By Nick Roger Clarke
THURSDAY MARCH 19, 2020 – 10km recovery run.
I approach a floodlit MCG which is fully aglow, revealing such a spectacle of electric brilliance that it sucks all the light from the night’s stars, from the CBD skyline, and from the Punt Road traffic lights, before blasting it back up into the ether as a single luminous bulb.
Save for three patrolling policemen and myself, no other soul roams the vast concrete concourse.
Conditioned to the screech of the umpire’s whistle and the rumble-roar of one hundred thousand fans, I pause my running watch and headphones, to hear the late-summer breeze carry an ambulance siren across the city and then tickle Yarra Park’s canopy of English Elms and River Red Gums.
I near a succession of bolted glass doors and peer inside: Richmond and Carlton – the AFL season opener, performed to a colosseum of empty plastic seats.
A few seagulls circle overhead and a couple of lucky policemen lean against the boundary line.
Far from being a sporting event, this is a live TV show, performed by some athletes inside a massive studio.
This week has felt like breaching the shallow end of a pool, flailing to find your footing; untethered from real life.
Working, socialising, shopping – it suddenly all feels like simulation. Running is always real.
And so I will focus on running until this is all over.
MONDAY MARCH 30, 2020 – 18km medium long run.
I am to take a break mid-way at Royal Park to meet up with my three best friends. The eve of being allowed outside with just one person is here and, as he texted with atypical urgency, Ben has something to tell us.
During the run there I listen to the sentimental songs of 13 years of travelling together, living together, running together and being carefree, arm-in-arm dickheads together.
He is to become a dad.
I overflow with tears of pride and of melancholy at the passing of time and its crude ability to archive all that which was so recently the present.
Clouds smother the shelter-less park as we crouch on its itchy grass and air-charge shots of whiskey from several metres apart to the disapproving stares of passers by. Their eyes say ‘irresponsible young people’ and anchor me in a role that’s both familiar and welcome. Public opinion is evolving with such rapidity that surely what we now find acceptable we shall soon deem irresponsible and the guilt we feel for not having taken this social event seriously enough shall be balanced by the embarrassment of having been too paranoid.
The run home is scored by more of the same songs and I cry the whole way. Everything is changing in every way, and so quickly. What will life look like after this pandemic? The more I think about it the faster I run to stop the thinking, but it is of no use.
I put one foot in front of the other to the beat of the music and the surging flood of memories carries me home, through the streets where they’ve stopped pasting posters.
SUNDAY APRIL 5, 2020 – 28km long run.
Time shrinks when one ceases to see to its being filled. Time swells when one finds a purpose in each day.
The Boston Marathon, the big trip to America with Claire: we were set to leave today but it’s all cancelled. Six months of hard, pointless training.
Still I run.
I can never tell if I’m improving at writing but, at running, I’m 46.5 seconds quicker over 5km than this time 2 months ago.
Everyone runs now – the tracks and trails are seas of shifting duos wearing new sneakers. Real runners are found on the golf courses and responsible runners are found by themselves.
Today I run all 18 fairways at Yarra Bend Golf Course. Never before have I felt the gentle Birrarung wrap around me with such intimate affection. Never before have I felt such peace in metropolitan Melbourne. How wonderful it is to be afforded this privilege! How sad it is that this land and many more acres like it are usually inaccessible to all but the wealthy few.
There is a choice at hand – between turning inwards – stockpiling and shoving people in the anxious supermarket aisles to get some toilet paper, or casting your gaze outwards – buying just what you need and even thanking the person stacking those shelves. There’s an unprecedented feeling of connectedness on offer, for those willing to take it.
Save for the dread, the moods, and the occasional scratchy throat that gets one wondering, this is the life of which I’ve always dreamt – working from home with ample time to write, run and listen to music.
SUNDAY MAY 3, 2020 – 32km long run.
I miss friends on the long runs.
Ben and I ran together once this week, but it felt strained, even dangerous. He’s being vigilant, and I’ve also bought a headlamp to run very early or very late, avoiding as many people as possible.
The final hour of these three-hour odysseys are miserable affairs – the only run in the 100km week where the ‘why?’ is entertained and therefore the only time I have to answer it – ‘because you don’t have a choice.’ Every alternative is destructive and I can’t go back there.
In all other ways, the absence of choice is a reprieve.
This evening upon clocking a chorus of unfamiliar voices from a neighbouring apartment I feel the familiar conflicted-ness of an ageing partygoer turned settled thirty-something. And then I remember! Nobody has anything going on. Is happiness simply fewer choices?
I choose to be become the best runner I can be, because God knows the well is dry – I cannot write about anything but this.
MONDAY AUGUST 3, 2020 – 2.5km warm up/4 x 1km (1 minute rest)/2.5km cool down.
Living through history was never supposed to be this boring.
Speaking of history, mum, who lives alone, said this yesterday:
“Our generation have been lucky for never having had to go through a world war. My dad was 18 when he was a rear gunner being shot at by Germans, then getting wounded in Egypt. His mother had three sons in the war. I can’t even get my head there, to imagine the heartache. All the rationing they went through for five years. I grew up with the cupboard under the stairs being full of tea with my mum saying she ‘never wanted to be without tea for the rest of her life.’ What we’re going through is separational, nasty, insidious but we are also just being asked to self-isolate and to watch TV on our couches for five months. But of all of the things that are bad for me, the isolation from you is the worst because I love you so much.”
