by Rob Vance
Race day started with smoke, a wad of gumbi gumbi leaves
smoldering in rough hands. A shaman, face painted white
as the sand on which we stood, blessed us by the azure waters
of the Indian Ocean. The sound of digeridoos vibrated
the way the breath of 1200 athletes resonates at the sound
of the starting gun, a signal to all with a warrior’s heart.
Each step toward a finish was a question, a multitude over the hours,
like dark bush flies clinging on faces, necks, and hard to reach
places. There was no wind to answer, to clear a way in shimmering heat.
Many miles from the urbane calm of Perth, just beyond the shark nets
and their buoys, pygmy blue whales breached sure of their route
as we follow them along the boardwalk and into the waves of scrub.
The coast here was tight with the ocean as close to stone and limb
as puritan pews. Dry air pulled out a fragrant smell of hop-bush
and bone fruit where skinny animals of the outback sat hunched
as if in a prayer to all things overflowing onto rock and salt wave,
rough branches of Wallaby grass, entwining matted fur. Circling
birds were thick, their wide feathers touching ground and cloud.
A magpie picked me from a handful of racers who made it halfway
and now turned back toward town. It swooped at my head
with a cry like an elder parent in the night. I was marked
with a black cap that flies as in some ancient tale.
In a marathon across a barren of fragrant scrub, you strive to find
a way out of a desert, to stand before crowd, and exalt a name.
A parade of colors raced down the boardwalk as if flags
cut in the wind. Only there still was no wind so cloth hung limp
as racers tumbled out of the barrens in a dry avalanche
of bone, stretched tendon, and bared teeth. Suspended
in cigarette smoke were cheers of the curious and sunburnt
loitering by the public house near the timing chute.
I ran ever forward to the sideline clock and a point in time
where the beauty queen of the state gently presented a Parisian
Faire La bise to each finisher, a sacrament to a racer
whose power of muscle prevailed, purified
by what is washed clean from the mind:
there is only the eternal now of the finish line.
Rob Vance is a former Ironman triathlete, runner, and fair weather surfer. Over the years, he has published essays and poetry on the subject of personal fitness, racing, and running. He lives in Richmond, Virginia with his life partner and two ragdoll cats.