Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Rolling back the years

The power of the brain to form memories is diminished with age. That’s why things speed up. Not because the essence of time changes, but because there are fewer memories to interrupt the perceived path from then to now. Memory, not life, is emptier. That’s why near death situations are said to slow down time: the adrenaline enhances your power to create memories. You look back on that experience and see a greater number of moments passing. More frames, slower action.

And this gives us one of the reasons we run, despite our ageing bodies and troublesome employers. It gives us a little window in the great ennui of passing time in which we splash about in adrenaline and make more memories. Running a big race literally slows down time. As if we were younger.

And so we found ourselves, Sean and Simon and I, gracing a dark night at the Montague Street, Clinton Street Crossroads …

And so I found myself with ruined hamstrings on the road through Central Park.

And so I found myself being applauded by the drinkers of Boulud Sud.

And so it goes on.

Let’s go back a bit.

‘No one told you about the Vaseline’, I exclaimed, the chime of real horror in my voice. After all, here was Brad, the Brad, team mascot or leader, depending on how you look at it, alias-namesake of the Brash Higgins team, running the New York Marathon to raise charitable donations for the Childhood Cancer Association of South Australia, and no one had mentioned, with only twenty hours to go, that he needed Vaseline. And when you’re running a marathon, especially your first marathon, and you’re not as svelte as you were when you were twenty, you really need that Vaseline.
            On the twenty TV screens in front of us, New Zealand continued to turn that screw, tighter and tighter. We continued to eat. And I listed the places he needed to apply the Vaseline. He raised his eyebrows. I confirmed that list. ‘How much?’ Later he went back to the hotel with a kilogramme of Vaseline. Better safe than sorry.

No, I’m rushing ahead. You’ll want to know about Brooklyn. Back a night:

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafes at night
And revolution in the air

It wasn’t quite like that, but there we were, looking for pasta, at the crossroads between Montagu St and Clinton St, reciting passages from 1960s troubadours as if that would reel back the decades. It didn’t. (Pedants among you – yes, I know it’s not that Clinton St, which is in the Village, but it is that Montagu St, so bear with me). We briefly discussed the variant versions of ‘Tangled up in Blue.’ We found bad pasta. We ate, we went to look for a bridge for Simon to cross to get back to Manhattan, we went and slept in the soulless arms of the Brooklyn Marriott, where Sean and I are sharing a room.

And then it was the day before and there was Jessica, sports masseuse and generally knowledgeable person in Brooklyn. Pushing her thumbs deep into my calves. It’s ok, I can do pain, I said. She’d heard that one before. She has a voice like a comforting, savoury syrup. There’s an intimacy when someone sticks their fingers that deep into you. And there’s a musicality, almost lyrical, to certain kinds of pain. You feel it coming on, you breathe, it’s a variation on something you’ve heard before. Focus on the breathing, it builds, it dies, it builds again.

‘Epsom salts,’ she says. I’ve never heard of that before. ‘How much,’ I ask. ‘Half a box today, the same again tomorrow, after the race.’ Outside, on the steps of the Brooklyn brownstone where she lives and works, are Brad and Sean, resting in the cold sunlight. Brad had landed the evening before and already collected his race number. He’s in need of rest. He’d flown in from Australia. Brad heads in for his treatment with Jessica, Sean and I head off to look for a bar to watch the Rugby World Cup Final. The Aussie bar near Jessica’s is bursting with sweaty men, exuding bravado and odours. And we need, I emphasise need, to sit down. So we end up a little way away at 200 Fifth, a sports bar with a website that belies the rather pleasant and calm interior, drinking water, eating very fine sweet potato fries, and a surprisingly good burger. Simon joins us and starts drinking beer. And more beer. ‘Sorry,’ he says. It doesn’t do any good. The beer smells good, and beer now has a quasi-divine status. He orders another. Sean asks for a taste. I try to interpose myself bodily between Sean and the glass – this, after all, is part of my purpose here, to keep Sean from the bottle on the eve of a marathon, because we’ve seen where that leads (I didn't mention in that blog entry that Milan 2004 was the only occasion I'd seen someone throw up before, during and after a race) – but I’m too slow. ‘It’s good,’ he says, and stops there.

