It was as if they could just keep running forever. As if their feet would carry them and there’d be no reason to stop and people would keep cheering on the sides of the road and holding out water bottles and sponges for them to grab at.
My marathon story is a kind of secret which I tell people. It must have been in 1984 or 1985. Almost thirty years ago. I have always loved running and I loved training for that marathon. I was living in Tel Aviv at the time and was still in the army, although by then I had a 9-5 army job, so I was home in the evenings and weekends. I ran a lot at night, even after midnight, which in summer was almost as hot as the day. On weekends I’d run up to the nudist beach just north of Tel Aviv, hang out there for the day, then take the bus home in the evening.
Running was a way to get from a to b. I loved that. I think that if I could run everywhere, I would. And somehow when I was watching those men in the lead today – Kiprotich and Kipsang and Kirui – I could see them running to work or running across plains or through valleys, the way I used to run for miles along the beach when I was in high school, consumed and elated by this feeling that my body would carry me forever. They didn’t seem to struggle. It was as if they inhabited Running, as if their being was all about Running. They were Running. It’s a kind of dedication, and it seemed deeper than that, too.
Who was it who was talking recently about her father in Mali crossing vast distances over and over again, herding cattle – I think it was cattle – and was he only a boy back then? And then he came to live in England. And I thought, what happens to that story, what happens to the story we carry in our bodies, the story of how we’ve moved across distances, how we have carried our bodies, how our bodies have carried us over huge expanses, and probably not just us, for we carry the stories of our fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers before them, going further back in time, crossing continents.
I think of the Wandering Jew. I think of how we have always known distance, always known movement and unrest and escape. And how I carry that in my body, that desire to keep moving, that compulsion. For me, it’s a desire to cross water, that feeling that real journeys involve water, movement from one continent to another.
Back in 1984, the marathon in Tel Aviv probably happened in March, as it does now. During the week of Passover, or just before. Somewhere around there. Before it gets too hot to run. I remember that by the time I got to the 37th kilometre, I was sure I wasn’t going to make it. My legs were giving in. I could barely walk, never mind run. I remember pausing. I remembering stepping up onto the pavement and leaning against a wall outside a block of flats. We were somewhere in one of the suburbs of Tel Aviv, I’m not sure where exactly. I remember a policewoman offering me an orange. I remember eating the orange. Perhaps she even peeled it for me. Or maybe she just offered me a segment or two of the orange she was already eating.
Not long after that, I began to vomit, and I gradually vomited up the 37 kilometres-worth of water I’d drunk along the way. It happened over about an hour or so, and in that hour an ambulance picked me up and took me to the hospital’s emergency room, by which time I was vomiting blood. I stayed in hospital for a few days with Mallory-Weiss Syndrome. I liked having the time off from the army. I felt like a war hero.
If there is something I regret not doing, it’s finishing a marathon. I’ve run a half-marathon since then, and a 10K race. The most times I’ve ever run around the Park is probably six, which is about 10K. But my legs won’t manage another marathon; or, to be precise, my knees wouldn’t hold out. And I’m sad about that. Cycling comes a close second to running. There’s something about being able to carry yourself across an expanse, to move faster than walking – your legs being in charge of your movement, your spanning of the distance.
When I watched them today, running through London, streets I am familiar with, and the crowds cheering and the city full of people, and the beauty of this city, and the glorious Shard becoming visible every now and then, I could feel that sensation in my own feet, their legs were my legs and I knew what it was like to keep pounding the earth, to keep moving, that glorious and liberating and ecstatic feeling that running gives you, the love of movement growing with each step, more and more and more, and you never want to stop.