Saturday, September 19, 2009

Running away: Gozo, Malta, 2007

In October 2007 I spent a week on the island of Gozo, in Malta, as an editor-in-residence at the Gharb studio of artist Norbert Attard. Parts of Gozo were settled as far back as the Bronze Age. The island is reputedly where, after the Trojan Wars, Ulysses was shipwrecked in a terrible storm. He was rescued and nursed back to health by the goddess-nymph Calypso, who lived in a cave in the hillside overlooking the bay where he was washed ashore. She must have decided he was a pretty good catch, because for seven years she prevented him leaving to return to his wife Penelope who was waiting at home in Greece. Calypso promised Ulysses eternal youth if he would marry her, but he was pining for his Pen and turned her down. Zeus finally stepped in and ordered Calypso to release Ulysses, and he took to the seas again. After some more adventures, he was finally reunited with Penny. I had two runs while on the island. The first took me to the dramatic coast, past fields separated by crumbling stone walls. I felt a little vulnerable in such a deserted place. You could have tracked my next run, through the sleeping village and on to the outskirts of the main city of Victoria and back, by the sound of barking dogs.

Tour du Mont Blanc, 2007

For my first-ever trekking holiday, I completed the two-week circuit of Mont Blanc, which has been described as ‘probably the most dramatic walk in Europe’. It was hard going at some stage on most days, and for most of the time on a few days. Basically, the walk links the seven valleys that surround Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, so we ascended/descended, or descended/ascended, up to three times a day, apart from our three rest days. The scenery was spectacular, with peaks, glaciers, mountain passes, forests and alpine meadows, and everything in-between. The trails attract a lot of day walkers, and are well supplied with refuges. We would greet oncoming walkers with 'bonjour' or 'buongiorno', depending on whether we were in France, Switzerland or Italy on any particular day. I managed to do a surprising amount of shopping in villages en route and even won an award for my high-altitude knicker-shopping abilities.

Running away: Zurich, Switzerland, 2007

In September 2007 I spent a couple of days in Zurich prior to flying to Geneva to join a two-week trek around Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak. The town is very pretty, and a delightful place to explore on foot. Early on my second morning I ran an out-and-back course for 75 minutes alongside the River Limmat, in search of where it entered Lake Zurich. I wasn’t able to find the lake (how does one lose a lake?), but I did find a delicious cherry pastry at Bahnhaupthof railway station afterwards, which I ate on the way back to my hotel.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Running away: Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, 2007

In March 2007 I ran loops around the park that stands at the foot of the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia’s capital as part of my tapering for the Standard Chartered half marathon held in Hong Kong on March 4. I love these towers, which were designed by Argentine-American architect César Pelli. (He also designed the World Financial Center in New York.) I was in KL visiting people I work with at the Islamic Financial Services Board.

I ran a slow 2:12:07 in the half marathon. The course was changed the following year, after problems with walkers blocking the path of runners in the last 7K or so, especially at the entrance to the cross-harbour tunnel.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Running away: Venice, 2007

The merchant of Venice

On 24 September 2007, under a near-full moon, I ran with a local mountain runner through the laneways and across the canals of central Venice. I had made contact with Cristiano, who owns a shop near the Grand Canal, through an online running network. He offered to meet me at my hotel near Piazza San Marco for an hour-long scenic tour on the trot. We ran through the square, past people sitting out and having a drink in the balmy early evening. We ran past Peggy Guggenheim's former palazzo, now an art museum housing her collection of abstract and surrealist art collected between 1938 and 1979, which I had visited earlier in the day. I then lost sense of where we were, despite having already spent hours walking through the city. Cristiano’s English was good and we chatted easily, and I enjoyed his sense of humour. When we ran up the steps of the Rialto Bridge (built in 1591), I laughed when someone called out ‘On, on!’ as if we were hash house harriers following a trail through this wonderful thirteenth-century city.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On the roof of the world

In October 2008, a few days after I ran the Melbourne half marathon in a time of 1:51:06, I flew to Kathmandu for a planned five-week trek to Everest Base Camp and through the Annapurna mountain range. I had visited Nepal in 1991, but this would be my first walk on the roof of the world.

I was with a group of a dozen trekkers from Australia, Scotland, Ireland and Canada who met for the first time at the Kathmandu Guest House. The next morning, we flew by small plane into Lukla, a village high in the Himalayan foothills, to commence our trek. It’s a very tricky approach through a canyon, with just one shot at landing uphill on the tiny strip before making a hard right-hand turn. We were all relieved to land safely. Just ten days before, an identical plane to ours – a Twin Otter – carrying sixteen trekkers had crashed and exploded as it attempted to land.

Our first night at altitude was spent in a teahouse in the village of Phakding. The scenery is very alpine, with Nepalese/Tibetan details. Prayer wheels, prayer flags and chortens (piles of stones on which prayers are carved) line the rocky trail. Our sherpas carried our large bags in woven baskets that were slung from a cloth strap around their forehead. We carried our daypacks and trekking poles.

