It is early, the sun just poking its nose over the horizon on the kind of picture postcard winter morning that turns the tackiness of Surfer’s Paradise into something beautiful – all silver and gold, shimmer and shadow. It seems like a nice morning to go for a run. The air is cool but not cold, with the promise of warmth to come. So I join with a few others (well, 5000 others actually) and off we trot.
At first we go south, heading over the bridge at Southport before finding the waterfront at Main Beach and then turning to follow the beach 15km to Burleigh. Some charge like there is no tomorrow, running at unimaginable speeds, secure in the confidence that overflows from elite athletes who can do anything. But most of us are a little slower – just moving at a pace we judge sustainable, conscious of the many miles to go that day.
I don’t know anybody around me, but we run in comfortable companionship. The rhythm of pounding feet and beating hearts accompanied by cheering strangers and screaming kids becomes the soundtrack of a lovely morning. Every so often we find a table laden with blessed relief – water and sports drink – and there is a mad scramble (not quite panic….but not too far away either) to grab some of that liquid gold to feed dry mouths and even drier muscles.
And every so often I find a familiar face in the crowd. A wonderful friend, a son, daughter or wife. There are banners, encouraging words, lolly snakes, wide smiles. And a lift of spirits too, followed shortly afterward by a strange feeling of loss and loneliness as unknown faces once again crowd peripheral vision.
At Burleigh the crowds swell. The noise raucous and infectious. Somewhere a band plays “Take me home, country road” as we turn to head north once again, faces set now into the morning sun. The sense of rhythm is strong, the miles pass easily by. Surfers ride, crash and paddle. Kids play. Dogs bark. Coffee shops overflow onto the pavement serving Sunday morning breakfast. Eggs Benedict invades my nostrils. Helicopters buzz over the fastest of all – showing the rest of us just how far ahead they really are. All is well in the world. I could do this again. This is fun. Somewhere else a different band plays “Today I don’t feel like doing anything“. And even as we run, we laugh at the irony. It is still a beautiful morning. Everything according to plan.
Gradually, as the half-way point falls behind, as the 3/4 mark starts to appear in the distance, things start to change a little. The comfortable cadence becomes a little strained. Calf muscles start to burn a little more, knees ache, mouth just a little drier with each step. That 3/4 mark is welcome. Family to wave and smile and laugh with. Crowds to play with. A finish line to see as we pass by and continue on our way. Not long to go. Not long. Just 12 kilometres more I ponder as I run away, suddenly feeling all alone among the crowd. The knees, the calves, the thighs start to insist now. You haven’t run this far before. You didn’t warn us. You can’t ask this of us on such a beautiful morning.
The lovely morning sun starts to burn a little, the road hot beneath the feet, the water stations seem further and further apart. And still we run away from the finishing line, further and further from where every muscle, every cell wants to be. At each drinks station the temptation to walk a few extra steps becomes overpowering. Of course I want to run the whole way, every single step – but those shrill voices in my legs start to chant one word over and over “No. No. No.” I relent, they quieten down for a moment. I run again. They protest again. And so the cycle goes. A battle that plays out in my mind, just as the same goes on in the minds of those around me. The friendly banter of earlier is gone. Each locked in a silent war of will.
We turn, now just 5k from home. A distance I run without thinking any other day of the week. A light jog after work with friends. A quick rip around the block on an early morning before family preparations for the school day call me home. Only 5k. How can 5k be so far? So insurmountable? So impossible? And then it’s four. And three. And two. And the finish line seems just as far away, as if I’m running in quicksand, stuck fast to the one spot. I trudge on, now beside another. We share the agony of the moment. Agree to overcome our screaming legs, run one last time, to finish together. A thousand times in those last metres I want to stop. To lie down. To rest. To silence my muscles. A man is down at the final turn, being helped into a wheelchair by an Ambo no more than 250m from the finish line. I want to stop, to help, to cry with him. So close. But I know that if I do, I will not start again.
So my new friend and I run on – somehow he motivates me to keep going. Faces to the sun, the noise of the crowd at last silencing the complaining quadriceps. Carpet. Fences. Grandstands. People. My family. My blessed, loving, suffering, encouraging family. My friends who drove an hour just to stand there for this moment in the sun. The clock ticking. My target time a few minutes gone. I no longer care.
If I could capture and bottle those final metres. The moment of knowing it is all but over. The moment of finally being sure I will make it. The high fives from my girls and boy, and a thousand other kids I’ve never seen before. The announcer saying who knows what, his words floating away on the morning breeze.
2 1/2 years of running. A year since this stupid idea occurred to me as I stood on the other side of the fence, cheering a friend home while having no idea what he had just endured. 6 months of training. 600km of pavement pounding. Countless early mornings, blisters, aches and pains. And it is done. Not one metre past the line I stop running, sure and certain I will never run another step as long as I live…not even for chocolate cake. My new running friend and I shake hands, wish each other well, knowing we’ll likely never cross paths again. We shared 2km. 12 minutes. It might have been a lifetime.
I wander in a daze. I wonder in a daze. Water. Banana. Orange. More water. T-shirt. Medal. Gate. People, so many people. Vision grey at the edges. Knees weak. Muscles empty, so, so empty. Mind blank. Emotions raw and beyond control. I find my 12 year old, so proud of her dad. I hold her in the middle of the crowd, tears in my eyes and on my cheeks, knowing if I let go I will fall. I’m sure I must smell terrible and look worse, all salt-caked, sweat-dried, haggard and showing each of my years and more. But I hold on. And she holds me back. I love this girl in this moment more than ever.
And then Sheri, and Mitch, and MK (who is the only sensible one…flatly refusing a congratulatory hug as only the rambunctious seven year old can!). A chair. A drink. My family an island in the sea of people. The sun shining. Voices chattering. Laughter. Stories. Triumph. Tragedy.
The Gold Coast Marathon.
It is done.
PS: The next day when I arrive at the office, somebody holds the lift for me as I cross the carpark. I am forced out of sheer guilt to break into a jog to get there quickly and not delay them. It hurts my legs. But it also hurts to know I have already broken my promise never to run again. Oh well, promise now meaningless…..I may as well run on.
PPS: So many people encouraged me in preparing for this day. In the grand scheme of all that is horrible in our world, it’s just a guy going for a run. But for me it was a big deal. Thanks to my family and friends. To Tracey. To Steve. To Andrew. To Dugald. To Paul. To another Paul. To Matt. To Ben. To the GCAM14 organisers and brilliant volunteers. To strangers by the roadside. Most of all to Sheri and our wonderful kids. Thanks.
PPPS: You could too. If you wanted. I’ll do it with you (don’t tell Sheri I offered).