Published in V.M.C. NEWSLETTER, VOL. 9, NO. 4 MARCH 1978
The unexpected interest created by my earlier article (Petridge Marathon,June 1977) prompted me to offer a sequel, as two important events have taken place since I last wrote. Although I am still a guest of Her Royal Harness, at least till next February, I am now able to train in a new environment and was, moreover, recently granted leave to run in my first competitive Marathon. Both experiences wore in many ways momentous, and I would like to share them with my fellow-runners while they are still fresh in my mind. I said goodbye to my 77m concrete track in mid-September, when I was re-classified from Pentridge to Won Wron Reforestation Prison, near Yarram. I left behind some very fine friends, a three year period of painful but positive growth, and some 4,500 Miles logged on the tightly-turning track in One Yard. My best Marathon time had been 3:03:08, set in July (546 laps); I had run the distance nine times in about 16 months, and was looking forward to a wider radius for my circuits.
Won Wron was a revelation. Hills, forests, pastures, and a three foot fence to keep the cows out; better food (and more of it), minimum “supervision”, motel-type accomodation, freedom to roam the grounds until nine o’clock in the evenings; better access to letters, a weekly phone-call home; cricket matches against local teams, and the opportunity for more meaningful labour. Baudelaire commented somewhere that the sky is never more beautiful than when seen through the bars of a prison cell: but I doubt if he ever came out of a prison cell to walk under the night sky and drink the damp sweetness of a surrounding forest. It would certainly never have occurred to him that he might run under a canopy of stars!!
The road around the camp is about 31/2 laps to the Mile (21 laps in “G” Division!) with a slow, gentle climb to a steep 20m ramp, then a plateau followed by a soft descent back to the start. I was quite happy to train on this track (Track? It looked like a Freeway!), and later apply for leave to attend the Olympic Tyres Marathon in ‘November. But the Governor (Mr Ken Lever) had other ideas. He took me out one day and measured off an 11 Mile course on the local roads, then furnished me with a permit of temporary residence in the outside world (He’s O.K. so long as he keeps moving…). Every morning I was able to set off before sunrise to intoxicate myself with new sensations and, incidentally, to boost my mileage for the big event.
My leave application was supported by a letter on behalf of the South Melb Athletic Club (thanks to Bruce Watt), a photo copy of my VMC article (to show the authorities that I was indeed quite serious about this), and an offer of accomodation from Bruce Walker, a fellow-runner who had shared the pleasures and the pains of the “G” Division track, as a kind of respite from his teaching duties there. Meanwhile, I was suffering from various sorenesses (no more tight turns, a new surface, over-exuberance..) and then an evil bout of dysentry, four days before I was due to go. My daily mileage had however been increased to 12 Miles, and then I had tapered off a little and was trying to stay calm about it all.
This last task was not easy, especially since the first day of the leave gave me my first taste of the Outside in more than three years. I had lunch with my wife and three daughters, and we walked around the Botanic Gardens, tried out the Tan together, watched boys vainly fishing for eels in the lake…I was taking pleasure in a thousand ‘insignificant’ things which had lain buried for so long, and I thought of T.E.Lawrence’s assessment of the fierce longing for freedom which beset the Arabs, whereas in England, people’s freedom was like the water they drank, tasteless in their mouths. For me it was a taste of honey, and on Saturday night sleep was clearly out of the question, although God knows I tried.
Bruce Walker and I arrived in plenty of time at Princes Park, and joined the crowd in the men’s toilets. Runners were trying not to glare at each other as they jostled for position, with one eye on their watch and the other on the incumbents in the two cubicles available. These in turn seemed increasingly tense about the fact that’ time was the only thing that was running out. Soon we were lined up with the eighty-odd starters, and it suddenly hit me that I had come here to do something. Up until that minute I had scarcely given a thought to the run itself; I would simply let Bruce set the pace and try to stay with him as long as I could.
It was a good theory, and I should have had the sense to stay with it. He did the first lap in 13:15, muttering something about being careful, so we slowed it back, kept it even and concentrated on exchanging repartee with our companions.10 Miles in 67:43 was about right, but unfortunately it set me thinking about the time and I began imperceptibly to force the pace. The 6th lap passed in 13:16, and Bruce was no longer muttering; he said, very clearly “We’ re going to be all dressed up, with nowhere to go”. I wondered what on earth the fellow could mean, as we sped around the 7th lap in another 13:16. There’s consistency for you! It was just after the 8th lap that I began to glimpse the meaning behind Bruce’s enigmatic forecast, as my legs turned to jelly and the pace simply fell away. As my partner hummed a little tune to himself, I was trying desperately to conjugate French Irregular verbs, but to no avail. The Past Anterior and the Plusperfect Subjunctive were indistinguishable by now, and I could hear Bruce saying, somewhere on the edge of my outer darkness, that we had better forget about three hours and just concentrate on finishing.
I don’t remember much else about the run. That child on a tricycle was surely infringing park regulations as he sped past me at the northern end of the course, and I was grateful that those two women pushing a pram were going in the opposite direction, thus saving me from complete loss of face. And Bruce’s shadowy figure was always just ahead, shouting, cajoling, re-assuring: “You didn’t come all this way to give up now…”. No indeed, but would my legs believe that? Was I still endowed with legs? My three daughters were looking worried as I passed the feeding station, and my feeble “V” sign must have seemed ambiguous to every-one. There was my brother taking photographs. Trust him to arrive late! Why couldn’t he have been there when I was circling round at 13:16 ? I found myself wondering whether visits would be permitted if I had to spend the rest of my sentence in an Iron Lung. Would I still get full remissions? Would they even bother putting a guard on me, given that I was not likely to run anywhere again for some time? The final lap took 19:31, and that was only on the clock. Then I heard Bruce Watt yelling at me “Come on, This is what it’s all about. This is what those laps were for…” Bruce
Walker and I crossed the line together, as I caught him in a cruel parody of the final sprint. We were both credited with the same time (3:15:21), but the eagle-eyed officials awarded me the 35th place and Bruce the 36th. You were quite right, Bruce, it wasn’t fair, But just think how much your handicap will be let out. Anyway, we both won a spot prize (nearest to 3:15), and since I could hardly take a flagon bale to Won Wron, I was given the pair of Thermos flasks, and Bruce was able to drown his sorrows.
The organisation had been superb, but more than that: the atmosphere generated by competitors, officials and spectators was imbued with a love of the sport and a sense of comradeship. The inevitable “high” I felt at having completed the course was increased immeasurably by a whole new set of pleasures. With my daughters cheerfully propping me up between them, I joined the crowd to applaud the other finishers. I remember Bruce Watt’s words: This is what it’s all about. This warmth, this satisfaction. The distance itself no longer seems hostile to me; it has become, if not “friendly”, at least neutral: the same for every runner, who gets through it the best way he can, and maybe finds part of himself in the process, I must thank those who helped, especially Bruce Watt, Mike Elkner, Mr Lever, and above all, Bruce Walker, who knows more than most people what it’s really all about.