‘I’m going to the hotel to nap,’ he says, and agrees to pick up some Epsom salts on the way. Brad appears seconds later, and we watch the end of the game. New Zealand are increasingly dominant, but Brad doesn’t seem to feel too strongly about his adopted home – he’s a former New York sommelier turned winemaker, based in McLaren vale – which is probably just as well, because the All Blacks are not cognizant of our building sporting microdrama on Fifth and Sackett in Brooklyn. The final whistle blows on a world cup that saw Wales valiantly almost hold their own in the face of diffusing injuries: I wriggle the ankle that’s ruined my running this year. Too late to do anything now. We discuss plans for the morning – sorry, THE morning – and I mention Vaseline. I’m glad we cleared that one up. Suddenly, the rugby world cup barely forgotten, and we’re surrounded by American football; it’s time to leave. A gaggle of children appear, apparently a party is about to take place here, and it’s definitely time to leave. Jessica drifts into the bar, incongruous, a morphing cloud of light in the growing darkness of sporting America.

She guides two lost souls plus Simon through Brooklyn looking for Epsom salts. There is a dearth of Epsom salts in Brooklyn. Every chemist has been cleaned out – by runners staying in Brooklyn hotels I imagine, unless the borough is full of women trying not to go into labour the night before the marathon, when the streets of New York close, or, now I think about it, on the evening of the Halloween Parades, when gangs of trick or treaters maraud through the muscular streets looking for sugar highs, or ride through the streets of Soho in triumphant drag. Either way, not a good night for a long childbirth (and in any case the association between Epsom salts and delaying contraction has no medical basis). Eventually we find a chemist who thinks he has some out back: he brings out a box and I help us to several cartons.

We part ways, I to my preparations, Brad to his, Simon to a quiet Halloween night out in Soho NYC.

A minor problem remains. We are Team Brash, running to raise money for the Childhood Cancer Association of South Australia, proving practical, hands-on support for children with cancer and their families. We have raised in excess of $3,000 and the figure is creeping up. But for a team to be a team it needs a shirt. With this in mind I ordered three shirts from BCCO NYC, printed with our names and the CCA logo on the front and the team logo on the back. They look great. However, there’s a snake in the garden. Two of them look great, and the third fell apart while BCCO NYC were printing it. And they’re a printing firm – they don’t actually have shirts in stock. They said they’d source another and send it to the hotel. I’ve been to reception a couple of times over the past 36 hours to ask, and it’s not been there. And it’s Saturday night, and I don’t have a shirt.

Sean is asleep in our hotel room. I fumble my way into the bathroom carrying twenty kilogrammes of Epsom salts, and run a bath with about two kilogrammes. And there I am, beyond the reach of pain, having thrown Queen Mab to the ground, leg ready.

What are we doing here, and, more precisely, who are we kidding? I’m probably in the best shape, but six weeks ago a physiotherapist told me not to do any long runs. The following day I went out and did my first proper long run in preparation for the marathon (in case you’re not up with the metrics, a couple of weeks earlier would be been more orthodox – but my ankle wouldn’t let me, as it kept on disappearing from under me in a howl of unforgiving pain. I’ll blog about the varieties of running pain on another occasion). 18 miles or so. Not too bad, if you’re wondering. But all the same, I shouldn’t be thinking about this, let alone thinking I can do it in 3 hours and 15 minutes. Or 16 minutes, maybe.

And then there’s Sean. Eight weeks ago he couldn’t walk. While in a gym class, hearing that there was a YouTube video of someone skipping on a bosu ball, Sean not only discovered the true meaning of hubris, but gave hubris a new poster boy.

There wasn’t time to give him a bionic ankle, so instead they took some stuff out of him, spun it in a centrifuge, and then reinjected into his ankle. It seems to have worked though, because he’s running. ‘Just as long as I get under 4 hours he says,’ and for once it’s not a game of playing down expectations. He’s a running improbability, if not a walking implausibility.

Brad Hickey, aka Brash Higgins was the driving force behind the New York Project. And a big part of the attraction in terms of post-race refection excess. An encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s food and wine from a decade as a top sommelier, conjoined with further years blazing forward as a winemaker in Australia’s Mclaren Vale, had been bought at a cost. Though not at the cost of truly spectacular wine. Formerly a star soccer player for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Brad had enjoyed (sic) an even longer period of systematic inattention to his training than even Sean has managed, with the result that his pledge to run New York had been greeted by with some scepticism and concern amongst family and friends alike. His achievement in a steady year of training had been immense: but his physique was still not inconsiderable and the five boroughs are unforgiving, even when you are visualising Boulud Sud as your special, private finishing line. He’ll be running by the thread of memory.