The following are extracts from my diary:

20 October: 'No hurry, no worry'

Today was a very strenuous walk of about seven hours from Phakding to Namche Bazaar, at 3443 metres. Most of our route was up or down steep, stony paths. Ram, our trek leader, and our three guides remind us constantly that the safest way to walk at altitude is slowly.

We crossed five suspension bridges, some of them slung across very deep canyons. The rivers are a beautiful milky green. The air is filled with the sounds of bells (they differ according to the type of animal), rushing rivers, waterfalls, flapping prayer flags, rotating prayer wheels, and hammers chipping away at large stones, which are used for building purposes.

The trail, lined with inns and teahouses, was very busy until we entered Sagarmatha National Park, which encompasses Everest and other areas well be walking through. We had a very brief glimpse of Everest, far off in the distance, before it was obscured by cloud. Namche Bazaar, the main trading post for the region, is a centuries-old Buddhist settlement that’s been built up the side of a steep hill.

21 October: Namche’s bizarre

Today was an acclimatisation day. To accustom our bodies to the altitude, we climbed to 3880 metres. We had very clear views of Everest and other peaks, which looked much closer than yesterday. The Hotel Everest View, unexpected in such a difficult location, was the obvious place to stop for a drink. At the back of the hotel is a large terrace with postcard-perfect views of Everest. We continued on to Khumjung village, which supplies many of the sherpas who support Everest expeditions, where we visited a school (closed) set up by the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation and the Khumjung Ghompa (monastery), which has a relic supposedly of a yeti's skull.

As it’s my birthday, back in Namche I bought myself a necklace made of turquoise and a new trekking pole, and had an hour-long massage before dinner. The village is very funky, with a real sense of being an outpost filled with adventurers.

22 October: What goes down, must go up

Today was a hard walk to Photse. The landscape is very barren and stony. We made a steep descent to a river crossing, then climbed straight up the other side to the village, the entry to which is along very narrow lanes lined with waist-high stone walls. I have fallen in love with a mountain called Amadablam.

23 October: A walk on the moon

Our walk today brought us to the village of Denboche, which feels like it’s on the moon. We have another acclimatisation day tomorrow, before our two-day push to Everest Base Camp. Our teahouse is very snug and warm. I’ve been very lucky with my trekking companions. We’ve had a lot of laughs out of Dermot, a very funny Irishman, and I’ve enjoyed spending time with the others in our group.

24 October: The prayer wheel turns

Today has had an unexpected outcome. Five of us made it to the top of Nagarjun Hill (at 5000 metres). The climb was very difficult. It was such an effort to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to haul myself up what seemed like a never-ending climb. The views from the top were astounding, though. I had a little cry – it was so, so beautiful. I said to Dermot that this was the high point of the trek for me (and not just literally). Before starting the descent, I placed a small stone on the chorten on the summit.

Twenty minutes later, as I was clambering down the steep slope with Dinesh, one of our guides, I lost my footing and fell backwards, landing badly on my left hand. When I tried to stand I felt faint. After the dizziness had passed, Dinesh and I walked very slowly back to the teahouse, where Ram said I needed to see a doctor.

Amazingly, just an hour’s walk from Denboche is the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic at Pheriche. During the Everest climbing season, this clinic supports a temporary clinic that operates at Everest Base Camp. Otherwise there is nothing in this vicinity. Ram and Dinesh walked with me to the clinic, which is being manned during this trekking season by two volunteer doctors, a husband and wife from Colorado. They examined my wrist and diagnosed a possible Colles fracture. This has changed everything. I have no choice but to return to Kathmandu for treatment. I cried for the second time today. My wrist is now in a temporary splint. Tomorrow I’ll set off at dawn with a porter and a guide to return to Lukla and Kathmandu.

25–27 October: Au revoir, Everest?

I may never again be as close to Everest as on the day I had to turn my back and walk away. What had taken us four days to walk in, we covered in two long days out on the trail. A detour via Tengboche Monastery gave me the opportunity to say goodbye to Amadablam. From Lukla we flew back to Kathmandu this morning.


On 29 October, after two days of X-rays and tests at a clinic in Kathmandu, my broken wrist was set during an operation under general anaesthetic at OM Hospital. During the week I spent in Kathmandu arranging a return flight to Australia I met an English trekker, Wendy, who was a welcome support and has become a great friend.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Online dating is not to be sniffed at. We’re all busy people, and I’m sure a lot of people get really lucky. I have no problem with it in theory, and so I tried it for a brief period a couple of years back, just out of interest.

It felt too much like I was shopping for a bloke. I was in recovery from a full-blown addiction to eBay, and there didn’t seem to be much difference between putting a bid on a 1930s-era Grindley vegetable tureen with some crazing and a few scratches on the art deco pattern, and checking if a bloke who seemed to share at least a few of my interests had any serious chips on his shoulder or unsightly use marks.

Somewhere, over the rainbow

The Rainbow Club was an early formal manifestation of my need to control my environment; to secure my comfort zone. We were a neighbourhood club of girls. Still a pre-teenager, I was the oldest of the six members, who included my sister Deb.

We would meet once a week.

