Out for a run - one of 64,713

Yesterday morning, en route to New York, I did the City 2 Surf fun run. This event, which has been held for the past 36 years, is one of those activities in Sydney that everyone (or at least, every Australian runner) should experience at least once in their lives. The announcer mentioned over the loudspeaker that it is “the biggest fun run in the world”, and while you would think this unlikely (surely Sydney, despite its size, is a little isolated), it did have a field of 64,713 people! Who can beat that?

It’s very strange to enter an event of this scale. I’ve been in races of one or two thousand people, but this is something else. It is so huge that there are four separate starts. I was in the third group – and as I waited for the previous group to move through, it struck me that they were taking quite some time. This was partly because there were so many of them, but also because so many of them were simply walking the 14-kilometre distance.

Now I should point out that I think walking is an excellent form of exercise (and thereby, self-transcendence). Though I think it’s unfair of those French “intellectuals” to berate their President for doing something as “ignoble” as jogging to keep fit, when he could simply be doing something dignified like walking, I agree with them that walking is a great thing to do. Thomas Jefferson – the greatest man ever to be President of any nation – did it regularly, saying that it was the greatest form of exercise

But for people like me who want to run, and get a good finishing time, it was awkward being on the same field as thousands of walkers.

It wasn’t waiting to begin that was the problem. (Even I have enough patience to cope with such things.) It was trying to squeeze past them, on a very crowded road, without colliding. As we ran through Kings Cross, Sydney’s most infamous suburb, I had to use all my (non-existent) gymnastic skills to dodge one participant, dressed as (I believe) a fairy queen. He had stopped so that another fairy queen could take his photo, though why they chose to do it there (in front of a non-descript grocery store, in mid-race), I have no idea.

Incidentally, the reason I was seeing fairies was not due to exhaustion, but because people were encouraged to enter the race in costume. In fact, more people were hoping to win prizes for their costumes than for their running. (Hey, finishing this race in a good time is a great personal achievement, but only the fastest elite runners will actually win anything.) So it was a celebrity field: Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Superman, a group of Samurai warriors, several women with Kevin 07 T-shirts wrapped around their waists (a sight that would be appreciated by Australians right now), some guys dressed as pencils (?), even Borat. Another time, I almost crashed into a group of young girls when they stopped to fasten their wings back on.

I imagine I probably added another two kilometres to my time simply dodging, weaving and zig-zagging past other people. If it was a nuisance for the runners, it must have been terrifying for the walkers, who would have done most of the distance in stark fear of being bulldozed by an intense pack of runners.

Despite this obstacle, the costumes added to the fun of the event – and yes, it was fun. Though I exerted myself a lot on this run, I was enjoying myself so much that it seemed much easier. Perhaps I was so focused on avoiding a collision that I didn’t even realise how much my feet were pounding the asphalt. Not until I finished did I realise how exhausted I was.

About two kilometres into the run, barely after we had left the Cross, a live version of Live and Let Die was booming from the top floor of one of the pubs, courtesy of a band that looked like Led Zeppelin and played like Deep Purple, so I’m not sure why they were playing a Paul McCartney song. (Oh well… right era.) While I always prefer listening to Sri Chinmoy while I’m running, the music definitely inspired me. I wasn’t the only one, as other runners were applauding them as they ran past. In fact, everyone seemed to be going faster as we passed this band – either because (like me) they were inspired by the energy and dynamism of the music, or because they wanted to escape it. Perhaps both.

There was a lot more music as we continued. As I ran up a hill, I could hear the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin blaring from the speakers in someone’s house. I like this song a lot, but it’s a pity that I arrive just in time to hear the lyrics “never reaching the end”. Perhaps not the most positive words to hear.

More live music came later. A jazz band in a bus shelter. A ragtime band on one of the traffic islands. Perhaps, like the Flash (one of the super-heroes of my childhood), I was running so fast that I was going back in time, hearing the music of yesteryear as I continued…

Or maybe not. I was at my fastest by then, having passed most of the walkers, but I've never been that fast.

As I continued, I (like many people) was sprayed by someone’s hose from his front yard. He’s probably been waiting all year for a chance to do that to passersby and see them smile back at him (rather than yell at him). Having just come from a Canberra winter, I was quite unprepared for the warmth of the Sydney morning.

Soon after, the first kilometre marker appeared: 10 km. It was great to know that I was so close to the end. Well, I was actually a little disappointed at first, because I thought I’d run a bit further – but I quickly corrected that feeling. It was actually great that I had a whole 4 km to go, so that (after all that dodging) I could finish with a few kilometres of “proper” running.

It was also the nicest part of the course, as we ran through some of Sydney’s beachside suburbs – Clovelly, Bronte, Tamarama… It is not usually considered a great omen to run past a graveyard, but this was an exception. As I saw a familiar graveyard (between Clovelly and Bronte), which I have run past on several Sunday morning jaunts between Bondi and Coogee, I knew that I was almost at the end.

Bondi Beach is one of Sydney’s most popular attractions. Though the City 2 Surf bypasses the Sydney Opera House (which wasn’t yet built when this run started) and the Harbour Bridge, and Kings Cross no longer has the quaint beauty that it possessed 36 years ago, the run at least finishes with a dose of the city’s famous bush culture.

Understandably, the surf was especially crowded on this morning, as were the cafes, which would usually be an ideal place to wind down and enjoy breakfast after a run to the beach. (I’ve done it on many occasions.) But it wasn’t necessary. The City 2 Surf works brilliantly as a Sydney experience on its own. Bonuses (the sunbathing, the surf, the shopping) are unnecessary. I’m still not sure how any race could get so many people (64,713, for Heaven’s sake), but having experienced it for myself, I think I now have a few clues.