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November 2008
AT 800 METRES I’M INVINCIBLE

Shaun Levin


you can’t run away from a bully

I’ve jogged in four places: three continents and an island. This story begins in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. My father says we're going for a run, and puts the dog in the back of the combi van and drives us down to King’s Beach, the dog barking hysterically and slobbering all over the back seat. I’m twelve years old and running with my father and my brother, who is seven, and our dog, Kelly, along the shore: to the harbour wall and back. I hate running. I hate running with them. I hate whatever highlights how fat and girly I am. I’m lagging behind, the taste of blood in my mouth, spitting phlegm into the waves. It is evening, my father has been at work all day; this is what our time together looks like. A father and two sons, running. Fishermen stand like milestones along the beach. At the end of our run, when I catch up with my father and my brother, who are about to go in for a swim, I tell my dad I coughed up blood all the way back from the harbour wall.

§

Because I’d made a name for myself as a long-distance runner in high school, and because I had no co-ordination (read: inclination, or: desire) when it came to basketball or soccer, our sports teacher exempted me from team games. This was in Israel, a couple of years after my family left South Africa. At the start of each PE lesson the teacher, Machti Ma'or, would send me down to the beach to check on the waves. And I’d run through Afridar, past the power plant, past the Dagon Hotel, where you could pay for rooms by the hour, past the retirement home and the restaurants on the beachfront, and then back again, bearing news for the surfers in the class, the ones who hung out after school on the beach, like my brother.

It must have been on one of the last Fridays in my final year at school, one of the last PE lessons before exams started. Mr Ma’or had a visitor: an old pupil who, rumour had it, was the deputy commander of Israel’s secret elite fighting unit, the Sayeret. Everyone’s watching, and Mr Ma’or gets the two of us to race around the athletics track, a 250m gravel oval behind the sports hall. And I ran, I ran like I ran five years later when I worked in a mango grove in the desert and a wild dog chased me through the fields back to the house.

On our way to the changing rooms, the deputy commander, having beaten me by a metre, calls me aside to ask if I’d like to try out for the Sayeret. I remember how excited I was to say no, to reject that call to arms, that invitation to belong. I was planning to be a pacifist.

‘If you ever change your mind,’ he said.



run, run, as fast as you can

Five years after we moved to Israel from South Africa I went into the army. At basic training, when I told them I was a pacifist, they said: ‘Either you take the gun, or you go to jail.’ So I learnt to shoot, dismantle, clean and reassemble an M16 rifle. The prospect of jail – I’d get beaten up, ridiculed – felt like a kind of death. And yet, that dread stayed with me throughout my three years in the IDF: if it wasn’t prison, it would be a bullet. But at the time of basic training I’d only begun to taste the fear of what it would be like to sit alone and exposed in a raised bunker opposite the Syrians with just a gun and a pair of night-vision goggles.

Running is how I gained the respect of my officers and the other soldiers. Every two weeks they’d give us a physical test to count our chin-ups, push-ups, and the time it took for us to run around the base, or to the armoury and back. Dan Shor, a kibbutznik, was the favourite. People said he would have gone to the Sayeret, but he had asthma.

§

There is a point in every run beyond which invincibility is the defining reality. It’s a ghost-like inviolability. I float past people, almost brushing against them; my feet are on the ground, but the ground isn’t there; all there is is a steady rhythm, the one-two of a relentless flowing forwards. No matter what has happened during the day, a long run is a reminder that I am fearless. For that time, the forty minutes, the hour, the hour and a half that it takes to get from A to B, there’s no risk of failure or attack or ridicule. Once I’ve passed 800m, everything is victory.



running scared

I want to be a boxer. I want to learn to fight back. My therapist says: If you’re going to go around with that kind of attitude, you’re bound to attract aggression. Stop frowning, he says. He says he’d rather run away from a fight than walk around waiting to be beaten up by strangers.

§

I’ve been in London for four years now. I ran away from Israel to this island. The way you run from fire, the way you run from the things that harm you; not run away, as in: He’s in denial. And in all this running to tranquil places and starting a new life and the shock of new weather, my knees gave in soon after I got here and I stopped running. I quickly got used to not-running; the same rapid adjustment I’d made when taken from South Africa to Israel. As if the present, without memory or hope, was the imperative tense. I’d see people jogging in the park, on the pavement, on their way home from work with a rucksack fastened to their bodies, and I’d think: I used to do that. Or: I once loved running. And it become a memory, a thing with no before and no after.

Until.

About eighteen months ago I went for my first run. I discovered that a couple of friends of mine, whom I thought I knew well, were runners. So we talked about running and the talking reminded me how much I missed it. The high of it, the freedom of it, its illusion (and reality) of ease. And by comparing it to other things, like writing, which we often do, my friends and I, compare things like love and dreaming and trust to the essence of creativity, I came to see how my running, like my writing, has always been with me, has lifted me into pure joy, absolute engagement with myself, like prayer, or meditation. So I went back to running, slowly, as if pavements were eggshells and my legs were twigs, sticking as much as I could to the soft, clay-like paths around the park, fearing the pain in my knees might return if I put too much pressure on them.



it runs in the family

Last summer I flew to New York to see my brother. He’s a singer and a Jungian therapist. We jogged in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, our first jog together in years, though I’m sure we’d run on the beach in Tel Aviv, in the years when we both lived there, having survived the army, two wars and god knows how many suicide bombers. There was a freak heat wave in New York – only mad dogs and joggers were out in the park – and we ran up 9th Street, skirting the lake, where men sat amongst the trees on canvas stools with their fishing rods. We ran single file through the woodland, ducking under low branches. I had to talk loudly to make sure my voice reached back to my brother.

‘Dad would have loved this,’ I said.

‘He was so competitive,’ my brother said. ‘I didn’t like jogging with him.’

There aren’t many of us in the park; it’s too hot. The air is thick, and we’re sweating as if in a sauna, but my brother and I are flying, and the more we run, sweat covering us like cauls, the more we stay connected to the sea-sand on King’s Beach and the Ashkelon coastline, to the gravel of our high school running track, to the muddy paths around Clissold Park . And always, while we run, and for the hours afterwards, the hours when our muscles still ache – that dull, delicious reminder of invincibility – we keep one eye focused on the bullying past.

§

I completed a mini-marathon once: 25km in the desert, from Kibbutz Ein Gedi to the foot of Masada and back. Mom and Dad were at the finishing line, and as I crossed it – not last, but also far from the front – they took a picture of me, the only picture I’ve ever had of me running, crossing the finish line like a train coming through a tunnel into the light. And at some point during the certificate ceremony or on the ride back to the coast, the camera was mislaid, the picture – that image of me and the run as one – got lost. And I know now that the only way to keep remembering, to keep all tenses alive, is to keep running.

you can’t run out of things to say






© Shaun Levin 2007
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