‘Bring the washing in for me, will you, Rob?’ Mum might say when I arrived home from school on a Rainbow Club afternoon.

‘I’ve got a meeting of the club scheduled in five minutes. Can’t I do it later?’ I’d reply.

My father, a signwriter, had turned a small piece of tin donated by one of our members into a club sign, and he made each of us a name badge, with our names painted in script beneath a small rainbow. We had a special song that I had written, which we sang to open and close our meetings. And we did good deeds, such as holding fêtes in our front- and backyards at which we sold toffees, cakes and slices to raise funds for the Save the Children Fund. One of our members would dress as a gypsy and tell fortunes. She was quite good at it, and in later years did some amateur acting. She always was a drama queen. We had something for everyone at these fêtes, including gymnastics displays and running races up and down our quiet suburban street.

The Rainbow Club meetings were sort of like a book group. We had a regular agenda, which included my reading aloud from one of my own books and then loaning them out. I didn’t have much of a library – Chinese and German fairytales, maybe a dozen or two of the classics. I had stuck pockets in the front, and I would write there the date the books were due back. Conveniently, that date would coincide with our next club meeting. As a form of internal control, I would note the name of the borrower, the title of the book, and the return date in an exercise book I kept for the purpose. This sort of controlling behaviour has always made perfect sense to me.

I think we may also have taken the opportunity to exchange cards from our collections of picture playing cards. Swap cards were a craze that swept through schoolyards all over the country in the 1950s and 1960s. At recess and during our lunch break at school, my friends and I would congregate in huddles by the ablution block if it was raining, or up in the rear corner of the school where the air smelled of sawdust and horses from the agricultural showgrounds next-door on fine days, ready to swap.

‘Let me have another look at that one with the horse,’ my schoolyard friend might say, as I expertly peeled cards off the top of the large pile in my left palm.

‘It’s got a bent corner. You’ll have to give me another one for free if you want this one of mine with the dog.’

I spent all my spare time reviewing and rearranging my collection of cards. Every Saturday morning I would be at the Coles novelty store swap-card counter in town, obsessing over which new series to purchase.

The Rainbow Club imploded around the time I turned eleven. One member got her Cottontails in a twist about something or other, and demanded that we return the piece of tin she had donated for our club sign. The fall-out at in our street was rather nasty, and I think the grown-ups had to intervene to prevent blood being shed.


I next became obsessed with stamp collecting. I found this interest perfectly to my liking. I could be alone in my head, but with something to chatter to myself about. My collection was given a great boost when I inherited from a neighbour an album that contained many very old Australian stamps. It might have been of some value today if it hadn’t been nicked in the early 1970s when my parents packed up their house and moved to New Zealand.

I found stamps a very fulfilling obsession. Maintaining and building a collection required organisational skills, perseverance, and attention to detail. I loved the colourful designs, and the wide assortment of shapes and sizes; best of all, I loved that they had come from faraway countries. I loved to roll my tongue around wonderful place-names like Bechuanaland and Zanzibar, and to try and imagine what those places would be like. I’ve still to visit Zanzibar, which remains one of my favourite place names, but in 1991 I spent some time in Botswana, the former British protectorate of Bechuanaland which became independent in 1966.

I spent the entire summer holiday before my final year of primary school immersed in my stamp collection. I would emerge from my room in a daze and have to stand under the sprinkler in the backyard to bring myself back to the here and now. Or I would find that the rain had been bucketing down outside, while in my imagination I had been in Brazil, or Hong Kong, or the Congo.

Mum, home early from her washed-out golf game, would say: ‘You might have thought to bring in the washing, Rob.’

‘Some of us have more important things on our minds than the washing, Mum,’ I’d reply.

Unnatural highs

I was very lucky when it came to drugs. I never had to buy them, as the sort of boyfriends I picked usually had their own.

They say if you remember the seventies, you weren’t there. I dimly recall graduating from university with a healthy fear of knitting and an honours degree in English literature, starting my career in publishing, hanging out in lots of wine bars and pubs watching rock-n-roll bands, and playing with boys. I managed to make it through to near the end of the decade, by which time I was engaged to a non-drug-taking chef. He was a nice bloke who really hit his stride a few years later when disco became all the rage. He made the best pepper steaks and scrambled eggs. If we had stayed together, I might have been drug-free but my cholesterol levels would have been life threatening. We both came to our senses with six weeks to spare and ended the engagement, and I went back to my rather debauched single life.

I never became dependent on drugs, for which I have to thank some power greater than my will. But I did usually indulge whenever they were on offer.

Being a control freak, I don’t like to get wasted. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, or that it doesn’t still happen occasionally, but it’s not my intention to get out of it. So, drugs no longer have any appeal for me.

Besides, these days, the only drug any potential boyfriend is likely to be dependent on is Viagra.

A run in the English countryside

In the early 1980s I spent three months living and working in London. The trip had come about because I had itchy feet where I was working in Sydney. I had already gone walkabout a couple of times from the publishing company that had employed me straight out of university, and which had taken me on again each time I asked for my job back. I didn’t want to resign again, but I wanted … something more.

