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Long Run
 

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Long Run


  Catriona Menzies-Pike is the editor of the Sydney Review of Books. Her career in online media includes stints as managing editor of pioneering news and current affairs website New Matilda and arts editor of The Conversation. She’s taught literature, film, journalism and cultural studies to undergraduates across Sydney since 2001. In 2007 she ran her first half-marathon and she’s been running ever since.

  Credit:

  Daniel Heckenberg

  Published by Affirm Press in 2016

  28 Thistlethwaite Street, South Melbourne, VIC 3205

  www.affirmpress.com.au

  Text and copyright © Catriona Menzies-Pike 2016

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced

  without prior permission of the publisher.

  All reasonable effort has been made to attribute copyright and credit. Any new information supplied will be included in subsequent editions.

  National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry available for this title at www.nla.gov.au.

  Title: The Long Run / Catriona Menzies-Pike, author.

  ISBN: 9781925344479 (paperback)

  Cover design by Christa Moffitt

  Typeset in Garamond Premier Pro 12.75/20 pt by J&M Typesetting

  The paper this book is printed on is certified against the Forest Stewardship Council® Standards. Griffin Press holds FSC chain of custody certification SGS-COC-005088. FSC promotes environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests.

  Contents

  Introduction

  1. Making a scene

  2. On the treadmill

  3. Born to run

  4. Running like a girl

  5. On the road

  6. Telling tales

  7. Look at her go

  8. Rejoice, we conquer!

  9. Plan B

  10. Over the line

  11. A one-sentence success story

  12. Hitting the wall

  Conclusion: Stories we tell

  Bibliography

  Acknowledgements

  Introduction

  I caught a train across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, early one morning in 2013, to run a half marathon. It was chilly, September, and the sky was still a murky grey opal. The carriage buzzed with runners talking the usual bollocks: carb loading, perfect splits, personal bests. Runners can be very annoying en masse.

  Three passengers didn’t fit in, young men on their way home after a night on the tiles. They were smashed when they lurched onto the train, the blotto antithesis to all the athletes dressed in spotless, sweat-absorbent shorts and singlets. Something had to give. One of the boozers started to heckle. ‘Look at you all,’ he jeered, ‘what are you doing? Runners! What the fuck are you doing?’ On he went. A holy fool in strained black jeans, the young man shook his head in disgust and leaned into a pole for balance, mumbling to himself. I looked down at my shoelaces and lingered on a pang of identification. Imagine, I thought, being stuck in a train full of runners on the way home to a clanging hangover.

  Why would anyone run a marathon? Why did you? These aren’t inconsequential questions, and I’ve been fielding them for years now. Intellectual types see marathons as case studies in middle-class sublimation; political activists decry the misdirected energy; relaxed, moderate friends wonder about the showy zealotry of it all. Pretty much everyone who knew me in my sad and reckless twenties has taken me aside to ask why a gin-addled bookworm gave away late nights for long-distance running.

  That September morning, all the runners who had been slogging away for months to prepare for their big day pretended not to notice the guy slagging them off – or, should I say, slagging us off. When the train stopped, the booze hounds elbowed their way into the morning air. As they wove a course to the exit, the loud one turned back with a last blast. ‘Why don’t one of you fucking idiots do something useful? Write a fucking book.’ A polite laugh swept over the platform, and we all went off to run 21 kilometres together.

  By the time I boarded that train, I’d read a lot of books about running but I struggled to recognise myself in any of them. They were for people with lives unlike my own: ambitious athletes for whom a marathon time is a measure of self, or obsessives for whom running is the only thing that matters. The motivational sections in bookstores were soggy with self-help mantras and spruiked a dizzying set of bullshitty self-improvement claims: run a marathon to become a better person. The guides for slow runners were waffly exercises in condescension. Not many books about running speak to women, and when they do, it’s often about weight loss. As for feminist analyses of running, they were drowned out by exhortations to ‘run like a girl’.

