IIn a drawer next to my writing desk, I keep an old piece of cardboard. It’s about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and is covered with names, lists, measurements and weights using the imperial scale, written in blue ink. The handwriting later belonged to my father, and the names listed are my older brother, sister, and myself. I can tell you that at 16y In June 1967, when I was ten years old, I was four feet four inches tall. Earlier that same year, in June, my waist measured 22 inches and weighed five stone one ounces. On the same day, my older brother was dropping a soccer ball 46 yards, and my sister was four feet seven inches tall.
In addition to my dad’s obsession with our physical bodies, measuring all three of us every month—arms, chest, waist, thighs, calves, height, and weight—he created a strict gym regimen for each of us, from the date we turned five. years old. The program included night distance running, as well as an exercise schedule and weightlifting. By the age of eight, I could easily do 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups and run three miles every night without getting tired. The detailed recording of our lives and our bodies came with an acute tension. If any of us gains unnecessary weight – fat, not muscular – or does not meet the monthly goals set for us, we are punished. painful.
The year I turned fourteen, our father fell ill and was placed in a psychiatric institution for several years. He no longer controls his life, let alone ours. The medication left him in a semi-comatose state. All he could manage physically was smoking about 60 cigarettes a day. From the day he entered the establishment, behind a tightly closed door, I stopped exercising and took up smoking as well, as well as drinking too much to suffer blackouts. It wasn’t a healthy lifestyle for a 15-year-old who was recently expelled from two secondary schools in Melbourne.
My path back to exercise followed a decision in my early twenties to stop smoking and, soon after, quit alcohol. I can’t remember why I decided to go jogging one evening, along the Berarong (Yara) River, but I do remember I was soon in pain, gasping for breath, and managed to run just over a kilometer before needing to stop. I ran again the next night, and again the next evening. On the third night, after I ran an extra kilometer, my body remembered how aerobics worked and tired its muscles, with inexplicable tenderness. My body also remembered the satisfaction that came with raising my heartbeat, allowing the blood to flow more forcefully through my body. My body remembers the joy that came with feeling empowered. And I remembered that although our father’s madness had damaged us as children, the years of practice had nourished us.
Since the evening of that first amazing race, I’ve stuck to that habit for over 40 years. While I’ve been running in many cities around the world – London, Berlin, Tokyo and San Francisco to name a few – my workout mostly starts along the same stretch of Birrarung where I did my “come back”. Over the years, I’ve bored so many students writing claiming to me the creative value of running that anyone would ask me the simple question: Why do you run? I’m not sure why, but I can tell you it’s not because I wish I lived longer or looked better. (A long run couldn’t fix my rough head.) I just know that if I don’t run a few times a week, I start to feel miserable and can’t write.
This morning I ran along the Birrarung River, starting at Dights Falls and navigating a circle of dirt tracks through Yarra Bend Park. I pass very few runners these days, while many young runners pass me. I don’t envy them. I hope they last, maybe for 40 years or more.
It was cold and raining. Because of the recent heavy rains, the river has been running at a tremendous speed, and many of the walking paths alongside the banks have been swamped. Instead of dodging muddy puddles, I’d rather run through them, in With them. This morning, around the 2km mark, a rhythm settled into my body, into the beats of my heart, my lungs, and my muscles. I’m starting to feel good. It started drizzling and I started running in a heavy breeze. If my body was feeling uncomfortable, it hid information from me.
As with most of my regular riverside runs, I finished this morning at Dights Falls. I can’t remember seeing the river so high or the current so fast. I often think of falling into an aboriginal rondjiri nation. It is a privilege to run in their country. They are a proud and culturally strong community, and I thank them. Walking home, through the streets of my life, my body warm and my muscles tense. Whatever difficulties or challenges I face we, I feel happy. If I didn’t inherit this love from my father, I don’t know how I would get along with the world.