Late in the afternoon one Friday I went around to my boss’s office and had a chat with him about my dilemma.

‘Leave it with me for a few days,’ he said.

The next week he rocked up at my desk with an offer: three months in London, working at our head office; my salary would be paid in advance, in cash; my airfare would be deducted from my pay packet in insignificant regular amounts in the interim. In return, if I had a chance, I should try and find out something about computerised typesetting while I was there.

What wasn’t to like?

In late February 1983, I packed my running shoes and some warm clothes and headed off on my first trip to Europe.

I took up residence in a house in Highbury, in north London, owned by friends of a Sydney workmate. My landlady, Diana, was a teacher. Her teenage daughter, Camilla, lived at home; son Henry, my workmate’s friend, was backpacking around Australia. I was given Henry’s room in the attic.

The publishing company I was working with had its offices in New Fetter Lane, just off Fleet Street, in the heart of the city. I explored the historic centre of London mostly on foot after work was finished for the day, and on weekends. My regular run was from home up to the Arsenal footy ground and back. It wasn’t far, but it helped to clear the cobwebs. I didn’t know anyone who was a runner, and I missed the camaraderie of my Sydney social runs.

Through work and my landlady, I made some friends. One weekend I was invited down to Winchester, a historic cathedral city in Hampshire. It is home to the wonderfully Gothic Winchester Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in England. I walked with my new friends and their dogs in the countryside, and drank in ancient pubs whose doorways were so low we had to crouch to enter.

Through that group of people I was invited to spend a weekend in Durham, another famous cathedral city, in the north. And on that visit I met someone who became a close friend and remains so today. Dominic, aged eighteen, was a student at Durham’s university. (I had turned thirty late the previous year.) A group of us was at a country pub playing pool, and Dom offered to give me a lift on his motor scooter back to the college dorm room where I was staying. I talked him into running with me the next morning for an hour through the woods near the River Wear. It was a fabulous run that cemented our friendship. We continued to visit back and forth between Durham and London during the remainder of my stay in England.

Dom is now all grown up, of course. During a visit to Australia last year from his home in Tokyo, we ran together for 15 kilometres along the Yarra River. It had been 25 years since our last run together and we thought it a nice way to celebrate our long friendship. In New York City this past May, we met up for dinner the night before I ran a 5K race on Wall Street. He was thrilled when I later told him I had placed first in my age group.

The hair at his temples may now be greying, but for me Dominic will always remain that cute young student who didn't hesitate to go for a long run in the English countryside with a much older and slightly mad Australian woman.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In the zone

I started running when I was at university, in Sydney, in the early 1970s. One night, to clear my head after a long day spent writing an essay on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, I decided to go for a jog before bedtime. I closed my books, switched off my study lamp, put on my sneakers, and headed off through the silent campus to the university oval.

It wasn’t long before I became dependent on my nightly, solitary pounding of the turf. Initially I had found running in circles relaxing, but I soon became obsessed and would run and run until my mind had stopped chattering and I had zoned out.

For some people, the need to achieve this altered state of consciousness starts at a very young age with spinning; they twirl themselves into a dizzy state of grace. For me, it had started with knitting.

I have had a couple of close encounters with the fever that knitting can produce in the addictive personality. The first occasion was when I began knitting myself a jumper at around age thirteen. As with any addiction, I didn’t know when to let well enough alone; the sweater grew into a dress that reached my mid-calf. It was hairy mohair wool, in a murky, khaki colour.

My mother tried to dissuade me from wearing that dress to an Easybeats rock concert. ‘Don’t you think it might be a bit hot, Rob?’ she asked.

I must have looked a fright. I still have flashbacks whenever I hear their song, Friday on my mind.

After that experience I managed to put down the needles until I was a student in my third year at university. At the start of the Easter holiday, when it was miserable weather outside and my flat was toasty warm, I picked up again. My flatmate Anne was away for the holiday with her boyfriend Chris. I knew I would be undisturbed.

I decided to knit a sweater for my youngest brother, Col. I rationalised that it wouldn’t really count as indulging a habit if I was doing it for someone else. Having learned my lesson from my earlier foray into the craft, I chose a neutral-coloured plain wool, and cast on.

For four or five days, I hardly moved from the mattress on the floor that served as our couch. At the end of each row, I felt compelled to turn the needles around and start another one.

By the time I had finished the jumper, I had lost any awareness of the world outside my own head. The floor was littered with the evidence of my addiction: the paper wrappers from dozens of balls of beige four-ply wool. I knew I couldn’t go on this way, ignoring my studies and trying to conceal my shameful secret. I didn’t want to become another knitting casualty, with early-onset arthritis in my fingers and no hope of a decent future. It was time to give up the habit once and for all.

I took the needles and wool wrappers and disposed of them in the rubbish bin outside our block of flats. As I crawled under my quilt, I sighed deeply. It had been a close call.

I’m relieved to say that it’s 35 years since I last knitted.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Running writing

The first book I wrote about running was titled Jography. It was a runner’s guide to Sydney, with course descriptions, maps, directories of running clubs and stores, sports doctors, sports psychologists, and so on. It had been my idea, and I pitched it to my publisher boss of the time who said: ‘Run with it.’

