Excerpt – Time is Gold

 ‘IF’ a poem by Rudyard Kipling, If, c.1895

( . . .)

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The International Association of Athletics Federations recognizes two world records for women, a time of 2:15:25 set by Paula Radcliffe on April 13, 2003 during the London Marathon which was contested by men and women together, and a “Women Only” record of 2:17:01, set by Mary Keitany, on April 23, 2017 at the London Marathon for women only.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marathon_world_record_progression

‘Never set limits, go after your dreams, don’t be afraid to push the boundaries. And laugh a lot — it’s good for you!’

‘From my training I can get a good idea of what I’m capable of.’

‘I have been doing 120 miles a week when normally I would do about 140.’

Paula Radcliffe

ACRONYMS

PB Personal Best.

LAC Little Athletics Club

CHAPTER 1 PHYSICAL TRAINING

‘There’s no limit to my running,’ Maxi thought as she sped along a trail overhung by wild plants. ‘My mind controls my body and my body is going to run faster than any female has ever run before. I am training to beat the World.’

Leaves of castor oil plants swayed in the breeze from her passing. Her drone was ahead, 20 metres above, videoing and transmitting to the cloud. Her father pedalled his bicycle behind her, as he did for all her country runs.

A heart rate monitor was strapped to her biceps.

‘How is 155?’ she called to him, wanting encouragement.

‘Go up to 160. You’re doing fine.’

Her father kept her below 80% of the maximum of 200 beats per minute for 13 year olds. She didn’t have to drive herself hard. She had been doing 10 kilometre runs at this pace for the past month. Earlier she had run faster and further, but she had stopped improving and he cut her back.

‘You’re stale,’ he said. ‘I am going to limit you to three 10-kilometre workouts a week. You’ll run faster. Less is more.’

‘Are you sure it will work for me?’ she asked. It was a big change to her routine. ‘The others are running further and faster.’

‘It should work. Less training will prevent overtraining and burnout, cutting your injury-risk,’ he said. She had melted down in a recent race. ‘All you need do is maintain fitness. Your strength and speed are fine. Cutting back will take less of your time and you will be able to get your schoolwork done.‘

Maxi’s programme included track interval running over various distances, short, mid and long tempos for different conditions of lactic acid disposal and fatigue. Today’s trail run was on packed dirt and sand. Tomorrow, her runs would be planned from analysis of today’s performances and after adjustments to her pace and breathing.

When she competed in a 1500 metre race, she was alone, without Stan or the drone scaffolding her, a welcome relief from his over-supervision. She grappled with growing feelings of disloyalty to Stan. She had depended on him and trusted him, but lately his control of her training and his over-familiar methods annoyed her. 

Maxi’s mother had died when she was 5 years old. The cancer diagnosis had come out of the blue. Her exit had been a six-month hell of chemotherapies and hospitalisations. Maxi hadn’t known how to make her better, feeling she hadn’t done enough and might somehow be responsible.

‘It isn’t your fault,’ Stan had said. ‘Your mother has an illness that makes her unhappy.’

‘Maybe he didn’t do enough for her,’ she thought. Her parents were not close and although he had nursed her at home, his care had been mostly physical. Maxi was their only interest in common. When her mother died, she and her father were bereft and they had clung together.

Her mother had wanted them to be together and close. Maxi grieved sometimes but Stan kept her feet firmly on the ground.

‘Live one day at a time,’ he advised her.

After 3 years, Stan had met Patti at a party. She was 10 years younger, attractive at 40, with a pretty face, sultry looks, gamin figure and hair in a half-bob, short and brown on one side, the other platinum, swept over the top and falling over her left eye, giving an impression of shy concealment. Stan thought she was sultry and glamorous. Maxi thought she looked ridiculous.

‘She’s not like Mum,’ Maxi said to Stan, ‘not the way I remember.’

‘I want to forget,’ he said. ‘We have to move on.’

Patti and her son Roly moved into their family home, with its large garden and space to keep pets and grow things. There was a tortoise, a guinea pig, a cat, a dog and her horse. Maxi loved to ride and explore along bush trails with her friends. They looked under every rock and rotting log for small creatures, learning their names and their habits.

