Running in the City to Surf

An account written for 1993: the 1996 race occurred on August 11.

The pedants say we should wait until the first day of September to claim a true spring, but nobody ever told that to a body of water in the mid-Pacific, called El Niño. This warm blob of water causes profound effects in our weather, and pays no attention to seasons at all. Instead of having seasons, Australians have the multi-year El Niño cycle of flood and drought. But insofar as we have a spring at all, it truly begins somewhere in early August, and drifts into low summer soon after.

August is the flowering time for many bush wildflowers, the native flowers that cover our headlands and national parks. August 1 has always been the traditional day to go out and admire the wattle trees, so it is no surprise to find them flowering, but a minute's searching can detect a dozen other species in five different families, just behind my house, and an hour or two will push the total up close to a hundred. But the best sign that spring is truly sprung comes when fifty thousand sweaty, liniment-reeking Australians, all head from the centre of the city to Bondi Beach in the annual ‘City to Surf’ run.

This race begins at Hyde Park, just beside the Australian Museum. Each year, two hundred sensible hedonists gather on the museum's roof top for a champagne and croissant breakfast, arranged by the Australian Museum Society, one of my favourite organisations. As sports-loving Australians, of course, we watch the start of the race first, to build up our appetite for breakfast. The champagne takes a punishing during this gruelling period, but we remain respectfully hungry.

I travelled to town on an early ferry this morning with my wife, and strolled up to the museum, through streets unusually full of Lycra and Reeboks. In the past, she has been known to run in the race, though a long-lasting injury has put her out, at least for this year, but she offered me some insights about what goes on when you are on the inside of the Gallant Fifty Thousand.

All competitors are colour-coded, she explained, pointing to the number on a 70-year-old matron trotting past us. She was a blue, one of the ‘runners’. Out front, we have the super-elite, people in the top ranks for marathon and half-marathon running. Just behind them, are the ordinary elite, people who have previously run the 12 km City to Surf in good time. Then come the rest of those entering as ‘runners’, which is where our matron would have been. There are probably 12 or 15 thousand runners in all, and they start first, led by the elite group.
You can see the elite in the picture, standing at the front of the serious running group: the joggers are on the right, and the walking crowd are out of sight on the left.

In a street to the north, there are about the same number of ‘joggers’. In this area, you will usually find a trio in gorilla suits, four men wheeling a refrigerator, a medical group wheeling a hospital bed, people dressed as Coke cans or giant grains of rice, and other novelty groups, as well as some serious parents pushing strollers and prams at the jog, and some teenagers.

These classifications are a bit rough and ready, for there are always a few break-away joggers who dash out at the second gun, and quickly begin overhauling the last of the runners, but these are a cut above the ‘walkers’ who must still wait while their betters pass by.

Finally, out to the south, are the 20-25 thousand walkers, many of whom run out at the third gun to start working their way up through the joggers. Many of these are on their first attempt, and will move into higher ranks in later years, but there are also wheelchair pushers here, more parents with prams and strollers, and kids aged from about ten up, running in their own right. This year, there was also a large group of fat people waddling along, carrying helium balloons. My wife thought it was to camouflage their obesity, but I think they were hoping to take some of the weight off their feet.

Fifty thousand people make a lot of noise, especially when they cheer together. They are a good-spirited crowd, and an hour before the start, the walkers were gathered in their starting area. Soon, four inflated balls were bouncing around over the crowd, continually pushed aloft by willing hands. If a ball went beyond their area, a marshal would run to retrieve it, and send it back into the crowd again.

Time passed, and people started to warm up in the three seething masses. Soon sweat shirts, jumpers, and other forms of top cover were taken off and thrown to the sides of the eight-lane roadway. People wear old ‘discardables’, and you just throw towards the nearest side. Those closer to the sides take anything that lands on them, and throw it further to the side. Just before the race, you look down on a sea of faces, with items of clothing leaping in graceful parabolas over the surface, like a school of mullet pursued by a large hungry fish. Now they are in their racing finery, numbers pinned to their chests.

At the first gun, the runners start, as the marshals who have been standing in front of them sprint to safety at the roadside. The lesser groups cheer, and then all is silent as they head downhill. Silent, that is, except for about 30 000 running shoes pattering on the tar surface, which sums to an almost deafening roar. Before the last runners pass the start line, the leaders have reached the valley below, climbed the other side, and headed into the Kings Cross tunnel that leads to the next downhill run.

As the last runners clear the intersection, the joggers have their start, and soon after, the walkers take off. Ten minutes later, as the last walkers cross the start line, the sweeping machines move in to clear up. By the time the last Irish dancing team has jigged over the start line, stopping frequently to pose for the curious cameras wielded by swarms of shutter-hungry and bemused Japanese, the first runners have climbed Heartbreak Hill, and they are through the pain barrier at the half-way point.

By the time the last walkers reach the tunnel, the sweeping machines at the start line are done, the barricades are cleared, traffic is back to normal, and the first runner is already pushing through the tape at Bondi, 12 km and 42 minutes away. People will continue to straggle into Bondi for around three hours more, and there will probably be forty thousand finishers.

As they run, they will pass below a number of cameras mounted strategically over the road, and are photographed from a position which shows their entrant numbers. In a few weeks, letters will arrive in the mail telling people that there is a delightful picture of them, taken at _____, and available for the surprisingly small fee of $15. I asked my wife if she had ever bought one. No, she said: who would want a picture of one's self all hot and sweaty. Of course, she adds, if it were a group picture, it would make a nice keepsake. I detect an impending threat, and I am right.

Next year, she says , we will join the walkers as a family team. I spread more jam on my croissant and say nothing. I will walk 40 km in a day with a medium load, but only in wilderness. If I want to be in a crowd, I will take the 200 with their champagne and croissants, not the fifty thousand in liniment, Lycra and Reeboks in the street below. I decide to change the subject: ‘Look over the road,’ I tell her.

In the park opposite, Sydney's homeless have emerged from the undergrowth to pick over the discarded clothing. Two of the better organised have a long pole that they are using to drag the more attractive items out of the trees along the road's edge. Still, now that summer is coming, they will have less need of extra clothes.

Jumpers? That's what you probably call sweaters -- sometimes, we call them sloppy joes . . .

And by the way, there is a larger version of the picture, if you click on the thumbnail pic. It's a JPEG, about 35k.

This file is, and it is one of a series of files on Australian culture, habits and lifestyle.
It was last revised on 17 November, 1996 by Peter Macinnis --
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