I found someone with some credibility in the running world to be the name on the book and to help me research the runs; I did all the writing. John was a great person to have on board, enthusiastic and a fun running companion.

At the time I was writing the book I lived in Woollahra, just a short sprint from Centennial Park, Sydney’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park. I would sometimes join a bunch of blokes who ran around the perimeter of the park; or I would meet them at Bondi Beach early in the morning to do the beach run. The head honcho of this group was a well-known Eastern Suburbs realtor for whom running was a passion second only to making mega-bucks in commissions on the sale of harbour-side mansions.

It was at this time I ran my first Sydney City to Surf race. Even back then, in the mid-1980s, it was crowded. Today there are 75,000 or so participants. I recall nearly being tripped up by a couple of men dressed in nun’s habits and carrying a surfboard. The route passes through the Kings Cross tunnel and the harbour-side suburbs of Double Bay and Rose Bay, then winds up Heartbreak Hill. If you can lift your eyes long enough from your shuffling feet, there are stunning views from here back towards the city. Once you catch the sight and smell of the ocean again, it’s not far to the finish on Bondi Beach. It’s truly one of the world’s great runs.

Another fun race that I participated in at around this time was a relay across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I was one of a team of four runners, each of whom had to run from Observatory Hill across the bridge and back, before handing over the baton to their next team member.

There’s something about running over bridges that I find very appealing. I’ve also left my footprints on the bridge in Macau that links the now Chinese mainland with the island of Coloane, the wonderful Rialto Bridge in Venice, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and New York’s Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. I hope to run across many more iconic bridges when I come to them.

By the time Jography was to be published I had moved to Hong Kong and was unavailable for the cover photo shoot. In my place, at John’s side, is a rather more glamorous stand-in. The shot was taken on the famous Bondi to Bronte path, which is another of my favourite runs in Sydney.

My second book about running was an adaptation of a Canadian guide for beginning runners. I was commissioned by one of my publisher clients to localise the general content for Australian readers. I interviewed nutritionists, podiatrists, coaches, sports medicine practitioners and other professionals, and profiled runners of all standards whose stories I found inspiring. One of my contributors was a firefighter who saw himself as a runner first and foremost. ‘As a runner, you are a runner 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This doesn’t mean that you are actually running the entire time, of course. But when you sit down to eat, you are a runner who is eating; when you go off to work, you are a runner going to work; when you watch TV, you are a runner watching TV. I find that I can really enjoy relaxing, knowing that I’ve had a good run earlier in the day. … I often wonder if a sedentary person can get the same enjoyment from their leisure time as an active person does.’

My friend Barb agreed to be a guinea pig and to follow the 13-week program for beginning runners that was the core of the book. She hadn’t run since her school days but had a good level of basic fitness from being a regular early-morning walker. (How often do we see groups of women out walking in the pre-dawn, and how seldom do we see groups of men doing the same?) We followed the steps in the program, which involve slowly increasing the running component of a workout session from walking only. Well, Barb was blown away by the results.

‘It was hard to see myself as a runner. Where one week I was very apprehensive about increasing the running parts from one minute to two minutes, I soon found I was having sleepless nights worrying about my first four-minute run! I was stoked the first time I did it. I actually found it easier than the shorter runs the week before.’

As Barb’s ability to run for longer periods steadily increased, so too did her confidence in her ability to meet the next challenge. Along the way she became more comfortable with the idea that she was, in fact, becoming a runner. ‘I felt like a piece of elastic. I was stretching myself further each week, and I hadn’t known I could stretch myself that far,’ she said.

My friend Julie also described her experiences for the book. Julie prefers cycling and swimming to running, but she took up jogging in order to be able to compete in triathlons. She admits that running gives her something she can’t get from her other sports: ‘I really enjoy running in the bush, where it’s green and cool and everything smells fresh.’ Another of her favourite places to run is on dirt roads. ‘I love the sound of gravel crunching under my feet!’

For Julie, like a lot of runners, the discipline of getting up and out of a warm bed and putting on her running shoes while it’s still dark outside pays off in all sorts of ways. ‘Running has increased my confidence in my ability to set goals and to work towards them and achieve them.’ Formerly an aerobics instructor, Julie has since completed a degree in early childhood education and is now a teacher. Two mornings a week she arrives at my house at around 5.30, hands me her car keys, and we set off in the dark for a half-hour run, a natter and a laugh.

My mate Robert also shared his story in the book. He has always been a keen social sportsman: skiing, tennis, bushwalking, cycling. Running was something new for him when he took it up soon after we met in late 1995. As he says in the book, ‘As my running progressed, I realised there were other benefits of being fit. As you get fitter, your physical health improves and this helps you to become emotionally stronger. The improvements seem to snowball. Running has helped me with everyday life and its problems. It gives me some time out, time to think things over.’ Robert believes that it’s important to have goals to aim for, but also to take one day at a time. ‘When you first start running, 5K, 10K or 20K seems an impossible distance. But if you just focus on today, on enjoying your run, you’ll get there.’ In 1997, Rob ran his first half marathon in company with his teenage son. ‘I can look back now and see my progress and achievements – achievements that five years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed were possible.’

