That uncomfortable silence, and the only person in the room is you.
It’s October 14th, 2013. A Monday evening.
Aspendale. The ranch.
And I’m staring. Just staring.
It’s my first day arriving home from work without waggly tails greeting me at the front door.
The dogs, both of them, have recently scarpered off to the Rainbow Bridge.
I held them as the last injections at the Mentone Vet sent them on their way to, hopefully, the pursuit of cats, schmackos and beach walkies elsewhere.
I’m a dead weight sunken in the couch.
Yet the Ikea Ektorp’s usual comforts are not comforting, and home is not feeling homely.
The piercing quiet of loss. The worst kind. Relentless.
“I need to get out of here”.
My tatty lawn-mowing runners, those fraying grass-stained red Puma things, are in the corner.
Tufts of dog hair, white, golden and black, still dance about as I pick them up. Yeah, dog hair dances. Jesus.
But I’ll vacuum when I’m ready.
I lace up, second-guess myself as I head out the front door, but I go.
“Am I doing this? Fuck it”.
Ground Zero. My first run.
I head off through my old dog-walking route around Mordialloc Creek.
Previously, the 54kg German shepherd Cuba led the charge in front, the 4kg Chihuahua Daisy played able sidekick under my arm. The Schwarzenegger and DeVito of canine double acts.
Now, it’s just me. Self-consciously ambling.
Past the croaking frogs in the wetlands, kids cross-bat slogging at cricket training, and sweaty PT sparring partners in Jack Grut Reserve.
I make it to Mordi High, content with the achievement of a fifteen minute jog.
“Yeah, that was alright, I guess”.
It’s just gone two years to that day.
A Sunday morn. October 18th, 2015.
Dark. Crisp. 5:48am.
I’m standing alone in the Ponsford stand at the MCG. The centre of the universe.
And I’m staring again. Just staring.
The ground is aglow, but the humming buzz of the scoreboard test pattern is the only sound.
This vacant contemplation at the MCG in Spring is actually not so foreign to me. That’s just the lot of a Saints fan.
But today I am in control of my destiny.
I am running my first marathon.
The red Medibank-emblazoned finish line and the timing clock, for now switched off, is right there in front of me.
What the hell am I about to go through? Why am I doing this?
The greater journey started two years ago, but entries for this particular madness opened at 9am on January 19th this year.
I signed up six minutes later.
And now just an hour remains.
As social media obligations demand, I take crap photos of the scene. And turn away. Praying to see it all later.
42.195. Kilometres. Later.
I have teammates now to share this with.
I snap out of my solitude and reflective wank to join them at the back of the stand.
The ridiculous pre-race rituals quickly take shape.
On names alone, it’s an airport security screening. The gels, the liquids – and post-race, hopefully the aerosols.
Not to mention, the loitering around toilets for time periods that would otherwise result in arrest.
There is nervous giggling of doom. It’s modus operandi for most of us, but Carly’s “gigglish” is the most fluent.
We begin reconciling injury niggles, and underselling ourselves and the preparation.
My line is consistent.
“Yeah, we’ll just see what happens. I still have this calf thing..”.
My torn calf from earlier in the year, courtesy of a misguided basketball comeback, has still been lingering. Grabby calf rears its head on most runs, including the last gasp shake-out on Thursday.
I’m not sure if they’ll stick it out today.
As we move to the start line on Batman Avenue, the sporting capital is looking pretty.
The sky is grey, our river is brown, but it’s a vibrant kaleidoscope elsewhere.
Hot air balloons above – I think they’re here for us, and a vivid fluorescent palette of singlets, shoes, compression socks and pacing balloons are below.
If Google Earth captured this scene from the cosmos, it’d be a giant bag of jittery, angst-ridden skittles. As collectively sponsored by Asics, Brooks, 2XU, Nike and Saucony.
I work my way up near the front. To get there I am passing a well-hydrated convoy of anticipation, false bravado and self-doubt.
I feel like a charlatan.
I shouldn’t be up this close, should I? My training suggests I should.
But I’ve never run this far?
Eight weeks ago I’d never run more than half this.
What if I hit “the wall?”
Oh God. The wall.
I find myself standing next to Kirstin Bull. She has the 3 hour 20 minute balloon. Today will be a leisurely trot for her. She is the Australian Ultra Marathon Champion.
And is that a Kenyan guy just over there?
“Ooohhhh. Kenyan guy.”
I ponder it all again for a moment. More staring.
“How. In the actual fuck. Did I get here?”
That first Mordialloc Creek saunter was gradually repeated. Twenty minutes, or thereabouts, a few days a week.