  I had come to running relatively late. I didn’t even bother to put on my sneakers until I turned thirty. Before that I was the person least likely to run around the block. I’d spent most of my adult life trying to orchestrate circumstances that would allow me to avoid running, and I was happier to wait for the next bus than to chase the one rolling into a stop a block ahead. I rolled my eyes at runners in parks and wondered why any sane woman would put herself through such an ordeal.

  I did, however, know all about the desire to run, about endurance and its metaphors. When I was twenty years old, in 1998, my father, who loved running, and my mother, who didn’t, died in a plane crash. Life changed, and I found myself with urgent new responsibilities, trying to halt the toxic tailspin of loss. The decade of tears that followed seemed interminable; I stumbled often. I point to that block of sadness when some idiot asks me if this running business is all transference and I’m really running away from the past.

  I started running ten years after my parents died, and nothing was as difficult as I’d expected. I found it in myself to move, finally, and experienced that movement not just as liberation, but as transformation. My legs grew strong quickly, and the many pleasures of running through the city were mine; a new geography enveloped me. I’d lived in Sydney for a decade, but I hadn’t paid enough attention to the great sweep of coastline and to the open water beyond it. The world changed around me again, more slowly this time.

  I found that I had become a runner. Running! Me – a runner! The star of my own one-woman comedy extravaganza. I raved about my discovery to anyone who would listen. ‘Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else,’ writes David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, and when I began to run, I thought I’d hit on something really new. My body was a pendulum, swinging across the landscape; my unlocked limbs tumbled and became light. I learned to feel with my feet, to distinguish between asphalt and concrete beneath my shoes, to love the springiness of wooden decking and the unexpected sink into paths made of shredded tyres.

  I’m a slow runner, complacent rather than competitive. On a shelf in my study is a scrapbook full of race bibs and a pile of the cheap, chipped medals that every runner is given when she finishes a race. In the beginning, I hung on the advice of a few friends and family members who ran too. My notes seem like fragments of poems that bent my world into a new shape: Look up the hill. Let yourself float to the top. Find your pace. When you hit that pace, you can run forever.

  Some athletes love to talk about what a simple sport running is. They say that all you need is a pair of sneakers. That’s not true. What you need is some freedom of movement and the ability to see a clear path ahead of you. It took me years to see that path and to find my pace. When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.

  *

  Books shaped my world long before running did. As a child, I squirrelled away in the library; when I grew up, I wrote a doctorate on modernist literature. Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I
Talk About Running forms a bridge between long-distance running and a certain kind of reading, and I’ve been given several copies of it. Murakami’s title is pinched from a volume of short stories that he translated into Japanese: Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Each in its own way, they’re books about human endurance. Carver’s stories of flight and abandonment explore the sadness, desperation and hopefulness that compel people to run away from each other – and, sometimes, to return. They leave the reader to deal with a thick residue of melancholy. When Carver’s characters talk about love, what they’re really talking about is hate and resentment and loss; when Murakami talks about running, he’s actually talking about the life of a writer.

  Stories about running are often like this, in that they’re about something else. They are tales of shape shifting, of the desire to shed one skin and step into another. One running story may be a parable on persistence or denial; another a warning. It took more than running, of course, for me to haul myself out of the quicksand of grief. But the practice helped me rewrite the script I’d been following and craft a new set of stories about enduring, flight and change.

  The position of the foot distinguishes running from walking. Walkers always have one foot on the ground and runners always have one foot off it. That’s simple enough, but the word run is a case study in linguistic locomotion: it flows and moves, changing its subjects and controlling its objects. Blood runs cold, rivers run, bulls run the streets, dye runs in the wash, chills run down the spine, stockings run after a night out dancing. Running is easy to modify: it can be a messenger for functionality, running in good order, for dissipation, running to seed, for depletion, running on empty, and for abundance, my cup runneth over. The quick, slippery movement of the word run – verb and noun, process and thing, inspiration and accomplishment – points to the complex interactions between runners’ bodies and minds. Persistence, endurance and resilience can each be expressed through the language of running. As a result of this dexterity, running is an astonishingly variable metaphor for the inner life.