Twelve years on, Robert and I still run together one morning a week at 6.30.

Through this blog I hope you’ll meet my other regular running companions – Diane, Christine, Vicky and Dotti.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dead fit

Soon after I moved back to Albury in August 1995, I got wired’. I’d been a bit of a technophobe even after acquiring my first Mac in Hong Kong in 1992. It sat on my desk, looking very sexy, but I didn’t actually use it. The guy I was living with at the time said that if I wasn’t going to use it, we might as well bring it home where he could.

No one was talking ‘Internet’ at that time; it was all ‘CD-ROM’. A friend who was leaving Hong Kong offered me her complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was an old edition and the typeface was so small, and the layout so cramped, you could hardly read it; but I thought it would make a worthy addition to my reference library. I took a taxi up to her flat in Mid-Levels (my whole flat was about the size of her kitchen) and piled the twenty or so volumes into the boot of the taxi and then headed back to the office I shared with some other freelancers in Wyndham Street, in the CBD.

Now, how to get them all in the lift? I borrowed a trolley from the caretaker and loaded the books on to it, and then tried to manoeuvre the trolley over the slight lip at the front of the lift. It tipped sideways and the books fell off the trolley in a heap on the floor. At that moment, a very urbane Chinese businessman entered the lift, stepped over the pile, and said, ‘You know, you can get all of that on one CD-ROM now.’ It would have made a classic television commercial.

When I got connected to the Internet I used it to send emails to those of my clients who were online and to my authors, most of whom were academics and old hands at it. But I also used it for fun. I’d read in a running magazine about an online discussion group called the Dead Runners Society. I joined and was completely addicted immediately. I would print out the DRS digests each day and lie on my couch at night and read emails from this amazing bunch of people (mostly Americans, but also a few Australians, some expats in Asia, and quite a few Brits and Europeans) all of whom were runners of one kind or another.

I had started running again a couple of months after I moved back to Albury. I really like running with others, so for a while there I was hosting social runs from my flat by the pool each Tuesday and Thursday evening. There were a few ring-ins, but mostly it was a motley collection of family members, dogs on leads and kids on bikes. It was good fun.

By May 1996, I was an active member of the Dead Runners Society. I sent off for, and proudly wore, DRS singlets and T-shirts, on the back of which was printed ‘Carpe Viam’ (Seize the Road). It was just so cool to be Dead. I’d made some friends among the group. There was the vet from deep in the American Mid-West who wrote wonderful emails about his work with farm animals and the difficulties of trying to train in that part of the country during the winter months. There was John ‘The Penguin’ Bingham, who wrote about what it meant to him to be able to call himself a runner. (I was in touch with John when I adapted a Canadian book for beginner runners for an Australian publisher. He agreed to let me use some quotes from his then recently published book on running, The Courage to Start.) Jo, a runner in Auckland, made an impression on me with an email to the group about sloppy punctuation. It was headed, ‘It’s its, not it’s’. She and I became great pals.

So, by mid-1996, I was really into running. When the big annual Albury race, Nail Can Hill, came around, my mate Robert and I decided to enter. It’s a difficult 11.3-kilometre course straight up to the top of the spine of hills that encircles the western side of Albury, along a very undulating fire trail, and then straight down to the Murray River. We didn’t do too badly, finishing together in just over 63 minutes. The winner ran it in 44.35. I got a real buzz from the whole experience of being in a race. And the fact that I placed fourth veteran woman blew me away. Wow! Imagine what I could do if I got serious about it!

I decided to get serious about it. I got myself a personal trainer, John, and we worked out a program of running (both endurance and speed work), cross-training (cycling and swimming) and twice-weekly weights sessions. I bought a hybrid bike that I christened Max, and started training.

My next race was a disaster. It was the annual Muscat Run in the winery district around Rutherglen in north-east Victoria. Ten kilometres: four 2.5-kilometre sides of a square. So boring! I made the mistake of getting caught up in the euphoria at the beginning and went out too fast. I never recovered. And then I had to pee. It was flat wine country, with very few roadside trees. I managed to find a bush about half a metre high and squatted down behind it in full view of the other runners who were now getting ahead of me. I was bloody pleased to finish that race in just over 48 minutes. I was third veteran woman.

Next up was the Wagga Wagga half-marathon and 10-kilometre fun run. I wasn’t ready to run a half-marathon; 10 kilometres would be just fine. I wanted to see if I could improve my time for that distance. It was a freezing day, but I looked very fit in my jog bra and shorts so I didn’t want to cover up. You see, I was starting to think of myself as an Athlete. Besides, I would warm up soon enough.

All the runners started together; the fun runners would then veer off for home after sharing an out-and-back course with the half-marathoners, who would do just over the same distance again.

