These change-your-life running books promise such a simple narrative: start to run and everything will be, in the words of ’70s running guru Thaddeus Kostrulaba, ‘wonderfully changed’. For me, it wasn’t quite like that. I might have been a surprisingly easy convert to running, and I certainly enjoyed it, but I didn’t suddenly unlatch myself from my bad habits.
I wanted to keep doing the things runners aren’t supposed to do: binge watch box sets, drink martinis, blow afternoons in bars, smoke on balconies, lose track of time reading and wake up in a haze. I made pledges that I’d drink no more than one glass of red the night before a long run, and then broke them. Still, I kept running, and the world began to seem kinder.
Of course, the kindness in my world wasn’t solely a by-product of running. By the time I started to travel regularly and for longer stints, my sisters had grown up. Even my tiny nephew and nieces were getting bigger. By the time I started to run, the administrative catastrophe of my parents’ estate had finally been put to rest. (Watch the Paper Tiger team demonstrate a quick legs exercise. Post continues after video.)
It had taken so long to settle the paperwork that when we sold the family home, eight years after Mum and Dad died, the window frames and architraves were clogged with cobwebs. There were jars of spices turned to dust and swollen tins of tomatoes and pears still in the cupboards; half-filled notepads, diaries and leaking pens lay scattered on the kitchen bench.
None of us had stayed in the house much since the plane crash – it was just too dismal. My sisters had lived with other families, then found their own homes. There had been no question of getting tenants either: early on, the empty house took on the qualities of a mausoleum.
Finally we were able to pack our childhoods into boxes and hurl the past into a huge skip in the driveway. Into that skip went the newspapers that my mother might have read one morning long ago, along with Dad’s still-dusty running shoes and spare leads for the dogs.
Sympathetic friends worried that detaching ourselves from the family home must be terribly traumatic – but really, by then it was a wonderful relief.
Later, as my runs out of doors became habitual, and I developed startling attachments to the streets and the parks in my Sydney neighbourhood, I found a pace suited to the precarious labour of memory.
Here are some of the best running, walking and hiking tracks in Australia – should you need a little extra inspiration. Post continues after gallery.
I turned over images of the home that some other family now lived in, and played through scenes of family life that had once left me in a raw rage. My mother standing alongside the climbing rose that grew wild over our garage and burst into thousands of tiny pink buds each spring.
Were they still blooming? The roses in the front garden had been pulled out last time I drove past. My father walking toward me down the long arched corridor that split our home in two – not ours anymore, but I couldn’t shake the possessive pronoun.
It was all terribly domestic: a splinter of an argument about the washing up, the view through a glass door to the back verandah, a bowl of fruit. The snail-dotted path to the washing line darkened by two majestic old camellias. The after-dinner coffee ritual that my sisters and I had been trained to administer when we were small.
Why had I learned how to carry a tray full of porcelain cups and not how to grieve? I’d left home years before my parents died with the knowledge that home was intact. Why hadn’t I seen its destruction coming? For the longest time, it was too dangerous to recollect my parents, let alone to miss them.
Why had they let me loose on the world so young and so ill-prepared for plane crashes, catastrophes, cruelty? I ran and I wished that they were still alive and that I could go home; I told myself I couldn’t and I kept running. If my skull was suddenly flooded by unmanageable emotion, I ran faster and faster until the clatter of my heart and the burn in my calves hauled me back to the present.
I needed this kind of control mechanism. Your parents would have been so proud of you. I heard those words so often and each time I did, I winced. It was a soppy counterfactual – the endless would-have-beens of the bereaved all are.
I knew it was a grammatical black hole, but I worried awfully often about what might have been. I wasn’t sure that my parents would have been thrilled that I’d ditched a law degree to study literature. I knew that the drift that had afflicted my twenties would have bothered them – even though, had they been alive to witness those years, it’s unlikely I would have drifted quite so far or for so long.
They would have listened patiently to my tales about catching trains across continents, but the conviction weighed heavily that they would have counselled me to follow a path closer to theirs.
I turned over the questions they would have asked me after dinner: Why aren’t you married with kids? What about knuckling down and writing this book? Shouldn’t your name be on a brass plaque? How about calling it quits on this vegetarian caper? Isn’t it time for your one-woman protest against the tyranny of ironing to cease? I might have argued these points with a pair of living parents; to quarrel with ghosts requires vertiginous guesswork, and I could never be sure whether I’d finished ahead.
If, however, they’d been on the end of the phone when I was training for the City2Surf or now for a half marathon, I could be certain that my progress would have been greeted with enthusiasm. They would have been proud of me, delighted and probably a bit surprised. I know my father would have bombarded me with training tips. I would have huffed with daughterly impatience, but I wish I had been his student.
My mother would have exerted a moderating influence. Don’t exhaust yourself. Good excuse to stop drinking. She loved to send me clippings on topics she thought would tickle my fancy, she tucked them into gossipy notes written in her neat cursive: local newspaper articles about school friends, columns from medical journals about the health of young women, recipes, photos of my sisters and our dogs, book reviews, travel stories about France.
A glossy yellow box full of these letters is lodged in a cupboard, although most of the clippings have floated away. My parents both died – and this now seems incredible – without ever having had an email address, and I never once received an email from either of them. My mother, I’m sure, would have embraced the medium with enthusiasm and turned into a digital conduit for photographs, online ephemera and whatever washed up on the shores of her internet. There would have been plenty of articles about women and running.