We’re not just clutching at straws, they’re straws that have been first blasted on Lear’s heath, then used for a couple of decades in a nursery nativity scene, leaving us with the question what are we doing here and who are we kidding?

I climb out of the bath, flop on the bed, and the phone rings. It’s reception: my shirt is there. Sean wakes. I toss him a couple of kilogrammes of Epsom salts.

We head out to dinner. Any old pasta will do, and there’s an Italian around the corner that looks ok on tripadvisor (other review websites are possible; I receive no sponsorship for this blog, because we all know where that would lead). Queen Italian Restaurant, founded in 1958, no typographical error apparently. Queen Indian might be forgiven, but Queen Italian? No genitive, no article, is that really a substantive followed by a qualifier? Unassuming place. Sean orders a soup, and we both have pasta. And it’s great. Really great, and I don’t even like pasta much. ‘Old school,’ we agree. No frills, old guys out back. It’s unspoken. It’s like old days, on the eve of a marathon, and that’s what we need to be: old school.
            This place is great, one of us says to the waiter. Old school. ‘This place is so old school,’ he says, ‘we don’t even do a Caesar salad.’ And embedded therein is a truth, we both know this immediately, but one so ineffable we can’t unravel it.

We go back to the hotel and discuss how best to pin race numbers. Again.

We sleep, rise, eat porridge in the hotel (the barista serving it seems reluctant to set up shop), watch the sleepy and slim limbs clad in sweatshirts and sweatpants drift through the lobby, and then we catch the last bus to Staten Island. I apply my Vaseline on the bus, while Sean saves his for later.

We clear security, which is surprisingly quick and easy, following the moving mass of bodies as they enter the start area, eating bagels and drinking water. Even in New York, all is calm: it brings out the best in people, as they prepare to pursue entirely individual goals and demons, and yet for now succumb to the motions of a crowd without rancour or individualism.

And we lie by the toilets, and we are young again, brimful of memories, with our hearts as young as the grass, burning through the morning, brains bare, caring nothing and shining like unhurried prayers. Green and golden. Even lying by the toilets.

I rise and shake my locks, and hear a voice. It’s Brad. He’s found us amidst the piles of prostrate bodies and toilet queues, drawn by the athlete’s sixth sense. We hug. Strength and honour. He brandishes his bucket-size pot of Vaseline. ‘Do you need any more?’

And there we were, lost and found, in a moment never to be relived and never to be lost, a few borderless minutes, broken open and therefore whole at last. We part ways to our separate starting pens.

And there we were, now running. Over the top of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, high above the invisible curvature of the water, on from the functional soullessness of Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth into Brooklyn, which is a very soulful place. And no matter that the streets are a little quiet, and a little grey, and for the first few kilometres are least a little dull, because we are already tracing the ley lines of the city. We feel the lives that have scraped their way along here, the saline tang of their anxieties left on the cells now in damp gutters. Fifty thousand runners are unexpectedly the pores of the borough’s history. They re-enact, in the flush of their uncontrolled emotions, forgotten – forgotten even by the protagonists – dramas played out at every place along the route.
            At 4.2 k my ankle begins to hurt, and I worry that this is it, the imminent end, not missing the symbolism of the number. But the twinge goes away. The fourteenth kilometre is uphill, and, though my pace stays the same, it doesn't feel right. It’s too much effort. And then the Queensborough bridge, the true test at the halfway point, the purgatorial passage where suffering souls pull over to the side to stretch and moan in the darkness, the first point at which you have a true insight into how you’re running. I labour up, and a couple of women pass me, and they don’t even look particularly fit, and I know how it’s going. And it’s not going 3:15.
            We swing out of the quiet darkness onto first avenue, and I know how it’s going to be, because I’ve had the only possible preparation for this, which is having done it before. There’s a huge swell of applause, and it’s hard to stop all your adrenaline reserves from flooding at that moment of excitement and exultation. But is it, perhaps, just a little quieter than last time?
            The Bronx section seems longer than I remember it. About two people line the route for the two kilometres, and they’re a little diffident or ironic. Hello and goodbye the Bronx: are you maybe celebrating a simulacrum of who you used to be? I check my watch, and maybe it is going to be 3:15 after all, because if I keep going at this pace, multiply 4:15 by 11 using base 60 and add maybe .5 for that uphill section on Fifth Avenue and add all that to the number I first think of and … well, it’s about that anyway.

