IT’S EARLY MORNING and I’m waiting with ten thousand other people in the four lanes of road that separate Sydney’s Hyde Park from St Mary’s Cathedral. A man is talking to us through a megaphone but it’s hard to hear him against the vigorous dance track bouncing from the sound system. Eventually someone will blast a siren and we’ll all go off and run a half marathon together.
I am squashed into position in the middle of the pack, which is approximately where I will finish the race in a couple of hours. The weather may change but the start of a running race is always the same: nerves, clichés, noise, enthusiasm. By now I must have run close to thirty half marathons but I’ve never shaken the feeling that I’m an interloper when I wait in a crowd like this. When did bookish klutzes start running long distances? I’m still astonished that I can run twenty kilometres at a stretch, that I have become someone who craves access to the wide spaces of the imagination that running opens. I ran my last race a year ago and now, heavily pregnant, all I want to do is run: to clear a path with my feet, to move like a beacon through the city, to run. My unborn son kicks, thrashes. He moves faster than I do. When I started to run long distances it was as if I had become the inhabitant of a new body. Now, waiting for the baby to be born, it is to the rhythms of the running body that I wish to return: exertion, release; movement, stillness. In the interim, strangers offer me their seats, friends offer to buy me sandwiches, drunks offer me the first taxi: anything to get a pregnant woman off her feet.
I’ve started almost every race I’ve run alone. It gives me space to watch the people around me, to listen to what they have to say about running. On race day everyone speaks the language of competition: Going for a big win today, mate. Don’t cry when I leave you behind, kiddo. You’ll be eating my dust. No one wants to be mistaken for a loser, I guess. Stock phrases: making the distance, personal bests, smashing through the pain barrier. Lots of smashing. Farts, cheers, laughter, nervous chatter about blisters and strains. Liniment and deodorant dampen the air. I see bandaids, goosebumps, shoulder tattoos not quite concealed by singlets. If anyone asks about my race plan, I just tell them that I’m keen to finish, that I want to be able to run all the way to the finish line. It probably sounds stand-offish but I can’t manage the mock-combat talk. I bounce on the balls of my feet, wiggle my shoulders and hope that I blend in with all the other suckers.
I CANNOT CATCH and my balance is poor. I know what it feels like to watch a ball carefully, to cup my hands at the point where I’ve calculated its arc must terminate, and then to hear the thunk as that ball hits the ground. I grew up in a country town that prized athletic achievement over academic success and something of my idea of myself was forged in resistance to participation in sports. I could conjugate French verbs but I could not catch, and I could not move my feet and arms quickly enough ever to return serve on a tennis court. For most of my life, but especially when I was a teenager, I could imagine no punishment worse than endless running.
I still cannot catch and I did not mature into a graceful runner. It made sense to me to hide in a gym when I started running because I could not bear to expose my clumsiness to the nimble world. I was frightened of falling over, frightened I’d look a fool, frightened I’d run too far from home and collapse in a side street. So I started running on a treadmill at a dingy unglamorous gym and, after what still seems like an astonishingly short interval, only a few months, I found myself running from Hyde Park to Bondi Beach with tens of thousands of others. I entered half marathons and was able to complete them too, and what’s more, I did so deranged with the pleasure of it all. It was on a whim that I had started, with no expectation that I’d puff my way through anything more than a few unhappy test runs. Best case scenario: I’d confirm what a waste of time running and gyms were. Instead, these bewildering new sensations hooked me. Runner’s high, I suppose. I ran all over Sydney, tracking the bays, beaches and rivers as the morning skies lightened above me. I became a runner.
If running is the simple rocking movement of the body, athleticism is a more complicated concept, one which brings will and determination and focus into play. The runner runs, the athlete competes. Carried away by the glee of running, I never managed to become an athlete. As I lifted myself up hills and across bridges I did discover surprising reservoirs of persistence. I learned how to overcome fatigue, to keep running. What I was not able to cultivate was a will to win, the desire to run ever faster. I’ve run marathons now, and I can hold conversations with strangers about running: carb loading, great races, what kind of socks to wear on a rainy day. When I’m asked about my speed, however, I’m taken back to adolescence. How fast? Instead of replying I turn into a sulky teenager about to flounce off to the library.
RECREATIONAL RUNNING DIDN’T become really popular in cities like Sydney until the early 1970s. One of the patron saints of the jogging revolution of that decade was a New Zealand running coach named Arthur Lydiard, whose 1965 manual, Run For Your Life (Minerva), was a global bestseller. Lydiard trained Kiwi middle- and long-distance Olympic runners to win medals in the 1950s and, after addressing a Lions Club function in the early 1960s, found himself in cahoots with a cardiologist, conducting an experimental running group with a group of middle-aged Auckland businessmen who were worried about their heart health. They called themselves ‘joggers’ and while they weren’t Olympians, their health improved rapidly, and so did their pace. Lydiard was the model for a cohort of coach-gurus who spread the jogging gospel via cheap paperbacks. Half a century later, marathons and half marathons around the world attract tens of thousands of entrants, most runners following training methods not too different from those originally proposed by Lydiard. What has changed is the language. ‘Jogging’ is a term that’s fallen out of favour. It’s a bit daggy, evoking a kind of earnest amateurism that is out of sync with the dogma of disciplined self-improvement that pervades even the lowliest running circles. I tell myself to keep at one remove from that annihilating talk about victory and self-control, but if I’m addressed as a jogger, I’m quick to issue a correction: I’m a runner.
