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‘Rather than dodge the puddles, I prefer to run through them’: what makes me happy now | Health & well-being

Ina drawer beside my writing desk, I keep an old piece of cardboard. It is about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and is covered in names and lists, measurements and weights using the imperial scale, written in blue ink. The handwriting belongs to my later father, and the listed names are my older brother and sister and myself. I can tell you that on the 16th of June 1967, at the age of 10, I was four feet four inches tall. Earlier the same year, in June, my waist measured 22 inches and I weighed five stone one ounce. On the same day my older brother could drop kick a football 46 yards, and my sister was four feet seven inches tall.

In addition to my father’s obsession with our physical bodies, measuring the three of us each month – arms, chest, waist, thighs, calves, height and weight – he established a rigorous exercise regime for each of us, from the date we turned five years of age. The program included nightly distance running, as well as a weightlifting and exercise schedule. By the age of eight I could do 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups with ease and run three miles each night without becoming fatigued. The detailed recording of our lives and bodies came with acute tension. If any of us gained unnecessary weight – fat rather than muscle – or did not meet the monthly goals set for us, we were punished. Painfully.

In the year I turned 14 our father became ill and was placed in a psychiatric institution for several years. He no longer had control over his own life, let alone ours. The medication he was on left him in an almost comatose state. All he could physically manage was to smoke around 60 cigarettes a day. From the day he entered the institution, behind a heavily locked door, I stopped exercising and took up smoking also, as well as binge drinking alcohol until I suffered blackouts. It was hardly a healthy lifestyle for a 15-year-old boy recently expelled from two Melbourne high schools.

My road back to exercise followed a decision in my early 20s to stop smoking, and soon after, to give up alcohol. I cannot remember why I decided to go for a run one evening, along the Birrarung (Yarra) River, but I do remember I was soon in pain, gasping for breath, managing to run little more than a kilometer before needing to stop. I ran again the following night, and again the next evening. It was on the third night, having run a further kilometre, that my body remembered how exercise worked and tired its muscles, with unexplainable tenderness. My body also remembered the contentment that came with raising my heartbeat, allowing blood to flow more energetically through my body. My body remembered the joy that came with feeling strong. And I remembered that although our father’s madness had damaged us as children, the years of exercise had nurtured us.

From the evening of that first staggering run, I have stuck with the habit for over 40 years. While I have run in many cities around the world – London, Berlin, Tokyo and San Francisco to name a few – my exercise mostly begins along the same stretch of the Birrarung where I made my “comeback”. Over the years I have bored many writing students with my claim for the creative value of running, as I have anyone who asks me the simple question: why do you run? I’m not sure why, but I can tell you that it’s not because I hope to live longer or look better. (No long run could repair my rough head.) I only know that if I don’t run several times a week, I begin to feel miserable and I cannot write.

This morning I ran along the Birrarung, beginning at Dights Falls and navigating a circuit of dirt tracks through Yarra Bend park. I pass very few runners these days, while many younger runners pass me. I don’t envy them. I hope they keep going, possibly for 40 years or more.

It was cold and raining. Due to recent heavy rainfall, the river was running at a ferocious speed, and several walking tracks beside the banks were submerged. Rather than dodge the muddy puddles of water, I prefer to run through them, in them. This morning, around the 2km mark, a rhythm settled through my body, in my heartbeat, lungs and muscles. I began to feel content. It began to pour down and I was running into a sharp breeze. If my body was feeling uncomfortable, it kept the information from me.

As with most of my regular runs beside the river, this morning I ended at Dights Falls. I cannot remember seeing the river so high or the current so fast. At the falls I often think about the Aboriginal people’s Wurundjeri nation. It is on their country that I have the privilege to run. They are a proud and culturally strong community, and I thank them. Walking home, through the streets of my life, my body is warm and my muscles are weary. And whatever difficulties or challenges I, that we, are faced with, I feel happy. Had I not inherited this love from my father, I do not know how I would cope in the world.

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