It provided some comfort. Comfort for a couple of months.
Then came the divorce.
And I had to keep running.
There are worse addictions to take up when life hits a few speed-bumps. Others of a certain age who found running in similar circumstances have far more compelling and worthy tales.
But running through the odd shedding of tear around Aspendale streets still appealed more than, say, rocking back and forward to Jeff Buckley’s The Last Goodbye in the shower on Sunday nights.
Originally a distraction, soon a focus, eventually a purpose.
Perhaps it was a need for achievement, confidence, or just “something to do” when things elsewhere were uncertain. In that educated, middle-class, anglo-saxon kind of way.
I still wrestled with my newfound devotion to this, it seems a bit frivolous and self-absorbed at times.
And it had quickly morphed into an entire “lifestyle”.
My friends are rightly throwing themselves into more meaningful pursuits. Kids, partners, career fulfilment, more pets, more travels.
But for now, this is me.
Discovery of running technology came soon thereafter.
“Blimey. You can track this shit?”.
The Runkeeper app’s female voice seductively informing you the pace and distance.
“Two kilometres. Average pace. Five minutes. And thirty seconds”.
You soon want to keep improving.
The Garmin GPS watch arrived next. Then actual running shoes. Technical fabrics. Compression gear.
And eventually my first event, the 2014 Run For The Kids. A spur of the moment decision with some workmates. I’d never really wanted to progress to actual fun runs.
I’m not really one of those people.
But I was hooked immediately.
Was it the sense of belonging? Just something to post on Twitter and Facebook?
Or those fabled endorphins, which for the most part, are a crock of shit?
It didn’t matter anymore. I was away.
“But Dave, you don’t need to lose weight.”
“Well that’s not really why I’m…”
“You’re clothes are dropping off. Are you sick? What’s wrong?”
“Well actually I’ve started running and…”
It took six months to desire to run further than “five or six” kilometres in one hit. The marathon was never, ever part of the early plan.
But it gradually sucks you in.
Back on Batman Avenue, Rob De Castella hits the mic as the skittles wait below.
I can’t hear a word he’s saying. I assume there is a rallying cry for old mate Pheidippides, and how all this palaver began in ancient Greece.
The presence of Deek is fitting. He is my first memory of a marathon. Or any sporting event. At five years of age, I remember two things about the Brisbane Commonwealth Games. The big-ass kangaroo mascot Matilda, and Deek.
He charged home to win marathon gold.
It seemed momentous. The powerful finish, coming from the clouds. I like running this way. Maybe that triggered it off.
And I’m staring again. Just staring.
The national anthem plays. It’s like a Grand Final. The Olympics. The World Cup.
Or maybe the school assembly.
But now I actually feel like an athlete.
And this is fucking ace.
There is the final knowing nods to other anxious faces. Everyone’s name is “yeah good luck mate”.
I make the final adjustments to my gear. The emergency iPod shuffle and headphones are in my pocket. I hope I won’t later be calling on the motivational assistance of messrs D.Grohl and Flo Rida.
Finally. 7am ticks. The gun fires.
Hashtag holy shit.
Make legs go now.
“Am I doing this? Fuck it”.
It’s a rhythm of trampling feet heading up towards Flinders Street as we begin.
There is something engagingly hypnotic about this start of race noise. The communal harmony of running. Like we’re all in this together.
God only knows how, but we’re all in unison.
The carb-loaded collective, advancing in solidarity.
Tramp. Tramp. Tramp. Tramp.
As the field sorts itself out and breaks up, this percussion will wither away.
And soon enough, the rhythm is interrupted.
There is a “Slap! Slap!” on the tarmac.
Some poor bastard just lost a couple of gels in the first 400m.
“Do you need those, mate?”
It appears the poor bastard is me.
I turn around. I hesitate for a second. Do I or don’t I go back? The stampede is coming. It’s basically the charge across the plains in Braveheart. I will get mowed down.
There is no way I am turning back.
Run, Forrest. Run.
The gels are your quick hits of carbohydrate energy. They aid in staving off that aforementioned wall. And I’m down two, two minutes in.
Vale Endura Vanilla. Vale Endura Raspberry.
And there’s over three hours to go. Splendid.
I am recalculating when I’ll have to take the remaining. I think I still have enough tucked away in flipbelt and shorts pocket.
The math alone distracts me for a few kilometres while the peloton heads down St Kilda Road.
It’s actually typical of the ongoing numbers game that running can be.
Your pacing. Your times. The bib numbers, it’s 780 for me today. Age groups. The “42.2”, “21.1”.
