When I turned 50 I ran a marathon on each continent in celebration. The second was in Europe.
How sublime it is to be in England. I sit on a bench in Hyde Park, the sky shell-pink. A sign asks me not to disturb the wildlife. Wildlife? A duck on the pond, and nearby a motley squirrel peers nervously at me from behind a bed of red and yellow tulips. Two of England’s Big Five?
England is a gentle place. The green is really green and the sky is pastel. There is a chill in the air – it is spring but there is a wintry bite. People are gentle and reserved, polite in queues. They are a people I feel close to and at home with. Does one say they are quirky? They are my kin.
The contrast between the London Marathon and the Buffalo Marathon cannot be any starker. This race is the biggest in Europe and perhaps even in the world. There are over 30 000 starters, split between three different venues. There are over 5 million spectators lining the route, and the race is televised worldwide.
The din at the start is enormous. It is freezing cold, the rain is being driven in by a howling gale, and I am apprehensive about the grey clouds above. A tall, thin athlete shakes my hand: “Welcome, South Africa, have a good run. Beautiful day for a marathon, what do you say?”
I look at this man and wonder if he is moral. Moral? Yes, moral – for an Englishman thinks he is moral only when he is uncomfortable. That’s George Bernard Shaw for you. I try to huddle in my makeshift raincoat, my black refuse bag made in South Africa, trying not to get wet. This guy is dressed for a hot African summer’s day, raindrops dripping from his blue nose, and smiling. Maybe we do come from different worlds.
The mass moves forward. Great excitement. Difficult to find a good stride because the road is jam-packed and barriers line the entire route. The spectators stand five deep, under brollies and great overcoats.
“Go South Africa – Go Holland – Morning New Zealand.” Near me runs a petite blonde girl with a Russian flag on her vest. My imaginary friend Zeno – in the form of an ancient Greek philosopher draws near.
“Hey Howzit – you running for Greece?” Zeno smiles and quotes Socrates: “I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world.” Too true, my mentor – my sentiment exactly.
Parts of the race are larger than life. The Cutty Sark is moored in the middle of the tide of boiling humanity. There are mad dogs and Englishmen everywhere. No midday sun, but the atmosphere is festive. There is an exuberance and a feeling of great joy as I run; a feeling that mind, body and spirit are working as a unified whole. My heart wants to sing, my body feels strong, and all my senses are alive. I stand in this moment and I scream with unrestrained joy – the crowd roars back. Zeno stands there and claps his hands and laughs.
There are no hills on this race. The Tower Bridge is the only challenge. Running this marathon is like taking a guided tour of the city. The one tricky part is on the Embankment outside the Tower of London. Here, the ancient cobbles, laid centuries ago, form part of the route. It is a difficult part of the course that needs to be negotiated warily. Still, the organisers have placed a fine red carpet over the cobbles, and this helps a little.
As Big Ben comes into sight, I know the end is near. Ahead is a disciplined company of British paratroopers in full battle dress complete with backpack. Nice one, guys. Insane way to run a marathon. The sergeant tells me they are going to Iraq in a month’s time and this is their final fitness test.
The finish of this great race is in front of Buckingham Palace. I am cold, I am tired, and I am sore. But my mentor for this part of the journey is there. Zeno smiles. “The more a man finds his sources of pleasure in himself, the happier he will be.” Zeno touches his nose knowingly, nodding acknowledgement as I collect my medal in the pouring rain. “The highest, most varied and lasting pleasures are those of the mind.” The words of Arthur Schapenhaur. I am a grinning old man standing at the Palace Gate. I have my treasure. Even in death it will be mine. I wink at Zeno and he disappears. My stopwatch reads 05:11:27.