  To map the meaning of any kind of run, we need to pay attention to prepositions. A tale about running away from home follows a different itinerary to one about running back home. The language of running is gendered too. As I ran more, I began to listen closely to the inflections that distinguish cautionary tales about women runners from heroic epics about the men who run after them. Subjects versus objects: one runner might experience the thrill of the chase; the other, the terror of being chased.

  Running changed the stories I could tell about myself, finally: I had a new theme, and it didn’t turn on misfortune. The Strange True Tale of an Unlikely Runner. ‘No, no, it’s not that dangerous if you run slowly,’ I told the people who were worried about my joints. Getting over Grief, Getting on the Road. ‘You just keep running, one foot in front of the other,’ is what I said to the people who wanted to know how I did it. How Gertrude Stein Helped Me Go the Distance. When I saw old friends, I had good news, for once: ‘You won’t believe it, I’ve started running.’ From Martinis to Marathons: How I Kicked the Gloom and Crossed the Finish Line. When people professed their admiration, I played it down: ‘I didn’t break any records, but if I can do it, anyone can.’ Freak Out: Library Lizard Joins the Jocks.

  Nothing of my surprise conversion to running was reflected in the books I read on the topic, so I wrote this one. A personal history that relies on a wayward account of women’s long-distance running, one that gives runners like me a bit of room to move: slow runners, unambitious runners, antisocial runners. I look at the language that is used to talk about women runners and the stories that get told about them, whether they’re fast or slow. Of course, not every reader will recognise herself in these pages.

  Gender is one lens through which we can look at people running, and that’s the approach I’ve taken here. The website Stuff White People Like, a satirical guide to white middle-class manners, includes an entry on marathons: ‘Running for a certain length of time on a specific day is a very important thing to a white person and should not be demeaned.’ There’s another book to be written on how race and class affect our perception of bodies in motion, and others again that place global justice, sexuality, disability and trans issues in the centre of the field.

  This book draws on what I already knew about literature, about feminist politics and about endurance, as much as it taps the wisdom of training guides, hot runners and tough coaches. In every way, The Long Run is shaped by the lives I’ve lived before and beyond running: by the dorky little kid who took remedial throw-and-catch classes, by the wide-eyed undergraduate with a nose-ring who had to grow up overnight, by the barfly who grimaced at the morning joggers, by the feminist who wouldn’t leave it alone, and by the reader who preferred to retreat into fictions. It’s taken me thousands of kilometres to write.

  1

  Making a scene

  On a cold night in early May, a Saturday, I stood in a park with six thousand women. We were all wearing the same dark pink singlet. As we shivered under the bright lights, two clowns in heavy jackets and winter beanies bopped around on a stage and barked commendations into microphones. Ladies, you all look so hot. You girls are amazing. You got yourselves here tonight and that’s a huge achievement. Give yourselves a massive cheer! The party music didn’t stop for a beat. That particular shade of pink, a late-night raspberry with a hint of blood, is one of my favourite colours, and I resented having to share it with so many people.

  I was waiting to start the 2014 Nike-sponsored She Runs event in Sydney’s Centennial Park, a 10-kilometre, women-only night run. The words She Runs SYD were printed at nipple-height on our six thousand pink singlets: no one could possibly forget where we were and why we were here. No event singlet, no run. Sorry ladies, those are the rules. I had everything that it took to fit in: a singlet, a gender identity and a willingness to run 10 kilometres in the dark.

  If you’ve never mustered with thousands of people at the start of a running race, you won’t be familiar with the encouragements that are bellowed into these crowds. At She Runs the Night, the script had been tweaked to suit women runners. All of you at the back of the pack, give yourselves a huge cheer. Let’s hear it for the first-timers! Anyone here from out of town? Come on, give them a cheer! And let’s hear it for the mums! You’ve all made it to the starting line, so you’re all winners to me. I’d run in scores of races, and should have been used to this relentless bonhomie.