And ok, the planet is going to the cats (people say ‘going to the dogs’, but that’s obviously silly because the world would be much better if it was run by dogs – there’d be plenty of affection, big and frequent meals and culinary experimentation, pointless running around, and sex), so I need to point out a couple of developments that have taken place over the few years since I last ran a marathon. One, the selfie generation has learned to tie its shoelaces, and the route is full – ok, the first couple of miles, until they all drop back or run into a building or something – of people running with a camera in front of them taking a photograph of themselves running the New York Marathon, because, if you don’t have a picture you can’t prove you enjoyed it right? Two of them run straight into me in the first couple of kilometres. Two, fear of poisoned or contaminated food has increased, so you no longer see ready-to-eat banana sections at the drink stations in the middle section of the route. No, the bananas are chopped into sections, but they still have their skin on. Think about it for a couple of seconds …

… if you were race organiser, would you have done that?...

… yes, it actually happens. There are stretches of the New York Marathon where the road is littered with hundreds of pieces of banana skin. Literally (and I mean that according to the OED sense, not the sense in which people under forty use it, by which they mean ‘figuratively [if you’re under forty, ‘figuratively’ means the opposite of literally, but the actual meaning of literally, not the sense in which you use it – sorry if this is confusing.]). Banana skins. Thousands of tired runners. Nice combination.

Through Marcus Garvey park. What a guy. And, yes, it is a little quieter this year. And I hit Fifth Avenue, and I absolutely and completely know what I’m doing. I’m the man who suffered this a few years ago, watched Lance Armstrong pass me on the uphill section, and then left his EPO-ed ass standing on the final 3-4k, as soon as the road turned downhill. And I absolutely and completely know I’m cooked. I look at the watch, and, ok, it might be closer to 3:20. Some numbers slipped by somewhere. Perhaps I dropped them through the grid surface of the bridge out of the Bronx.

There’s a voice: Rosy Cox calls out encouragement. She’s here celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary with Ed, who’s also shouting support. Rosy is wonderful. I don’t know Ed but he must be wonderful too because he’s been married to Rosy for ten years. Their shouting pushes me up the slight and unforgiving incline of Fifth Avenue. And I reach the top and face the slight downhill in the Park, and I think, now is the time to make up those lost minutes, because I’m a runner, and I know how to do this …

Some miles back, Sean is running strong. His pace is even. He doesn’t need the Emergency Kipling Kit yet. He’s beyond anything he’s run in all the training on his sofa. The miracles of modern medicine are proved to be of this world by the fact that his ruined ankle has held him up all this way, and a couple of years of functional fitness classes with Reuben Pimbal have built a core of steel, albeit one disguised by a few inches of spare Michelin-star-inspired, grand-cru flesh. Somehow he’s gone from train wreck to respectable finisher in five weeks, and he’s not even thinking about the four hours target. In fact he’s enjoying this, and not only because it’s improbable.

And Brad? He leaves doubt behind quite early in the day. He’s playing the crowd, who are cheering the big guy. And he’s enjoying it too, and the more he runs the stronger he feels. Metronomic at first, his kilometre splits get quicker and quicker, because, actually, now that he’s doing it, he understands the whole running thing. And he works the crowd, and they cheer, and he gets faster and faster.

And then my hamstrings go. First the left, and then the right, pure cramp, and neither leg will lift, and I stagger to the side and drop my head to the floor, because this has never happened before, and because this is the easiest way to stretch them, and because I must hang my head and bow first to the folly and secondly to the years and thirdly to the damage done and denied, and I can’t remember the fourth or fifth things.

And there we will leave them, rolling back the years, peeking through the torn curtain … Joad denied the redemption he thought he might sneak past the eternal and vigilant gatekeeper, Sean the thief who was saved, and Brad resurgent and joyous, rising from the depths of an amphora.

And there will be cheering and applause at Boulud Sud, and much wine and drink, but for now let us leave the three of them suspended in that flash of memory, rolling back the years ...