This constant flurry of numbers are perhaps part of the sanctuary that running can be for the perfection-seeking, over-thinking and analytical.
Maybe that’s how I fell into this after all.
As we turn into Albert Park, I am, by my own admission, travelling “pretty sweet”. My pre-race plan, jettisoned gels aside, is on track.
Keep the 3:10 pacer in your sights if you can.
But if not, who cares.
Run within yourself. Focus on the now. It’s your first tilt. Just enjoy this. The goal is to finish.
Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself.
There is a chopper whirling above, as per Olympics coverage and other big events.
It’s uplifting. As though this really is worthy of something.
Despite there being six thousand of us out here plodding away, it leads me to momentarily having a touch of the Ron Burgundy’s.
“I’m kind of a big deal”.
We’re about 17kms in. Cruisy.
I’m heading west up Beaconsfield Parade towards the Port Melbourne turnaround.
It’s art deco apartment blocks to the right, Port Phillip Bay to the left. It’s open and exposed, but today it’s still. The Tasman southerly is behaving.
I’m still clutching my bottle of Hydralyte Sports. Gripped tightly, just as my niece Evie clutches her bunny, Flapjacks. Inseparable.
The Hydralyte, my nectar of the (running) gods, will stave off my greatest fear.
Events back in July, in warmer, humid climes, have led me down this cautious path.
Coming back the other way are the race leaders. Yeah, those Kenyan dudes.
They are graceful and swift.
In some of my previous races, Mum would ask, “Did you win?”.
“No, not today Mum. Those pesky Kenyans, we’ll get them next time. Ay, ay, ay?”
In hot pursuit is, hang on, is that Craig Mottram? The Big Mazungo. Australian distance running legend. And a fellow, rare, “taller” runner. Represent. He is still a lithe beast, but doesn’t run marathons.
I then see Jess Trengove in the all cerise Asics kit. She is shooting for a Rio Olympics qualifying time today. Mottram must be pacing her.
I doubt there are other sporting pursuits that offer this opportunity. The backyard hacker gracing the same turf, in the same event, as world class athletes. And this is not a Pro-Am. This is not a celebrity hit-and-giggle.
They are having a crack.
We hit the 20k mark. A familiar figure is up ahead. I catch him.
It’s Tristan Miller.
Tristan ran 52 marathons in 52 weeks, on every continent, and wrote a book of his tales. I knew him in a previous life. We stacked shelves and pushed trolleys at Coles in Mt Waverley as we went through university.
I had never known of his later running exploits. But his book, fortuitously, found its way into my arms.
“Hang on. I know this guy”.
We eventually reacquainted at a running convention. He had sauntered into running a bit reluctantly himself, like me, post a similar life change back in the day.
After his global exploits, his Run Like Crazy brainchild formed into a running club. The bulls. They have a Mentone group.
He suggested I get down there.
I joined them in January. Within weeks I knew there would be lifelong friends amongst them. There is inspiration and comfort to have them out here likewise slogging away today.
And this camaraderie and support means more than “running a good time” could.
Running is actually every ounce the team sport you mightn’t initially believe it to be. We are all just racing against ourselves, and we’re passionately backing each other to win that battle.
“The T. Mate. Mate”.
We have a quick chat. We are both in the club strip. He pulls out his phone, and we grab a marathon selfie on the run. He is world’s best practice at this particular craft.
As form goes however, Tristan is crustacean like today. Crabbing a bit. Sore.
By rights he shouldn’t even be here. He’s coming off a 100 mile event in Colorado. 160kms in the Rocky Mountains. Jesus.
Yet he still shows up and digs in today. His mental strength astounds me.
But today he lets me go, and we wish each other well.
There’s a wall of noise coming back to Fitzroy St before the trek down to Elwood.
I’m high-fiving kids and acknowledging random signs. I’m trying to feed off the energy. There is much love out on the course.
And like possums scurrying across power lines, it all feels very Melbourne.
A sign then appears that includes my name. Rachel from the group has concocted a poster for us. I run a tangent to give her a high-five.
I am so Ron Burgundy right now.
As far as my form and feel goes, I am actually still in the sweet spot. I’m thinking it should be harder than this, shouldn’t it? My pacing is what we’ve trained for. The taper is delivering.
Just conserve. Just conserve.
I keep passing others. It’s a natural boost.
I’m through another wave of energy at the Elwood turnaround and heading back up Marine Parade to Fitzroy Street.
Turnarounds doth suck. The crowds assist.
I’m looking for some of the team coming the other way. Simon spots me first. He is debuting in the Spartan kit today. Spartans have run ten or more Melbourne marathons.