By the time I was ready to run the Mudgee half marathon, my grandfather, her father, did have his own email address, and he’d worked out how to open the photos I sent him. Together we looked at maps and emailed relatives on the other side of the world.
Before I drove over the Blue Mountains and down to the cold plains with my aunt, he called me up to tell me not to injure myself and to be sure to get enough sleep the night before.
Seventy thousand people had waited with me to start the City2Surf. In Mudgee I joined a group of under a hundred to wait for the starter’s pistol beside a country sports field burnished white with overnight frost. The night before, my cousins and I had crammed ourselves with pasta.
To calm my nerves, I’d drunk two glasses of red, twice the dosage recommended by my father’s old training partner. In the morning, we rose when it was still dark and ate more, this time bananas and honey on toast. The local triathlon club was hosting a full marathon that day too, and a small contingent of more serious-looking runners stood at the start, rubbing liniment into their calves, mostly men of the right age to be the sons of Lydiard’s joggers.
They reminded me of my father and his friends; I was too jumpy to pay much attention to the rest of the crowd. We huddled together in our hoodies until the last possible moment, our bare legs pink with the cold.
When the gun was fired, there was a titter of pings as people set their watches for the race and then – silence. The course tracked dirt lanes that connected paddocks and wineries to one another, and the frost hadn’t yet melted on them either.
For the first several kilometres, I was so involved with my efforts to warm up that I forgot about the distance. I had trained in a synthetic singlet, but for the race I made a last-minute decision to wear a pink cotton t-shirt to protect my chest from the unexpected cold. (Rookie mistake: all the books are very clear that runners should never wear untested gear on race day. My shorts were new too.) Now I worried that sweat would turn my t-shirt into an icy wet blanket.
Only when I could comfortably move my fingers did I start thinking about the race. The course was mostly flat, and I ran alone and unhurried, turning over all the advice I’d been given. You can never run too slowly. Just stick to your own pace. It doesn’t matter if you have to walk for a while. It doesn’t matter if you don’t finish. Just keep running. Don’t forget to drink water at every stop. As the sun rose, so did a light frieze of clouds.
The sky brightened and the frost melted. Warm and happy, I ran steadily. Magpies warbled, and a few sleepy cows ambled to the fence line to investigate the intruders. The distance was flagged every 5 kilometres, and I ran from marker to marker with my head lifted, as if seeking a portal into that great sky, a way into the quiet landscape that sprawled around me.
I raised my fingers to my neck to feel the throb of blood at my jugular, trying to connect that pulse to the sound of my feet and to the warmth in my thighs.
The moment I passed the 15-kilometre marker, everything changed. I despaired at the prospect of another 6 unvariegated kilometres. My legs lost their fluency, my muscles ached – and my new black shorts chafed against my lower back.
My feet seemed to have swollen in a way they’d never swollen before, and my socks rubbed uncomfortably against the bones of my littlest toes and my ankles. I worried that my feet were bleeding, that flesh was exposed, that grit from the road was working its way into my bloodstream.
Here are some of our fave songs for putting feet to pavement. (Post continues after gallery.)
Tired and hungry, I wanted to stop running immediately. How ridiculous it was to have started at all. Was I a runner? Hardly. What was I doing stuck on a dusty road behind a vineyard in the blazing winter sun? My cousins, wonderful athletes, would have finished already. Did anybody really expect me to finish? I was a joke athlete, horribly slow.
I became certain that the decision to run a half marathon had been a catastrophic mistake. I started to cry. I’d wasted my time. I should have known better. I wept because I was tired and wanted some comfort. I wept big stupid sweaty sobs as I ran, and these were for my dad, and all the running tips that he couldn’t give me, and for my mum, and all the loving questions that she couldn’t ask.
My hands felt painfully cold again, but if I stopped running, my pulse would drop and the dry air would freeze my fingertips.
My chilly hands convinced me to keep going, although I have no idea where I would have gone if I’d given up the ghost. I spluttered on, kicking stones, dripping tears and snot onto the dirt road, relieved that the field was so tiny and that this outburst hadn’t been witnessed by any cheerful athletes.
Salvation appeared at the 18-kilometre drinks stand, which I’d forgotten existed. The discovery that I only had three kilometres to go flipped my mood just as quickly as it had collapsed. Three kilometres wasn’t much more than a run to the end of the park and back.
As I stopped to drink a glass of green cordial, it became clear to me that I would make the distance, that this story wouldn’t end in calamity. The man at the stand had a wiry white moustache, and I was conscious of his gaze as I gulped my cordial like a little kid.
‘You’re almost there, love,’ he told me. I thought I was going to burst into tears again, this time from relief. I had run much faster than I’d expected, and it struck me as hilarious, not outrageous, when an older woman with water bottles strapped to her hips sprinted past me in the last straight before the finish and, effectively, beat me.
Incredulous, delighted, I let my legs take me all the way across the line and hugged my aunt when I got there.
That afternoon we drove back to Sydney, and when we arrived I was too tired to work out a pub spiel. My legs had cramped up in the car, and I held a banister for support as I hobbled up the stairs to my front door.
I called my sisters and grandfather, and told them that I’d finished. I had no rococo details to add: it was me and a finish line.
Cold baths are supposed to be good for muscle strain, but I ran a hot bubble bath and twisted myself into it with no confidence that I’d be able to haul myself out when it cooled.
Has exercise helped you with grief?