I had a brilliant run. Very early on, I tucked in behind three very fit young blokes who were doing the half and running at a steady 4.5-minutes-per-kilometre pace. I just stayed with them and let them carry me. I was having so much fun just after the turnaround point that I was calling out to and waving at people I knew who were still on the out-leg. Finally I had to peel off for the final leg back up to the finish line, and I lost some of my momentum and even walked for a bit. My time was just over 46 minutes, and I placed third woman overall and first veteran woman. I even got a medal in addition to my finisher’s certificate!

Around this time I decided I wanted to run a marathon. John worked out a training program that, in the final months of preparation, would have me running up to 90 kilometres a week. I’d wanted to get serious. This was serious! I even started to have chafing problems from all the training I was doing. Perhaps jog bras are just for jogging, and don’t give enough support for serious training, I thought.

I went to Myer and took the escalator up to the lingerie department in search of a really good sports bra. I always feel intimidated by salesladies in department stores, but I was on a mission, so I marched up to one of them and asked to see their range of sports bras. They all had underwiring and lots of seams. ‘These aren’t sports bras,’ I said. ‘How can you call them sports bras? They’re bloody useless as sports bras.’ I must have been premenstrual, because I then started crying. ‘You don’t understand,’ I wailed to the lady in black. ‘I’m in training. I need a proper sports bra. My future as an athlete is at stake!’

It was wonderful having Dead Runners to exchange emails with about running. I was totally focused on training. The weekly massages were hell, but hey. I was sleeping like a log at night, and getting up before it was light to meet friends for an early morning run. I’d moan and groan about having to do it, but I was secretly really proud of myself. I loved seeing the sun rise over this town I was starting to think of as home. I felt incredibly fit and healthy. I was Deadly!

I visited Sydney for a few days around this time and arranged to go for an after-work run with an Australian Dead Runner called K. I was at the peak of my infatuation with DRS and the people I’d met online, and K was a great person to share it all with. He was my first real live Dead! I don’t think I stopped blathering the whole 90 minutes it took us to run around the Domain and Botanic Gardens, past the Opera House, around to the Harbour Bridge, up and over the bridge to Kirribilli, around to Lavender Bay past what had been Brett Whiteley’s house, back past the swimming centre and up on to the bridge again for the return through the city to K’s office in Phillip Street. After a quick shower, we went down to the MLC Centre and drank some beers and blathered some more. It was great!

By October (the day before my birthday) I was ready to run my first half-marathon (21.2 kilometres) in Melbourne. It was a fantastic run. I enjoyed every minute of it bar the last ten or so. I finished in the middle of the pack, which was a damned fine effort, I thought. And I was pleased with my time: just a tad over 1 hour, 48 minutes.

My next race was a bit of an unknown quantity. K (the Sydney Dead) and his wife D were competing in the Brindabella Classic just outside of Canberra in November, and asked if I’d like to join a group of runners from Sydney as a member of a two-woman relay team. I’d never met any of the others; they’d never heard of me. But they were willing for me to do my bit in a team effort. The course is really tough, winding its way for 53.8 kilometres from the top of Mount Ginini down to Cotter Reserve. B would run the first 26.5 kilometres, and I would run the final 27.3-kilometre leg. If B felt fine, she would carry on with me and so qualify as a solo runner as well as a relay runner. When she struggled up to the hand-over point at Bull’s Head, it was obvious her crook knee was giving her trouble. ‘You’re on your own,’ she said.

Big breath, and go!

I had run the distance only once before in training, but I think this was a good thing, because I decided I would just have fun. Within minutes I’d teamed up with a solo runner, a guy who was a keeper of reptiles at Taronga Zoo. As he’d already run nearly half the distance, he was down to a pace that suited me. I stuck with him for about the first 10 kilometres and felt fine. It was a beautiful place to run: a dirt road through dense bush. For the next 7 kilometres I was on my own. No problemo — I was enjoying myself. At the Seventh Heaven aid station (so-named because it was the seventh drinks stop on the course), all the volunteers were dressed as angels! What a hoot! After a drink and something to eat (jelly snakes?), I took off again. I was having a ball. I think I even laughed out loud a couple of times. I felt like I was getting away with something I shouldn’t have.

B and I were a two-member team, but some teams had four runners — wimps! At the third relay change point, I was really pleased to find B waiting for me. She’d decided to jump back in and give it another whirl. This leg of the run wouldn’t count for her — our final time would be a total of her time for the first half and my time for the second half — but she wanted to check out the rest of the course for her next attempt to run it solo. It was great to have her to run with over the last leg, as the country got really boring and dry, and it was starting to get very hot. M, another one of the Sydney runners in our group, caught us up, so we ran together and encouraged each other as the going got tougher, and tougher, and tougher. B’s knee was hurting again, so she was muttering Irish curses on one side of me, while M was carrying on like a drill sergeant on my other flank. Finally, we could see we were getting close to the end, and we dug deep, joined hands and sprinted across the finish line. We felt buggered! We felt knackered! We felt ecstatic! B and I were first across the line for a two-woman team; we’d also broken the course record in our category, with a time of 5 hours, 2 minutes, 47 seconds!

