RUN TO FEEL (Running, Marathon)
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.
“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.
“…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.
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.
“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.
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
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.