Simon tuned up for this by running the entire length of Ireland, southern to northern tip.
Run Like Crazy indeed.
Outside St Kilda Marina I come upon my brother Chris, wife Lauren and little Evie at the corner. Lauren shapes up for the iPhone photo. She captures me waving to Evie.
It’s straight to Facebook.
Evie is confused but adorable. She is clutching Flapjacks.
Chris hands me another bottle of the Hydralyte.
I’d stop for a chat, but, you know.
Back up Fitzroy Street, it’s enough of a slender rise to now, quite frankly, piss you off.
Suddenly the half-marathoners are fanning out of Albert Park to join us. From stage left, it’s a flashmob of those bloody skittles, spilling out all over the table.
“Where the fuck did they come from?!”
The tramping is not rhythmic.
Worst. Percussion section. Ever.
It’s almost single file.
I have to slow down, but I’m actually fine with a quick respite.
A stitch starts kicking in. I have over-imbibed on the Hydralyte.
I turf the current bottle in the shrubs on the median strip. A seemingly “concerned local resident” catches me doing so.
I reason it as being ok, Dad grew up in Windsor in the adjoining street sixty years ago after all.
“Sorry, luv, I’ll get it tomorrow”.
Yeah, that’ll happen.
We’ve hit about 31k.
And it’s now I have to trust in the training.
It’s been a Melbourne Cup preparation. In the main, early mornings in the dark and frost of the local winter.
Bart Cummings style, trained to the minute.
Sprint work, and repetition upon repetition, at the Mentone track on Tuesdays. Recovery runs up the Yarra and around the Tan on Mondays and Wednesdays. Speed endurance up Beach Road on Thursdays. A Saturday trot on the beach path.
And long run Sundays, 30+ kilometres on the bayside trails, and the Chelsea Badlands, mulling about life, and footy, with Stocky and Coach.
Recovery dips in winter waters. The foam rolling, the strength training, the stretching. Physio. Massage. The icing of calves. The icing of quads. Lentils, cous cous – wholemeal cous cous, brown rice, quinoa.
Quinoa, for god’s sake. Who have I become?
St Kilda Road. Again.
Shit, is now real, as we head back towards the city.
You tend to forget how long this road is.
At the southern end it’s a four lane boulevard flanked by, to the left, office buildings.
And to the right, office buildings.
It’s hard to find the inspiration. The grind is on now. I begin paddling a little.
The field is really strung out. Akin to the European horses having gone beserk up front on the first Tuesday in November.
The 3:10 pacing bus is still ahead, but there’s not many passengers remaining.
It’s still in my sights.
And it’s now I have a peek at my wrist.
At 4:15am this morning, over Uncle Toby’s Oats and banana slices, a spur of the moment mantra was settled upon.
I wrote three words.
They then washed off in the shower.
I re-wrote them.
“Believe. Breathe. Smooth”.
The latter convincing myself this is easy. As though, after 35kms in, I’m just getting warmed up. In theory.
There is a deflating turnaround at Linlithgow Avenue as we now run back away from the City. It’s the rise gradually heading up towards the Shrine of Remembrance.
By now it feels like you’re scaling the Alpe d’Huez in Le Tour.
Coach Wooly is there.
Praise. Freakin’. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
He starts running alongside.
“Mate. I am so fucking proud of you. So consistent. Your breathing. It’s bang on”.
I am absorbing his words. It gives me confidence I am travelling well.
Still, my response is now more Brick Tamland than Burgundy.
“Can’t talk. Running. Stitch. Me. Stitch”.
“Think of the diggers, mate”.
His support locks me into some sort of transcendental auto-pilot mode.
At the corner of Birdwood and Domain, a group of Wooly’s mates are gathered. They give him a big cheer and a pump-up.
“I’ve only ran 300 metres!”
I actually appreciate the levity. But they can all get stuffed.
St Kilda Road. Again.
We make it past the Run Like Crazy team tent just before the Princes Bridge. I forego the offer of a flat bottle of Coke. It’s another surge of support, but I can barely acknowledge it this time.
Up ahead, opposite the Arts Centre spire, a fellow runner is down.
In the gutter. Cooked. Vomiting.
The ambo’s are at hand.
Wooly is still alongside. We could both comment. I almost do. I sense he almost does.
But we stay quiet.
And just look straight, dead ahead. And keep running.
On the Gold Coast in July, I was old mate in the gutter.
There was a tumble in the Half Marathon. Ahem. The Half Marathon. About a kilometre from the line.