  The beginning of any big run is intimate and slightly awkward. Nervous strangers are squashed into a small space to wait for the starting gun, sometimes for hours. It’s more common to gather in the early morning, close enough to other runners to inspect their tan lines, tattoos, scars and scabs in the half-light. That May night was unexpectedly cold, and the floodlights picked out goosebumps on the women around me. Some hugged themselves and jumped on the spot, others danced in front of a friend’s camera or turned cartwheels under a disco ball.

  At this bright, noisy threshold, I had no hope of accessing the steady roaming headspace that I reach when running alone. That’s what I love most about running – but without races like She Runs on my calendar, I’d probably slack off on the training, even though I know how exhilarating it can be. And so, despite my ambivalence about the crowds and the fuss and the motivational claptrap, my running career has been almost entirely structured by events like these.

  ‘You know, I’m not really into sport,’ I recently reminded a mate who’d invited me to a cricket match. ‘Yes, you are,’ he said, ‘you’ve got your running.’ If this claim that I don’t really fit in with the running scene keeps me going, over the years I’ve had to accept that it’s not completely true. I’ve grown used to the carnival of the starting line. I wish I had a story to tell about running that didn’t involve goons with megaphones and party crowds. I wish I didn’t need a race looming to convince me to get up early and go for a run – but I do. And so I keep finding myself in pl
aces like this, fighting the instinct to elbow a path to the perimeter, beyond the range of the strobe lights and the amp, and then to hop over the railings and bolt home.

  I’d never run in a women-only event before and I hoped that night to encounter something new at She Runs. One aspect of the event was distinctive: it was pink. Shockingly pink. Magenta, fluorescent pink, cutie-pie baby pink, stripper pink, and every shade of princess pink that’s ever tinted a plastic hairclip. Pink neon lights stretched over the stage. A floodlight swept through the crowd, picking out shining, happy faces and pink, slippery shirts. Glowing tubes were bent around scaffolds as if to convince us that the lights were held up by musk sticks. Stalls selling shoes and sport drinks were festooned with pink fairy lights. A tour de force of monochrome branding. The starting line hadn’t been sluiced with pink only to dazzle and seduce us – it effectively conscripted every raspberry-singleted woman as an extra in the show. Above us floated drones fitted with cameras, as if we were performers in a song-and-dance spectacular.

  Only runners were permitted in this pink arena, designated the ‘event village’. Supporters had been banished to the other side of the barriers. An event village might sound cosy, but really it was just a set of stalls, stages and scaffolds standing in what the day before had been an open patch of parkland. Security guards held the barricades, their nightclub schtick ludicrous: ‘Pink singlet? In you go.’ In spite of the party trappings, the village wasn’t a space of gleeful exclusion, one freed from the inhibitions and restrictions of everyday life. No, it was much more like a tiny Swiss municipality, complete with service infrastructure and many rules: first-aid officers and ambulances stood at the ready, and so did Nike sales reps. Event officials in safety vests and ask-me-anything smiles fielded questions about public toilets and water bottles.

  Flashes and cheers ricocheted around the event village. I must have been the only runner there who didn’t post a jubilant selfie on social media. A huge screen loomed over the stage, and several more hung high from pink meccano towers. The most impressive was the selfie tower, its four faces representing the northern, southern, eastern and western suburbs of Sydney. Four queues of excited women and girls spiralled around this tower, new communities created by running bodies. If their pics were marked with the right hashtag, they were projected onto one of the screens. Photos of women in pink singlets scrolled by: Pymble girls, Shire girls, #northsidecrew, Bondi legends, Bankstown legends, Penrith runners, Katoomba runners, on it went. We want to hear you girls make some noise when you see your selfie, said the hucksters with the microphones. Let everyone know you’re having the time of your life!

 
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