Next up was a social handicap race in Albury, the Christmas Hangover Handicap, over 10 kilometres. I had eased right back on my training in preparation for the Honolulu marathon a week later. I’ve been in all sorts of states when crossing the finish line after a race; this race was to provide something new. Being a handicap race, the slower runners got to start first. Robert and I, being middle-of-the-pack runners, found ourselves in the lead about halfway around the course. A few minutes later, as we were heading up the track that winds to the top of the ridge, I pulled or tore a muscle in my left calf. Eeeow! I couldn’t carry on, so Robert went on ahead and I limped my way down to civilisation and got a taxi. I didn’t have any money on me, but, she’ll be right, mate, I’ll get some from someone. So, I crossed that finish line in a taxi.

For the next four or so days before I flew to Hawaii, I was in a panic. I wasn’t meant to do any real training this close to the race, but I couldn’t run at all. It felt like my flesh was ripping away from the bone if I even attempted to jog. Never mind, just go to Hawaii, rest it, and then try to do a little gentle jogging the day before the marathon, to see how it feels. I was excited about the trip because I was entered to run the race with a group of Dead Runners from America, Japan and Canada; there was also another Aussie Dead. (We were known as DeadRooz, or Dead Runners of Oz.) We had all been in touch through emails, talking about our meeting and encouraging each other in our training. We were meeting face-to-face for the first time at an Italian restaurant in Honolulu for a pasta dinner on the Friday. The race was on the Sunday, so on Friday afternoon I attempted a gentle job along the canal that runs back from the beachfront It was a pretty dismal effort. I didn’t feel at all confident that two days later I could run 42.2 kilometres.

Dinner with the Deads was great fun. We were all very different people from very different places, but we had something very special in common: we were Dead Runners, and some of us were about to run a marathon for the first time. I just prayed that I would be among them.

The next morning I attempted another very short run along the beachfront path that was part of the marathon route. Not too bad. The pasta must have helped. Now it was just a matter of trying to overcome the nerves, drink plenty of water, and get to sleep early.

I was up by around 4 am for a shower and something light to eat. M, the other Aussie Dead, came by my hotel to pick me up and we joined the thousands of people (lemmings?) in shorts and singlets streaming through the pre-dawn towards the assembly point for the start of the race. It was an incredible atmosphere! We found the other Deads and wished each other luck; we were slightly hysterical from nerves. Then the gun went off and we were away, with fireworks exploding overhead. I was too busy watching where I was putting my feet to see much of the show. I was one of 24,335 runners that morning, and I didn’t fancy falling and being trampled by half of them.

A marathon is a very long way. We ran out to Diamond Head, and then out for what seemed forever along a straight route to a turnaround point. We then headed back the same way towards the city and the finish line at Kapiolani Park. It was great being able to see the wheelchair athletes and elite runners come back past us after they had reached the halfway mark. I had no trouble at all with my leg. I ran steadily, and didn’t stop to walk until just before the end for a few minutes. I was incredibly hungry, and a bystander gave me some orange slices so I stopped to eat those. Then I had one of those very corny experiences that almost make you want to start blubbering: it had been raining lightly, but had now stopped, and a rainbow formed directly over Kapiolani Park. Soon I could see the finish line, and moments later someone was placing a shell lei around my neck.

I waddled towards the rendezvous point to meet the other Deads and to find something to eat. I could find only apples and chocolate chip cookies, so I ate twelve cookies. We soon had a mini Dead Runners convention happening under a tree near the T-shirt stands; we were all as high as kites and jabbering nonsense at each other. Sitting down had not been a good idea, though; it took ages to get upright again when it was time to leave. Back at the hotel I had a shower, then went to join the others for a party in M’s room at her hotel overlooking Waikiki beach.

My time had been slower than I’d hoped for, but it was actually pretty realistic. Just keeping going for that distance is hard enough without bringing speed into the equation! I finished in 4 hours, 35 minutes, and placed in the first 20 per cent of women in my age group and in the first quarter of the field overall. A lot of people walk the Honolulu marathon, so that skews the statistics a bit. I was really happy with the way it had gone. I’d run a marathon! My leg hadn’t been a problem! I wasn’t brain-damaged from dehydration!

The Deads partied the afternoon away, and we promised each other we’d meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.

Feet, don’t fail me now

I was feeling nervous about running the Fed Hill Challenge 10K today, and for good reason. The middle 5Ks were a seemingly never-ending climb up a muddy track to the top of Federation Hill, then a bone-jarring, slippery descent. I had no hope of running up the hills; it was all I could do to walk them, pushing down on the tops of my legs to keep them turning over and trying not to fall forward into one of the cowpats that seemed to be just inches from my nose. I can be quite a noisy racer. (Christine says I sound like I’m giving birth.) Yesterday was one of those days.

Once we got back down off the hills and on to the bike path it was plain sailing home for about 2.5K. I gave it what I had, holding just a tad in reserve for a good finish. Coming up the final stretch the ground was muddy and slippery, but I managed to complete the course without coming a cropper.

My time was 57:00 minutes. I was 4th female in the 50+ AG (out of 20). Christine was 2nd out of 15 in the 5K. The first time she has placed, so … well done her!