Thursday, April 16, 2015

Finding meaning in the marathon

If you want to see suffering, stand at the finish line of a marathon. On Sunday after the Canberra Running Festival, bodies were strewn around the lawns in front of Old Parliament House as if on a battlefield; their faces full of agony and relief. 

Anguish is a visitor at the start line too. When the gun is fired an excited fear hits the road of runners. For newcomers it's the promise of unfamiliar territory. The best trainers will tell you that while the lasting benefits of a marathon come in the training, you should never train the full 26 miles (about 42 kilometres). You leave the last six miles "unexplored".   

That's because there's a race within a race. At the 20-mile mark muscles can run out glycogen, causing intense pain as the body searches for something else to burn. It's called "hitting the wall". Other human processes can break down as well. 

There's no way I'd attempt a marathon. I've been a wheezy asthmatic, fighting for air, since small. But I admire those who do.
My 85-year old father-in-law, Ross, who didn't run his first marathon until he was 50, admits: "It's an insult to the body."

He says runners "are almost unconscious; in a zone of their own". 

Ross wouldn't know, but it must be like childbirth. The pain, the zone. Over time one's mind strangely distills the memory into something beautiful. 

In the final few paces runners often say, "never again". Forgetting must be the only thing that explains why Ross completed more than 60 marathons, including the famous Boston event, as well as ultra-marathons and totally unfathomable 24-hour runs.

In running retirement he is grateful for the encouragement he got while "in the zone" – a familiar face, the kind voice of a stranger "that lifts the spirit".

Like hot millet bags or soothing words at a birth centre, runners latch on to whatever support is offered (and thank you to the extraordinary natural-birth advocate Sheila Kitzinger, who died  this week and told me and millions of other mothers-to-be that we were doing well and should trust our bodies). 

In some ways marathons are the opposite of natural. They are acts of will and cajoling in which runners make their bodies do what's required regardless of how ill-suited they are. Marathon runners do not need to be gifted, but they do need to be determined.

They embody the spirit summoned by John F. Kennedy who told Americans in 1962 that they would go to the moon and do a bunch of other things by the end of the decade "not because they are easy, but because they are hard".

Rudyard Kipling writes on the mystery of "will": 

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, To serve your turn long after they are gone,  And so hold on when there is nothing in you, Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

Richard Flanagan examines the phenomenon in his stunning Man Booker Prize novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He describes the will to live, to endure cholera, the endless mud, beatings and hunger for heaven knows what reason on The Line – the Thai-Burma railway. Love of Empire, mates or a fiance back home just doesn't explain it. Flanagan offers mystery over definition.

The marathon was named after a Greek city and the legend of a messenger who ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens (perhaps 20 miles) to announce that the Persians had been defeated. The race was standardised at 26 miles and 385 yards in 1921. We know it as 42.195 kilometres. They are now all over the world, even in Antarctica. In Boston (the scene of the 2013 bombing) so many attend from all over the world that distance markers use both metric and imperial measures. In Canberra ours begins near the National Library, reminiscent of a Greek temple. 

Unlike other Olympic events, spectators can line the road for free to watch. It's always the last event in the program, the human-sized one, the most democratic. Even if we're shabby at it, we know how to run. 

"I was no good at any sport at all," says Ross. "When you find you're not athletic or well co-ordinated, you try slow, long-distance running."  

Marathons are a great leveller. In Canberra, diplomats run alongside office workers, all suffering "in good company". 

"It's hours of continuous activity, not like other sports where you stop and start and your heart rate goes back to normal." 

Ross says his most enjoyable marathons have been when he helped somebody who was struggling in the last stages. 

"I reckon I walked across the line four times with somebody that I didn't know, staying with them," he says. "I remember the last person. We talked about her family. You try and take them out of themselves, exchange words. When we came to the finish I held her hand up. Her family saw her and immediately pressed into her arms. I never saw her again." 