During the hour of exercise now permitted each day, within one’s little radius, I clench my teeth and go berserk – charging straight towards the Yarra or as is the case today, Olympic Park and, once there, tearing off my mask, to breathe, to rage, to stride out in intervals at near 100 percent exertion with minimal rest, before returning home after 59 minutes and 59 seconds, re-masked but entirely revived.
As for the rest of the day – a little work, some stretching and strength exercises, and a lot of reading about the Yarra, with which I have become wholly consumed.
Melbourne’s rivers have become aortas, keeping the heart of the city and the hearts of its inhabitants pumping through this darkest of winters. We walk, run, and cycle their banks to feel connected to the natural world and to each other, for a short time. It is a wonderous thing – how we humans can come to appreciate, even love our immediate environments, when all that lies beyond becomes irrelevant.
And how we can find inspiration through the narrowest fields of vision! I dream up a documentary about the Yarra, discuss it with filmmaker friends, and plot out river landmarks to run to once we can venture further out. Yesterday I even bought an inflatable kayak to paddle down the river, to the degree that anyone can travel in one direction anymore.
But the greatest inspiration is again The Boston Marathon, whose organisers announce a virtual marathon – medals and all, for which I register in optimistic anticipation of our restrictions easing.
While the prospect and privilege of being able to run an actual race seems hopeless, the simple freedom to run that far, for that long; to feel that distinct sense of accomplishment and control in a year that has prohibited both, would be the proudest achievement of my running life. A victory over circumstance, won through blinkered perseverance.
TUESDAY OCTOBER 27, 2020 – 2.5km warmup/strides/1km race pace/2.5km cool down
Tomorrow I should run the fastest marathon of my life and by some margin.
But Ben became a father today, to lovely little baby Jude, and running was instantly revealed as pointless.
A ‘virtual marathon’ is a nonsense – masochists with GPS watches, pointlessly pounding their bodies into trauma. I realise I’ve not enjoyed a single run over the past few weeks, even during taper. My body is shouting for a reprieve. Today, to coincide with the birth of baby Jude, the restrictions have lifted and the mood in Melbourne is changing. People are slowly emerging from their hovels, delighted at the summer of outdoor dining ahead. This journey needs to end now. I consider calling it off.
But entertaining the ‘why?’ this year has always been futile.
I return to the routine – lay out the kit, pin on the bib, eat the final gnocchi and set the alarm for 4:30am. Do now, think later.
I watch the Without Limits film about Steve Prefontaine, the iconic American distance runner. “The best pace is a suicide pace,” his character says, “and today looks like a good day to die.”
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 28, 2020 – 42.195km
I set out at suicide pace.
At 19km all the niggles are gone. All doubt is departed. Right now is everything. I am f*cking in it, in sync.
I am a steam locomotive chugging around and around Royal Park’s 1.2km crop circle through low-lying fog as a hazy sunrise looms up and over Melbourne’s CBD. Chalk drawn in-jokes cover the bitumen track, drawn on by friends the night prior:
‘You can do it – you absolute!’
‘Be a sports man!’
The moment is perfect and I could run through a brick wall if it presented itself.
Which it does.
“What do you need?”
My ever-ebullient running mate Elise, helping on the bike, calls out ahead to Claire – set up at a trackside table – to grab the Ventolin and another gel.
“How can I possibly run that again?” I wonder, suddenly slowing, hot and exasperated at the halfway change in directions, my cadence plummeting and heartrate climbing.
Elise starts to blast my favourite running songs from the year from a Bluetooth speaker hung from her seat. Hum, The Comet is Coming, The Midnight.
I put one foot in front of the other to the beat of the music and allow the surging flood of memories to overwhelm me. Some are even written on my arm:
‘Dedicated to Jude!’
More friends start to turn up trackside, bumping elbows in place of hugs, and radiant like it isn’t 7am. For some, it’s the first time they’ve seen each other in 6 months.
At 39km I am asphyxiated for good – lungs wrapped in cellophane and stomach unable to keep down fluids.
I pass through the trackside table checkpoint for the final time and everyone’s there, my best friends, Claire and Elise, my filmmaking friends – all clapping and urging me to get to the end.
Which I do.
The ‘why’ reveals itself upon finishing: to make these impossibly selfless, precious people proud, to make my mum proud, and to perhaps even grant myself a modicum of pride too, during this fleeting year of undistracted time where I was privileged with a healthy body, free of injury or illness. Mere minutes after finishing, I already know that I will never ask this of my body again.
And in the years to come, when my legs scream at running a fraction of this distance at a fraction of this pace, and when I’m told by younger runners, unfamiliar with the obsolete term ‘virtual marathon’, that today’s time doesn’t count, I will know otherwise.
Because while this year may be too problematic or triggering to reflect on with any great focus, and too strange a series of events and emotions for future generations to fully comprehend, I will know that running was my reality. And at the time, it counted for everything. 2:34:38.