A resulting disoriented, dehydrated mess.
As I stared out from the gutter that day, I mistook the Southport broadwater for Albert Park Lake.
What day was it? Where am I? Who am I?
And I thought the end was nigh when I saw the fear in the assisting spectators faces.
The ambulance whisked me to University Hospital. I sugared up and regained my faculties.
There was also a kidney test. Much blood was drained. But it wasn’t meant for me. The nurse apologised.
Tim busted me out later in the afternoon.
He with God Coast marathon medal swinging around his neck, I hooked up like E.T. for scientific testing. And I’d had to borrow another patient’s Samsung to phone home.
It spooked me and changed my approach to running since.
Relax. Pace yourself. Hydrate before. Hydrate well before. Hydrate during. Walk through the drink stops. Run to feel. Not to your watch. You train hard. Race easy.
Wooly has escorted me through about three kilometres.
He leaves me with a final piece of advice before heading back for the other Mentonian bulls coming through.
“When you hit the bridge, look right and take it in”.
A minute later, I hit Princes Bridge. And look right.
It’s Melbourne at its glorious Spring best.
The Yarra is now a twinkling corduroy in the emerging sunshine.
And the MCG, that strong and resolute beast, dominates the canvas.
I now know I’m going to finish this thing. The relief washes over me. And I’ve got a bit in the tank.
There will be no wall today.
I pick up the pace.
Maybe these endorphins aren’t such a crock after all? I’m in the flow.
Past the Federation Square crowds, the Flinders Street Station clocks, and onwards to home.
I’m picking more people off.
The 3:10 pacer is now, for all intent and purposes, friendless. At the bottom of Wellington Parade, he screams with gladiatorial gusto, to anyone within ear shot.
“Don’t let me beat you! Don’t let me beat you!”
I oblige. I pass him.
The roadside casualties are picking up. Cramp is rampant. We are so close. They’ve come so far.
“C’mon guys, get up, get up!”
Running club and sponsors’ tents are assembled along Brunton Avenue. It’s carnivale under the canopy of the Yarra Park elm trees and the shadows of Melba’s Colosseum.
I start taking in what I’m about to achieve. Millions have probably done it. Thousands upon thousands have done it faster than you. But it’s my turn to soak it up.
I’m running into the MCG. I’m fucking running into the MCG!
They have literally rolled out the red carpet. It’s one lap of the red landing strip to the tape.
Once you clear the entry tunnel, the noise, and the weight of the joint is just upon you. And there’s only a few thousand here.
I can only imagine 100,000 on Grand Final day, and you’re Lenny Hayes having a shot from fifty metres out.
Or a century on debut against the Poms on Boxing Day.
Ron Clarke with the Olympic torch in 1956.
I can’t even reconcile how good this feels. I’m torn between drinking it all in, and ramping up my rhythm in the charge for the line.
Can I do a second lap?
It’s constant cheering from the families in the crowd. You have to pretend it’s for you.
My eyes finally meet with my companions from the dark at 5:48am, the finish line and the clock.
It’s a final sprint from half-forward to half-back on the Members wing.
The clock reads 3:10 and change. I’m elated. The pacer has stuffed up. I don’t care.
In the midst of all this, I momentarily think of another city.
Cheekily, I had a quick peek at qualification times during the week. My time today will be enough to lob me in the most prestigious of marathons, in 2017.
It’s the icing on the cake.
I give it the double cobra, inverted, traditional, as I go under clock.
I stop immediately.
My calves, for 42.2 kilometres my surprising friend, are suddenly shot. It’s more than ok.
I need to embrace someone.
The community is instant in these moments, surely. The kinship of marathon exhilaration and pain.
There is a fellow Run Like Crazy singlet in proximity. I don’t know him. But here I come, bro.
There are pats and congrats with others who played cat and mouse on your journey.
Black compression socks guy, red hat Ned Kelly beard guy, green singlet guy, red hair Irish girl.
It’s an atmosphere of gratitude, relief and achievement.
An elixir you wish you could bottle forever.
We are gradually being shuffled off the turf. I have to take this in while I can.
Before heading down the race, I stop and turn around one more time.
And I’m staring again. Just staring.
Deep breaths. Of reflection and exhaustion.
In this moment, every anxiety, every kilometre, every metre, of training, was worth it.
I think about the two years. There is a tear. It was always likely.
But the self-pride is beating out of my chest. It’s been a while.
Today feels like a full stop to many things from the past, but the beginning of so much more in the future.
I hobble gingerly down the race.
I now understand why I’ve done this.
And I know I’ll be coming back to do it all again.