Punishing his body to near-collapse for the glory of sport was part of an identity forged for Keith Marshall as a teenage soldier caught-up in the carnage of a Japanese POW breakout
It’s a funny thing, he says, settling those broad shoulders, steely arms patchworked in age-mottled skin, a veteran swimmer’s-frame cranked like high-tension fencing wire from a relentless crawl through the blue.
This beautiful world. A mile a day, 7.15am plunge, drying off with a towel by 9. Yes, it’s bewildering, while making the clearest of sense.
“You sort of enjoy the pain.”
Though it’s not a suffering inflicted in the trance of mowing down that black line.
Strokes of a soft and reassuring dream, silence and isolation, soothed by the otherwise out-of-reach crutch of all that water. His indulgence, from where he amuses himself and ticks off the laps by solving the world’s problems as mind races ahead of body.
It was in the ravages inflicted when he took to the road.
Keith Marshall shared the theory with another ultra-marathon runner, Ian Colston, years before he switched to the pool, some time after one Sydney-to-Melbourne slog where his tortured kidneys had him pissing blood for the last 10 days’ straight.
So Ian, he says, you get to the stage where you’d be lost without all the hideous discomfort, without the agony that should have a sensible type say ‘nup, that’s it, I’m done’.
This other fellow replied in kind.
“His eyes lit up and he said ‘yes, isn’t that a funny thing?’”
Remembering an almost-yearning for pain could seem an unintended though likely consequence of the time-ravaged thinking of a man now in his 90s.
It’s not. He’s got all his marbles, for sure – Tom Bowlers, catseyes, aggies, the lot.
Marshall might talk of his athletic exploits in the old lingo of yards and miles, but both the humdrum and satisfaction of yesterday and the Army shenanigans of his “bloody stupid” 18-year-old self are delivered with the abundant clarity of someone living fully in the here and now.
It’s just the legs that once took him from one capital to the other in 13½ days, back in September of 1977, have taken an earlier semi-retirement than the rest of his old bones.
Sport is passion, passion is sport; where mind is body and body is mind.
It was as intrinsically relevant to him as an ultra-marathoner, when he was buddies with the star of ’83, Cliff Young – “Cliffy”, a Colac dairy farmer who trained at home in his gumboots, who shocked and enraptured the country in taking out the inaugural Westfield Sydney-to-Melbourne that year – as it is today.
“He was a character, Cliff. He used to punish himself mercilessly. But then again, he disciplined himself to do it. He’d say to himself ‘keep going, keep going, keep going’.”
Marshall had the same approach; you would fail if you weren’t disciplined. It’s why he finished fifth in the 1984 race.
“You gotta do it. You go through the pain but when you reach your goal, when you’ve done it, it’s a glorious feeling.”
ON a night “as dark as dogs’ guts”, Keith Marshall lay in his bunk, in full uniform, terrified of what he knew was to come
Just 18, he was a “red raw” recruit to the 19th Australian Infantry Training Battalion. He and his new mates had had the misfortune to be shipped first to Cowra, where his was one of two units guarding 1000 Japanese prisoners of war.
It was August 4, 1944, when 900 of them broke through the barbed wire. By the end, 234 Japanese and four Australian soldiers were dead. Many of the POWs committed suicide, or were murdered by fellow prisoners.
All the while, the Italian POWs hid under their huts in as much fear as their captors of the screaming, hollering mass.
“We knew the Japs were going to break out weeks before. The old diggers who had been campaigning out through the islands, they were actually taking bets on it – the day, the time.”
The money was on an 11pm kick-off. Marshall and his mates also had little faith in their superiors, which made them even more “shit frightened”.
They had begun dummy runs out to the camp; the bugle would sound, they’d race to the trucks.
“The NCOs would be screaming out ‘put your hands over the end of ya bayonets, someone will be killed before we even get there’. This is how dumb and stupid they were. We were told that if they did break out all we’d do was herd them back into the camp and lock them up again.”
Marshall had good reason to be worried. One Sunday, on weekend leave, he visited the camp and saw a Japanese POW “doing something, I don’t know what”.
“But I just said ‘ay!’ and there was no response, so I said a bit louder ‘AY!’ and he just looked at me. I nearly shit myself,” he says. “You talk about hatred, you can see it in their eyes. To them they were like a zoo and we were just looking at them.
“But when he looked at me I went for my life. He was only perhaps in his early 20s, but they were tough.”
Marshall’s unit was sent straight to the camp when word came through the break-out was on, but had to return because they weren’t given proper ammunition. They had just found out about the Australians’ deaths.
“By the time we got back there again the show was over. It was an absolute shemozzle. There were reports in the papers that they were buried with full dignitary. Like hell they were.