I own a second-hand copy of one of Lydiard’s later books. The note in the flyleaf reads, ‘To Alison, Hope this provides the motivation – you’ve got the rest already there.’ This sentiment that we could all be runners if only we could find the motivation is expressed in the cover photo, which captures a crowd of runners of all ages in mid-’80s retro kit: visors, terry towelling shorts with white piping, stretchy cotton T-shirts with iron-on decals and slogans. They don’t look ferociously fit. They’re the runners I wait with in the middle of the pack. Anyone could join us.
In his book, Lydiard paints a grim picture of the sedentary lifestyle: ‘The average middle-aged Australian is a paunchy, soft individual, probably beery, who exercises by shouting abuse on Saturday afternoons.’ It’s implied, I think, that Joe Average is watching sport (and is a man). It’s a neat illustration of the opposition between participation in sports and spectatorship. Lydiard suggests that you can be the soft boozer on the couch – or you can work out your motivational issues and come running with us.
Actually, it’s quite possible to be neither a spectator nor a participant in sport culture. Mostly, that’s where I’ve found myself: oblivious to the great leviathan of sport. A friend invited me to watch a game of cricket a few summers ago. I’ve never expressed any interest in cricket – the thought of it bores me – and I was a bit surprised that he’d asked. I turned him down, reminding him that I’m not really into sport. ‘Yes you are,’ he said, ‘you’ve got your running.’ The equation baffled me. Why would learning to run convert me to watching sports? And so I negotiated a state of exemption for myself: I love running, but still don’t care about big matches. In his efforts to shame new runners off the couch, what Lydiard fails to acknowledge is that watching sport is a powerful form of social inclusion. If I’d reinvented myself as a Swans fan rather than as a runner, I’d probably get out a lot more. If I could talk the talk, I’d probably make a few more friends at the starting line.
It’s only since I started running that I’ve really looked at the way athletes move. I’ve discovered that the bodies of highly trained athletes are beautiful to behold, as liquid as those of dancers, and so too is the fixed centre of a determined fast runner as she passes the ten-kilometre mark in a half marathon. If a pub is screening a game, I might notice the explosive speed of a football player or the movement of cricketer racing then diving for a catch, as quick and precise as a seabird, but it’s not enough to hold my gaze for more than a minute or two. The runners who interest me most are slow runners like me; if my energy flags in a race, it is the stories evoked by the bodies of the weary that bring me back – bluster and vulnerability and ambition.
THE MOTTO OF the modern Olympic Games is Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger! That slogan is attributed to Pierre de Coubertin, the patriarch of the Olympics. De Coubertin would not have approved of a sporting dilettante like me, and particularly not my indifference to pace and mass sporting culture. He would have been wary of applauding my involvement at all, no matter how fast and fierce a runner I might have been. De Coubertin was a staunch opponent of women’s participation in the Olympic Games on the grounds that women didn’t compete in the ancient games, and also that athleticism and femininity were incompatible. (It’s not unrelated that his all-or-nothing slogan tends to marginalise the achievements of women athletes: even the most extraordinary women runners tend to come off second best in schemes measured by speed and strength.) The faster, higher, stronger ethos has apparently trickled down to shape the aspirations of slower runners. My lack of improvement rarely fails to elicit comment, whether from my fellow tortoises or other observers. Why would you run thirty half marathons if you didn’t want to get any faster? Don’t you want to give it your all? If great athletes must strive to be the best in their field then everyday athletes are encouraged to strive to be better than they were, to leave their weaker selves behind: mind over matter; believe in yourself; dig deep.
‘You’re not going to be beaten by one of the girls this time,’ says one man to his neighbour at the beginning of the race. ‘Nah mate, that’s not going to happen again.’ There is laughter between men, laughter that I do not understand. ‘How’s Michelle?,’ asks another. ‘At home looking after the kids.’ When Arthur Lydiard was training his first groups of joggers, few women ran. Running was thought to imperil fertility, and the opposition to women running long distances was remarkably heated. It wasn’t until 1984 that a women’s Olympic marathon was first conducted, after decades of campaigning and refusal. Today, more and more women now run long distances. Pregnant, I look at women who run with new questions: does she have kids – and if so, who is taking care of them?
I trained very diligently for my first half marathons, convinced that I’d be unable to make the distance, convinced that people like me did not belong in marathons. I am now short of breath when I walk up a flight of stairs. I have given up on my kinaesthetic awareness, which was never very strong anyway, and hold onto bannisters as I place my feet. I think about these feet with new respect, all the roads they’ve run. Pregnancy and childbirth are often compared by midwives and journalists to running marathons, but the analogy seems a weak one to me, and particularly unfair, now that I haven’t been for a proper run for several months. It is my strong expectation that childbirth will little resemble the marathons I have run, even the despairing, arduous, painful stretches of those races.
When I start running again, I will do so assured that my fitness will accrue slowly, that my muscles and bones and lungs will remember how to run. If I’m not sleeping enough, and I’m told I probably won’t sleep enough for years and years, the process will be slower. When I do manage to finish a half marathon after giving birth, I will not measure it by my completion time. All I can predict is this: eventually I will find myself in a crowd full of familiar strangers, shuffling and hopping with anticipation, waiting to run another race.
What happens next? The siren will sound and I will start to run, a body barely separate from the crowd. I will, in spite of my protests, try to get ahead, to distinguish myself within the group, to see the spaces ahead into which I can project myself. There will be steady runners by my side and there will be the bolters who rush forward too fast, all stumbling elbows, who will walk the last five kilometres. I will find my pace and stay with it. It will seem foolish to call this a race. The crowd will open up around me and I will become a pendulum, swinging a path through the city.