorrowful as the blues, and his forehead is wide and flat and as big as an opened hand, the place you’d most want to pat him if you could. Inside his ears is a kind of long mohair that stretches right across the funnel-like opening, which turns like a satellite dish sometimes. It’s not so much that he’s big but that he embodies a sort of compressed, concentrated, brutal brand of bigness. It takes a while to register that he is basically a muscle with horns, and then to further realise that all manner of machines have been built and then sculpted in a way that shamelessly emulates this kind of purity of power. That there’s a reason people stick horns on their rear-view mirrors, and talk about the ‘grunt’ of their ride. And that a muscle car is basically a mechanical tribute to a bull.

The sight of Ozone’s stool dripping from one metal bar to the next also jolts one into thinking about just how much real energy he spent in the few seconds it takes him to shrug off the guy in chaps. Because it’s just as easy to forget how much weight a tonne is, and that Ozone is not some kind of machine that exerts energy without suffering for it. This is an animal that can toss about ten refrigerators (its own weight) plus whatever’s on top of it (let’s say, another two-thirds of a refrigerator) into the air and around in circles at heights and speeds that leave an iphone with nothing but blurry Francis Bacon-type images. Another way of looking at it is that Ozone takes about four times the heaviest ever clean-and-jerk weightlift achieved by a human being, and repeatedly leaps into the air with it, for as long as required. We’re talking about an animal that weighs as much as a car and jumps around like a squirrel in a panic. What really seems to occur at his rear end in the few seconds after Ozone exits the arena is that a kind of thick, liquid adrenalin passes out of his system.

When you get your meat under plastic and on pillows that spare you the sight of blood, it’s actually very difficult to reengage with the living beings that get slaughtered to allow that to happen. And the same thing applies to the use of bulls in rodeo, wherein, whatever the semantic flim-flam of the devotees and promoters, these animals are taunted (or else stressed, at very least) for entertainment. The chaperone’s mum sends his raw meat down in Eskys every month or so with a handful of kangaroos tails for his dog. If you’re ever with him near a cargo train line and he suddenly lifts his head and takes a big breath and smiles like he’s just figured something out, it’s because a cattle truck is passing within nostril-shot. And tonight he watches the rodeo with almost no attention to the rider and serious admiration for the animal, trying to put words to his marvelling because he knows your correspondent needs help. And when – after a long and compelling conversation about the head-shaking magnificence of the bull – he’s asked about what happens to them when they’re retired, he shrugs and says ‘probably sausages’ without the nature of his smile taking any perceptible turn.

But when a cattle-truck passes what your correspondent gets in his nostrils is shit and grass and hair. And when he looks at a bull like Ozone, his mind flicks radically between a sort of spiritual admiration and/or affinity and a cold recognition of it as food and/or entertainment. And the conceptual middle ground is a moral mess, productive mostly of pity and guilt, the kind of feeling you get in your gut when a mentally retarded thirty-something man wanders away from his mum and tries to take your hand at the supermarket. A feeling of not knowing how to feel, which you just know is some kind of indication that you’re living in a state of quite unbelievable naivety and/or embarrassing privilege.

Match Day Burger Score: (Satay House Special Plate; inc. satay chicken, vegetable curry & rice) 8/10

MDSHSP Service Atmosphere: 8/10

MDSHSP Price: $12.00

Results: Open Division (1st – David Kennedy, 86 points; Tied 2nd – Fraser Babbington, John Foster, David Mawhinney, 77 points); Novice (No scoring rides)

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Colonel’s Men Go Fishing In Busted Deep-Fryer Derby (Woodchopper Gets Scaled As Spaniard Spends Chilly Night Feeding Skipper)

POLOheader

Queensland Breakers v Brisbane Barracudas, National Water Polo League, Round 11; Valley Pool; 3/5/2014

“He’s on fire for the rest of the night, to the point of it becoming near impossible to drag your eyes away, and one begins to imagine that it’s infinitely hard to look anything but good dancing in a chicken suit.”

Report by Scott Gittoes

It’s just after 8pm and the good burghers of Brisbane hardly know what’s hit them.  A premature winter has descended without so much as an introduction; one can almost taste southern Australia’s virgin snowfalls in the carnivorous sou’westerly wind.  On an evening when most are dusting off their heaters and fireplaces and otherwise doing everything humanly possible to keep warm and bone dry, we’re at the Valley Pool with four hundred or so other spectators for a bit of water-sport, namely, the National Water Polo League’s final round game between the Queensland Breakers and the Brisbane Barracudas.  For the Breakers it’s a must-win, their finals prospects teetering on the outcome of this and other fixtures.  The Barracudas, on the other hand, have barely dropped a game all year.  Tonight though, in the context of a local derby, such mathematical calculations are merely academic; territorial bragging rights are the real bounty.

The pool itself is obscured from street-view behind a near century-old three story red brick façade signed in large lettering “Municipal Swimming Bath”.  From outside one imagines moustachioed men in striped cotton one-piece bathing costumes frolicking in the shallows and springing from the high-board.  In reality, a modern, Olympic-sized swimming pool lies beyond, shadowed along its southern length by a grandstand that meets the façade for height and has the effect of reducing the pool’s size and forming, in a word, a ‘cauldron’.  (The KFC sponsored Breakers, who are at pains to give their fast-food benefactor utmost coverage – even going as far as to remodel their logo this season from a breaking wave to a rooster – colloquially refer to this, their home venue, as “the Deep Fryer”, rather apt were the mercury not falling toward single digits this evening).  Ten or so metres from each end, the pool is bisected crossways by lane-ropes connected to a netted goal, ensuring the ‘playing field’ is centred for ideal viewing.