“Some of me mates were on the burial party and they said they just chucked them in two big common graves; arms and legs, bits and pieces, because that’s how much respect we had for them.”
Soldiering was “three of the happiest years of my life, really”, he says. It was where he got the discipline drill, even if “Marshall was always in trouble”.
Again, it was a Sunday when Marshall and some others were told they had to watch a demonstration of the destructive power of three inch mortar bombs.
As the barrels fired, Marshall counted, then they walked a few hundred yards to look at the potholes.
He reckoned one, maybe two shells didn’t explode and immediately saw a bomb that failed to blow.
“And guess what I did? I picked it up. Honestly, I picked it up, I looked at it, shook it and held it up to my ear to see if I could hear anything. I look back today and I can’t imagine the sheer, utter stupidity of what I did.
“But nothing happened, so I stuck it in my tunic.”
Half an hour later he was back in the company orderly room, failed to salute then showed-off his find. “I saw the fastest withdrawal in the Second World War. In a couple of seconds everyone in the room was gone.”
Still ignorant of the grave danger he put himself in, Marshall was blasted in front of the company parade. The sergeant-major said if Private Marshall was an example of a soldier, “then thank God we’ve got a Navy”.
“I still reckon that if you haven’t done something stupid in your life, if you haven’t done something dangerous, if you haven’t done something humorous, you haven’t lived much of a life anyway.”
SPORT still motivates and fascinates, his own achievements anchored in a dedication to never forgetting the goal.
“My wife always said to me ‘it’s that discipline’. When the bugle goes at 6 o’clock in the morning and you’ve got five minutes to get on the parade ground for roll call, you get out on the parade ground. If you don’t, you suffer the consequences.”
The passion and the “you’ve just got to do it” philosophy is seen in his love of race and sports callers, the ones who add high drama to a big event with ease.
Marshall eases back in his chair, daily swim done an hour before, at an old table in the small kitchen of his nondescript brick bungalow in West Wodonga.
And he marvels, drawing breath again having just shed dry tears, overcome and barely able to talk, over his own defining moments.
But before that he wants to talk about the 1970 VFL grand final, where Carlton great Alex Jesaulenko entered Australian sporting folklore, along with the black-and-white TV footage of what he did – “Jezza” soaring over the top of Collingwood’s Graeme “Jerker” Jenkin.
“I’m a great Carlton man. When Jesaulenko took that mark and Michael Williamson said ‘Jesaulenko, you beauty’; I’ll never forget those words.”
He points to the framed newspaper clippings above the table of his record-breaking 1977 run, old black-and-whites that look even more from an earlier era than you might expect, the grainy photos showing Marshall (with his big hair) in full flight, kitted out in his tight running shorts and shirt.
That picture belies what Marshall went through on the second last day, as he was heading into Dandenong. After that was the final run in to the city, but he went close to pulling out.
“Coming into Dandenong I was in absolute agony. I didn’t know when I was going to get to the last two miles. I was absolutely gone, I was shot.”
He always faced the oncoming traffic when he ran. But when he hit a median strip down the highway he admits he “didn’t know whether I was going to sit down or collapse or what was going to happen”.
What followed hits Marshall so hard that he is sorry for tears his eyes cannot drop. It’s the only moment where at first he cannot find the words, just one exasperating false start after another.
“And then I hear a voice say ‘hey Keith, come over here’. I looked up and it was Bill Hipwell and he had a stable of runners , Australian pro-runners,” he says.
“I just staggered across past the traffic and I said ‘what are you doing?’. This makes me a bit teary. He said ‘we’ve come to run with you to the end’ and I burst out howling. You’ve got no idea the effect it has on me.”
That night he suddenly realised the gesture coincided with the pain disappearing. “I didn’t feel the pain go, it didn’t go gradually. I was getting into bed and it was ‘the pain, the pain is back’ and I didn’t know how I was going to run those last 20 miles.”
Many years later he had the same experience in the pool. Once, on hitting the 18-hour mark of his first 24-hour plunge, he could no longer lift arms that had been turned “from chocolate to boiled lollies” by hypothermia.
It was Kyabram, summer’s making the horizon dizzy, so the pool wasn’t cold, rather a balmy 22 degrees. But, the doc explained, it wasn’t the temperature. It was the suffocating exposure to so much water.
Marshall eventually gave up competition swimming because he couldn’t manage the winter training. One indoor centre he dismisses as “the flea pit”, because he was always getting sick. It’s what happened before one masters event in Melbourne.
“I had the record broken in training and yet I couldn’t compete,” he says.
“But I love my swimming. The people you meet, from every part of life, you become friends with them. It’s just great.”