Patti had trained in nutrition and used to work doing make-up and costuming with singers and bands on the Australian leg of global tours, also ballets, musicals and operas. She prepared food for stage performers to their dietary specifications but seldom ate herself.

She wanted to be a movie actress. When she was with celebrities, she was living her dream. She looked for opportunities to audition, but so far had won only small roles in advertisements. She posed and gossiped with friends at the local repertory company, where she sometimes had a walk-on part.

‘She should do something worthwhile, like get a job,’ Maxi said to her father.

‘Patti has had a rough time,’ Stan said. ‘Please be kind to her.’

Patti’s family life as a child had been traumatic. She didn’t talk about it and was often moody.  Years of heavy metal concerts had affected her hearing. When people spoke to her, she sometimes misheard and took offence.

When it was Stan’s birthday, she wanted to celebrate at home.

‘I’ll get a bottle of champagne,’ said Patti going to the fridge.  ‘Where did you put it?’

‘I didn’t buy any this week,’ Stan said.

‘Why not?’

‘I’m a bit short,’ he said. ‘I needed the money for food.’

‘I don’t eat food,’ said Patti.

‘Maxi and I do.’

‘I drink. What did you get?’

‘Cigarettes for you,’ said Stan. ‘Bacon, eggs, baked beans, yoghurt, soy.’

‘Soy is shit,’ said Patti. ‘Maxi doesn’t need that.’

‘Runners always have soy,’ said Stan. ‘You’re the nutritionist. Also, pasta and Gatorade. ‘

‘Nutritionists know it is important to like the food you eat,’ she said. ‘No-one eats soy for its taste.’

‘If Maxi ate what she liked she would be too unfit to run.’ Stan stopped himself from adding ‘like Roly’, because Patti’s son was inactive and obese.  ‘I said I would get foods for Maxi’s running. I did and that’s why I didn’t get any Bollinger.’

‘I must have some.’

‘Have a glass of plonk.’

‘I need champagne.’

‘Who is going to pay for it?

‘I have connections,’ said Patti. ‘There is usually someone with money.’

‘Not this time.’

‘Could Maxi get a job?’

‘No way. She is studying and training.’

‘She should contribute to her upkeep.’

Patti was jealous that Stan favoured Maxi.

Maxi was going upstairs when she met Patti coming down.

‘Where’s Dad?’

‘Why?’

‘I’m going on a run.’

‘Okay. Go.’

‘He always comes.’

‘Not today. You can run by yourself.’

‘I want him to come with me.’

‘Tell him about it when you get back.’

‘I’ll ask him.’

‘No. He’s resting.’

‘He won’t mind. Get out of my way.’

Maxi tried to push past her stepmother and she pushed back.

‘Get your hands off me, bitch,’ Maxi said. ‘You can’t force me to do what you want.’

‘I’m your stepmother. I have legal rights to control you.’

‘Not to stop me speaking with my father.’

Maxi did speak to him. He got up and accompanied her run. 

She had found her niche in distance running naturally. By the time she was six, her family friends and classmates knew that her destiny was to run. She ran, skipped, hopped, jumped and leapt with deliberation and persistence, as if her aim was to hang in the air. She had the body of an ectomorph, tall and light, with the narrow frame ideal for long distance running. She could run like the wind, her head still, her lithe body leaning forward, her straight legs angular, taking impossibly long strides, her arms pumping forwards and back like perfectly coordinated pistons. Her paces were strong and precisely balanced, a human machine designed for speed and endurance, straining to excel, as if from the exultation of possessing such an able body.

When she saw a YouTube of an Olympic marathon race, she was hooked. The winning woman’s courage was the bravest thing she had ever seen and she wanted that adulation for herself.

‘An Olympic marathon is the worst possible ordeal for mind and body,’ her father said, warning her. ‘It can be life-threatening and you must be careful.’

Stan, had been a marathon runner but had retired from it. His advice, tersely and bluntly delivered from under his broad-brimmed sun hat, was wise with experience. He had learned to run marathons at a private boys’ school known for military-like discipline. He had turned out to train at dawn, followed by shouted commands, peer pressure, cold showers, with beatings for slacking and cutting corners. His involvement in distance running followed from disliking team games in which his slender build made him last to be picked for rugby and rowing teams. In the summer, he came last in the cricket batting order and he spent Wednesday afternoons sitting in the pavilion. He wanted to be active. Running was his way to independence.  The running track went around the cricket pitch and fielders called to him as he went past.