First published in The Canberra Times

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Barefoot and passionate: reflections on the Lenten experience

Ahead of Easter and the end of Lent I was delighted to discover an exquisite baroque sculpture by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It's of St Teresa of Avila, the Spanish founder of the Discalced Carmelites. Google her. In a small Roman chapel St Teresa can be found, made of marble seated on clouds below an angel poised to pierce her heart with a dart. In her autobiography, Teresa describes this spiritual ecstasy as one that causes immense joy and pain; turning her "on fire with a great love of God".

Leaving aside Teresa's mystical encounter, I was curious to know why she was discalced, that is barefoot. The Discalced Carmelites, a Catholic order established in the late 1500s, understood that we experience the world and beyond through our bodies. Going without shoes, and in her case other comforts, was a sign that she relied on God to provide for her. It's a concept foreign to most of us. We strive to be independent. Going barefoot is associated with being carefree, aimless or a rough kind of life.

Many religious pilgrimages are completed barefoot. Walkers feel sharp rock, slippery mud or the biting cold of water. They have to adjust their sense of who they are and what the world is really like.

Can you imagine walking into Parliament House barefoot, feeling the floorboards and marble with your toes? We are not allowed to. Instead, we use heels and hard soles to make a thunderous noise that says "power".

Humility is at the heart of Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. It was the custom in ancient Palestine for people who had travelled in sandals on dusty roads to wash their feet upon arriving at someone's home. Hosts would assist guests as a sign of hospitality. On this day marked by Christians, Jesus took on the role of host and servant. In services across Canberra on Thursday the ritual will be repeated as leaders and parishioners pour water over, hold and dry the feet of each other. We can only imagine how communities would be transformed if leaders understood and were seen as hosts rather than heroes. 

Although seen as a relic from a distant past, Lent is about linking our physical and spiritual selves. Many in the community used to observe a 40-day fast in the days leading up to Easter Sunday, giving up all rich food. These days there are other options. Pope Francis offers a tip. "Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty."

Before the start of Lent, I asked my friends what they would be prepared to give up. My friend Sandy was going to abandon hot showers. He has done so each Lent for years. "It's not about giving something up but rather giving something back," he said. 

"It's different if you have solar panels heating your water, but our system is electric. It's largely symbolic but I hope to be doing something for the environment." Hearing this, my 11-year-old gave up hot showers too. (The cooler Canberra evenings are proving quite a challenge.) 

Another dear friend, Max, goes barefoot whatever the weather, whatever the occasion. (Although there are special events or exemptions. He wore shoes for my wedding.) The discipline, as with the Discalced Carmelites, has became a way of life, an "attempt to remind myself that I am on holy ground constantly as I encounter people ... to be careful, tread gently and act lovingly," says Max. Like stony paths, it's hard going.

So, what did I do this Lent? I tried to give up complaining, a persistent habit, almost a right, in our culture. I told myself: "In our society there are too many people throwing too many rocks". I didn't do well. Within days I was angrily critiquing federal policies.

Stephen Cherry, the Dean of King's College Cambridge, says that the problem with grumbling is that its dispiriting effect militates against the chances of taking positive action precisely when positive action is needed. That's the challenge: to spot grumbling coming, "a perverse kind of leisure activity that kills time, dampens enthusiasm and eradicates delight", and to take respectful action. 

The mature and effective response to an injustice is not complaint but activism, not whingeing but clarifying that something is unacceptable and doing something about it. There was some of that this Lent. Cherry, like me, is a fan of protest, the likes of the kind seen in cities across Australia, drawing thousands of people last weekend over the treatment of asylum seekers*. "Protest is responsible and impassioned complaint," he says. 

"But it is also vulnerable complaint. Protesters become emotional in prayer or interpersonal exchange and when they demonstrate in public they can, depending on the situation, be photographed, arrested or shot at. The same is never true of mere grumblers. Given the same circumstances, one person might grumble about it and the other mount a protest. It is the one who protests who becomes vulnerable."  

*Tim Winton was among them, drawing on a key Gospel text at a Palm Sunday Walk for Justice for Refugees. The article was first published by Fairfax Media on April 2, 2015.