On the palm tree lined grassy verge opposite the stand a couple of preppy-dressed ‘disc-jockeys’ are reeling off samples from near every infectious, atmospheric chart-topping track released since charts first started to be topped.  The Breakers’ rooster-suited mascot is pacing the pool and at first appears somewhat uncomfortable, even shy, in his new skin, but as the contagious music and perhaps a few cans’ of Bundaberg’s finest kick in, the crowd is treated to a dance routine right out of the vintage Travolta textbook.  He’s on fire for the rest of the night, to the point of it becoming near impossible to drag your eyes away, and one begins to imagine that it’s infinitely hard to look anything but good dancing in a chicken suit.  The jiving cock is shadowed at all times by a younger, fresher version of Colonel Sanders replete with pony-tail and sneakers, whose crowd-pleasing go-to is to cast a fishing rod into the pool at the breaks and stamp on cardboard cut outs of Barracuda fish.  Three or four small, colourful onesie-wearing Barracudas’ supporters are full of beans, perhaps ‘magic’ beans judging by their relentless hyperactivity and proclivity to mob their players before and after the game (it must be said that none of their outfits in any way resemble the predatory fish).

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Nearby, players have commenced a land-based warm up with an almost single-minded focus on their throwing arms.  Some yank on elastic bands tied to trees or posts or else stretch against fences, others toss polo balls between themselves; at all times the emphasis remains on the operative muscles of just one upper limb.  Once in the water, they move with that graceful effortlessness universal among proficient swimmers; you know the ones – all but born with gills and fins who’ve thus spent a great deal of time immersed.  But unlike elite, competitive swimmers, who challenge calliper-wielding sports scientists to find but an ounce of body fat on their lean, shaven bodies, water polo players are not all clean-cut frames and corrugated abdominals; some are just plain big, burly, barrel-chested, fur-coated men carrying a little extra weight around the middle, recalling images of diesel-fitters and lumberjacks.  Most of them, invariably well over six feet in height, are not so much fast but strong in the water and for good reason; the rulebook is filled with minutiae on fouls of brutality and the match oft-cited as the most famous in history is simply known as “Blood in the Water”.  Water polo is quite obviously a physical contest, equal parts physical endurance and sheer physicality.  To describe it as ‘water rugby’ is doubtless a crude comparison, but there’s some truth in it, not least reflected in the fashions and dispositions of this evening’s crowd.

The best example of the classic diesel-fitter look tonight is the Barracudas’ number five, their centre-forward.  He contrasts sharply with their captain, a golden locked, pin-up with beady, ref-imploring eyes.  In the opening exchanges, they appear to form an ominous partnership, complemented by an ever reliable veteran who’s played at least a couple of hundred league games.  Evidently, the Breakers have done their homework and make a habit of frustrating these key playmakers.  Their centre-forward captain and wily, uncharacteristically short number ten are chief among the protagonists, engaging in what becomes a match-long and increasingly embittered battle with the diesel-fitter.  Their encounters often culminate in a boil-up of white-water, one of the combatants hooked like a big-game fish, body almost entirely out of the water, flailing and thrashing.

To an uninitiated correspondent, knowing what is and isn’t legal is pure guesswork, but with a rulebook that lists over forty types of fouls split into three sub-categories, I’m almost certain many sins go unpunished.  In fact, it’s an obvious but almost entirely unique aspect of this sport that spectators, and referees for that matter, simply cannot see the crimes that are being committed under the water.  Consequently, the following seems both inevitable and true: (a) a player is nothing without a good measure of rat-cunning to go with his requisite endurance and strength; (b) referees need to regularly make judgment calls; (c) further to (b), referee satisfaction rates – be it among players, coaches or spectators – must rank as the lowest of any sport, period; and (d) further again to (b), out-and-out dissent towards referees (and tolerance by referees thereof) – be it by players, coaches or spectators – must rank among the highest of any sport, period.  Tonight, as the contest becomes increasingly hostile, at the sound of the whistle not one, not two but most players look to the referee with guilty eyes, some with palms up in a vain attempt to protest their underwater innocence.  Which is frankly almost always doubtful.

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A couple of exclusion fouls called on the Barracudas’ captain in the first quarter prompt both he and his coach to share their disagreement with the referee; the coach receives a yellow card and it seems their understanding of human behaviour is either poor or, more likely, clouded by the emotional heat of the contest.  Between these early verbal stoushes and some vocal Barracudas’ supporters who aren’t afraid to call the officials out by name, to an impartial viewer it appears unlikely that this referee will give any favours to the Barracudas on the frequent fifty-fifty judgment calls that inherently form part of this sport.

The Breakers are too busy netting goals to get on the wrong side of the officials, their captain in centre-forward and their star Spanish import putting on a deft display of skill, the Spaniard repeatedly setting-up the former, whose own speed, aggression and vision opens space for multiple scores.  But perhaps the difference tonight is the Breakers’ goalkeeper, who leaves this correspondent with no doubt as to why he’s a triple Olympian.  Despite somewhat of a second half comeback by the visitors, the Breakers’ continue with enough niggle and drive to close it out, the Barracudas seemingly the victims of their own frustrations.

Match Day Burger Rating: 6/10

MDB Service Atmosphere: 7/10

MDB Cost: $6

Match Result: Queensland Breakers 11 def. Brisbane Barracudas 7

Enjoy it? You can follow us by entering your email in the ‘follow us’ box at the end of the page or by clicking on the black ‘follow’ tab in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.  You’ll then receive our reports fresh from the grill to your inbox.  Stay hungry. 

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