Kings Park and McGillivray Oval made me some kind of strong. Not the strongest, but strong.
There are many kinds of strength. The work I did in these two places fortressed me physically and, to some extent, emotionally as well.
This is about ephemeral strength, running, and a reminder that you’re not as strong as once you were. If that bores you, check out now!
Aged 18, I managed to score a ‘domestique’ spot amongst a bunch of very good runners. Altus, Hicks, Sulivan, Pestell, Gee…they may not have been household names but for a fella who’d spent a few years buried in the small print of the athletics section in Monday’s West, they were legends. They’d feature in the first handful of runners alongside names like Boyd, Spiers, Hambleton, Maslen and Bonner.
The coach called me Chubby Checker back then. While dipping under 65kg when I landed, I still had my share of baby fat, and it wasn’t lost on my coach or my tentative ego amidst exalted company. Fortunately, the name didn’t stick. The baby fat took much longer to disappear.
By this time I’d started to pick up under-age state titles every month or so through the winter, but Kings Park and McGillivray Oval were where the real action happened.
Kings Park was a gut-buster with two editions: winter and summer.
The first time I’d fronted up, nervous and apprehensive, I was introduced to some faces that would become fast friends. My mission on that first session: run hard enough, long enough not to get lost as they disappeared into the distance.
The winter surge course was 16 kilometres all up. We didn’t call it that, my coach was too old school for metric nonsense. Watches were also given similar disdain despite regular sightings of contraband. Our sessions were based on effort. “Plus or minus five-eighths, three-quarters, seven-eights” were among the instructions. It took me while to figure out what the fractions were about – apart from the warm-up, it all felt hard to me.
Thursdays at Kings Park were about surges. A four-kilometre warm-up was a long-winded countdown for the pain to follow. Seven surges that varied in length from 700 metres to near-on 3 kilometres, punctuated by shorter ‘floats’ (if that word sounds easy, don’t be fooled). All, bar one surge, uphill. All, bar two, on trails and soft sand.
The summer edition was much the same. Slightly shorter and on summer-soft sand. Nasty, lactic-inducing hills and high-30s temps did not make for a moist mouth when we were done. Most sessions found us a mess of sweat folded over fence railings, catching our dry breath with a gnawing feeling of exhaustion in the pits of our stomachs.
McGillivray Oval was more rudimentary. No easier, just easier to explain. Three grassy two-milers with two minutes jog recovery. That’ll sound familiar to anyone who’s ever done a Tuesday morning session at BT RunClub. Long, windswept straights and two laps of the upper and lower playing fields were constitutional for a Tuesday evening. Something like 3250 metres…though we never counted.
As we ran, sprinters would come, roll out their towels, stretch, stretch some more, pull out their blocks, practice some starts, stretch some more, and go home. We just kept running. On the way home, I’d do my best not to stall the car as my shattered legs attempted to use the clutch.
The first time I was told to ‘lead the next interval’, was a heavy load. There was a ‘no racing at training’ policy most of the time. Designated leaders kept things honest, but it was about mutual benefit not crushing losers. My first ‘next interval’ was some of the hardest running I’d done to that point. The desire to hold up my end of the bargain, justify the coach’s belief that I wouldn’t ruin the session for everyone else, and prove that I could hang in there, was the perfect recipe for absolutely sacrificing myself out front. Not looking like that was what I’d just done when the final interval came was another trick of its own.
After a year of this sort of training, I’d sliced four kilograms off my chubby frame, and three minutes off my half marathon PB to get under 71 for the first time. It didn’t seem that remarkable – I was just wondering how long it’d take to drop the next three minutes. The answer was: ‘about another four years’.
While watches were scant in this world of fractions, controlled pace was welcome. We couldn’t talk about it openly because we weren’t really timing our sessions, but each of us had a pretty good idea what a good interval was and what a good session looked like. We had a fair inkling of the leaderboard as well.
Sub-11 on all three two-milers was good going – the domain of perfect autumn nights. Nudging 10:30 was the domain of perfect autumn legs.
I well remember the winter surges when something pretty quick looked on the cards at the end of the final surge. With the warm down as part of the session, it wasn’t uncommon to be ‘recovering in low three minute kilometres’ if there was a sniff of the title. Of course, we were warming down!
I never dug as deep in later years as I did back then. Perhaps I got comfortable, perhaps my body wouldn’t let me, or perhaps I found a deeper way to sacrifice myself than on the track. I’ve gone to the well in races since, no doubt, but the sort of gut running that a crack group of deeply-admired runners elicits is another level altogether.
Last week I sat with a pastor-friend who shared that one of the most important chapters of ministry ahead would be the burying of the cohort of 80+ year old spinsters in his congregation as they pass away over the next decade or so. It’s a chapter of cheering them on as they reach the bell lap and counting himself among the cloud of witnesses who cheer them home at the finish.
For me, that’s a redefinition of strength. For him and for them.
Paul tells the Corinthians that we shouldn’t become discouraged or lose heart. Though outwardly we may waste away, our spirit inside can be renewed daily and grow ever stronger.
Kings Park and McGillivary Oval are part of my body’s legacy to itself. As I lumbered up hills in Kings Park last Saturday morning that I would not have dignified as hills a couple of decades ago, I realised that those trails, those runners, and that commitment, made deposits in me that are still bearing interest. Not in the form of low three minute/kilometre warm-downs, but interest nonetheless.
Some of that discipline has demanded tempering with grace, some of it has helped me stretch out humble hands to receive it, yet there’s a acknowledgement that there are larger shouts to come. Greater anthems to sing. Stronger chapters ahead. And they’re not only available to me, but to anyone receiving the free gift of grace and running with endurance the race marked out before them.