‘Fleet, you’re a wanker.’

‘Sissies play cricket,’ he said.

It was mutual acknowledgement and they left it at that.

Now he saw himself as protecting Maxi. His harsh commands provoked her to want to rebel, but she respected him too much.

‘What are you now?’ Stan asked from behind her.

‘157.’

‘Try and stay at 160. Keep a steady pace; the others will let you lead.’

‘Does my every minute need the same exertion?’ she thought. ‘It doesn’t seem like it: time drags sometimes and flies at others. I have to be vigilant to keep a steady pace.’

She was comfortable, with her mind detached and floating nearby, enjoying the surroundings. The trail was eroded in places and had an occasional rock to step over. Luxuriant greenery grew right up to the path and the odour of basil of leaves trodden on by others. She wound up a hillside and over a ridge, going from one side of rain shadow with dry woody scrub and charred stumps, to rainforest, lush and green, on the other.

She padded quietly through a tunnel of trees, cool and dark. A whip bird’s call split the silence. A scrub turkey scooted across, its guilty head low, peering for a path to get away.

They emerged into sunlight along a road between paddocks. Cattle grazed, attended by white egrets, one riding on a cow’s back. Adorning the roadside were colourful patches of paper daisies and foxtails. 

Leggy bees crawled across flower heads and their hum droned in the quiet, between her breaths. A small grey bird, a spotted pardalote, hopped between the magenta flowers of a eucalypt tree.

Coming the other way was a runner, a few years older. Maxi didn’t remember her. She might be new in the area.

‘Hi,’ Maxi said as they passed.

‘Hi.’

It was standoffish, but there wasn’t time to be friendly. When she had seen her a couple more times, they could stop for a chat. Maybe they could train together.

‘Could she be a faster runner than me?’ she thought. ‘Maybe her body could endure better, or she could be more determined?  I’m pretty good at those. Running is what I do best. I could be wasting my time but I don’t want to do anything else. I want to improve.’

She wanted to be the best and knew that she was doing the right thing by training hard. She was fortunate she could train in pleasant surroundings.

 Their house was on the outskirts of Caloundra, a town of 50,000 on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, with surfing beaches and near the Glasshouse Mountains. She rambled with her friends and ran for hours along trails through scrub and gorse. The hilltop was often in cloud, the vegetation damp with the odour of rotting leaves. They would run to exhaustion, collapse onto a mat of moss, joining clover blossoms into chains to go around their heads and wrists.

Most days Maxi played after school with the neighbouring children, snacking on the move. They played tag and climbed trees. They rode their bikes, scooters and skates and made kites and cubby houses using cardboard boxes, tarpaulins and ropes.

They had music from a speaker and danced energetically. Maxi practiced cartwheels, her straight arms and legs like the spokes of a wheel. She could do handsprings and walk on her hands. They held athletics contests, with high jump and long jump, hurdles, javelin, bow and arrow and shot put. Maxi ran against them: she skipped, loped, pranced, cantered, trotted and sprinted, but it was distance running that fascinated her. 

She would run with the wind behind, pushing her along, bounding with her feet barely touching the ground. Sometimes it blew so strongly that Maxi felt herself being lifted off. It would buffet her face, her skin would redden and she would imagine she was a wild animal fleeing from pursuers.

She went to the beach with her father, stepmother and half-brother. They sat next to each other on the picnic blanket. She smelled the sweet scents of bodies and sunscreen against the fishy salt smell, as she dug her toes into the damp sand, squinting in the sun, feeling its warmth on her skin.

Maxi was self-conscious and pulled the blanket over her when boys went past.

‘You don’t have to cover up,’ said Patti. ‘You’re too skinny for them.’

‘How would you know?’ Maxi said. ‘You’re too old.’

Patti had been a groupie following a heavy metal band, then worked as a model for advertisers. She was a poser, attention-seeking and vain. She liked to dress up and flirted with men, covertly when Stan was there.

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