Tap the Mario Kart mushroom for a boost. Reach into the Haribo bucket for another. Keep your line or risk the wrath of the trailing and evidently irritable banana in Pyjama. Quick thumbs up for the Irish flag. One glass of water down the throat for the thirst, another over the head for the heat.

For the first time in two years, last Sunday thousands of runners raced through Melbourne’s streets for 26 miles. 42 kilometres in new money. It had been postponed until December due to the Delta lockdown, the city’s sixth. The event kicked off at 6am in an unsuccessful bid to avoid the sun.

A marathon has always been a vague ambition to be achieved at some point in my life. Then there is the tangible tally. Two years ago, I arrived in Australia with a lengthy hitlist of desirable places and experiences, the vast majority of which revolved around sport. No great surprise when you realise it makes up 99 per cent of my personality. Somewhat stereotypically, a lifelong passion and current profession.

Thus, the fact that the event culminated in a lap of the famed Melbourne Cricket Ground was a major attraction. In the end this proved to be Dante’s ninth circle. All the gratefully received prerace advice and top tips came true. Eager participants and the crowd combine for an immeasurable power that will propel you along for the first half. Rather than pushing through, that stretch was about holding back.

Thunderous feet smacking the road and frequent nudges from nearby elbows ensure stopping is never even a remote consideration for the first 21 kilometres. Heaven on earth. Breaching that point signals the move into purgatory. Then the sun rose. We looped back around familiar terrain and cramp conquered the legs. The final ten kilometres… man. A trek through hell.

It wasn’t that long ago that this same stretch, up from the Rod Lever Arena, around by Flinders Street Station and out the St. Kilda Road, was locked down and teeming with helicopters and police in a game of cat and mouse with persistent protestors. Victoria’s centre is often marketed as one of the most liveable cities thanks to its public transport, social services and infrastructure. Accordingly, it claims to be the sporting capital of the world, hosting premium tennis, F1, AFL, rugby, cricket and more.

When the most recent lockdown told hold, wits were already fraught. After all, it was already a contender for the municipality that faced the longest and most arduous series of lockdowns. Most of Australia was merely brushed by Covid. Melbourne was bulldozed.

The protests, which occurred on the same day as a magnitude 5.9 earthquake hit, felt like a tipping point. A cruel double blow for a population already on their knees. Naturally, the country followed the recognisable global pandemic pattern. It begins with a shared sense of unity and promise of togetherness. Then it inevitably unravels as national division soars and blame is tossed from one significant player to another.

Overwhelmingly, Melbournians abided by public health rules and queued in droves to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, the country cut itself off from the rest of the world and each other, states slamming their borders shut to divide friends and family while the federal government dithered over securing sufficient vaccine supply.

Watching a small but boisterous mob overrun their city at the same time was tough to swallow. With every incident the gnawing sense of unease rose, and there were several. Near the state’s parliament, journalists were assaulted and hit by projectiles and urine. Another protest location was the shrine of Remembrance.

“Obviously, there was a lot of broken glass. There has been urination on the walls of the memorial, which is disgusting. There was rubbish strewn everywhere,” the site’s chief executive Dean Lee said the following day.

A consequence was constant wailing sirens, police positioned on every corner and checking for proof of address. A hub not only hallowed but haunted.

Fast forward to this week as thousands rushed along the streets with an incomprehensible purpose. Similar in ways while profoundly different in others.

The theory of a bucket list should need no explaining. It has gained widespread cultural currency thanks to a steady stream of films, books and 1000 things to do/eat/see before you die lists.

Mine was solely dominated by sport. AFL Grand Final. Formula 1. Melbourne Cup. State of Origin. The Ashes. Australian Open. Bledisloe Cup. An Aussie boxing night. Most of which went unfulfilled. We arrived in Sydney in January 2020, hotly pursued by Covid.

At this point it is worth acknowledging the extreme privilege afforded to even be able to contemplate realising such a list. Working as a freelance sports reporter meant events and locations were usually chosen rather than assigned. An endlessly supportive partner who not only tolerates but helps facilitate the weekly late-night alarms for Premier League/Championship/Champions Cup games and journeys across the continent for various competitions is another luxury.

Even that has its limits. The Boxing Day Ashes Test at the MCG was not deemed sufficient grounds to delay a Christmas reunion with friends and family. Two years was always the maximum stayaway time. We return home to Ireland next week, with much of that list unachieved.

Whatever about the concept, the motivation for a bucket list requires some deeper digging. Obviously, it is an exercise in wishful self-improvement. There is an underlying reinforcement of your own self value. I am a sports journalist. I travel and consume sports. That makes me happy. When that feedback loop was fractured, it proved more challenging than envisaged.

This is by no means a unique problem. The day before the marathon, I sat with Irish St. Kilda defender Darragh Joyce for a wide-ranging interview about his last five years in the AFL. He has been embedded in the bubble that is Melbourne, ‘the home of footy,’ for the duration of his career so far. Half of the league’s 18 teams are based in this one city.

The 24-year-old is one of the modern success tales in the storied history of the Irish in the AFL. A Kilkenny minor All-Ireland winning hurling captain, Joyce took the bold decision to leave as a teen and pursue a career in Australian Rules. From big fish in a small pond to the smallest fish in a big one.

Straight to the bottom rung. For six months senior team-mates didn’t know his name or mistakenly called him Daryl.

At one point he was dropped from the reserve team, to the “two’s twos,” down to the development league. The weekly walk home from training often passed by the travel agent. Walking past that building without checking the price of a ticket home was a rarity.

But he persevered, dedicating every waking moment to ‘making it’ and play an AFL game. Reconfiguring his body shape, reprogramming his game sense. Four years later, his appearance tally is in double figures, and he recently signed a contract extension.

Having worked his way into this world, lately he has begun to take stock of it. Girlfriends always introduced as ‘partners of x player.’ Team-mates criticised for missing games so they could be present for the birth of their children, friends castigated for catching Covid and potentially jeopardizing the next round of fixtures. Often defined as a footballer and not as a father, husband, human.

“My first couple of years, I got caught in that trap. I remember if I had a bad training session or a bad game, I felt like I was a bad person,” he explained. “I was kind of down on myself for a week after it. Eventually you have to have a reality check with yourself.

“It is your job. You have bad days at work, but it does not define you as a person. We’ve a good psychologist with St. Kilda. They constantly reinforce that. A bad training or a mistake, that does not define you. You are so much more. There is more going on in life and we’re in a privileged position. Go out, give your best, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.”

No doubt a sentiment many understand if not relate to. Joyce will continue to commit wholeheartedly to his AFL adventure (and given his 3km preseason running time, looks set for a huge 2022), while actively striving to enjoy the ride.  

Participation in the marathon came about by accident and made do as a replacement. The need to rehabilitee a dislocated kneecap and occupy time during the pandemic gradually saw the ambition take hold.

It became a double delight, a welcomed chance to join the city in celebrating their return to normal and then bid farewell. More than just a race, finally bringing people back together. Something sorely lacking over the past two years.

That was the best part really. As great as the city is, that is merely the canvas that enables art. It is the people that define Melbourne and its mood. Without them, I would not have finished the race. Along The Tan, a generous woman handed out ice pops to help with the heat and they were otherworldly.

At Flinders Street, a sympathetic photographer made eye contact and, having evidently observed pure pain, glanced towards my bib before personalising his encouragements. The pronunciation wasn’t perfect, ‘let’s go Mo-reece! Nevertheless, the gesture was greatly appreciated. Even the kid on the corner of the promenade singing ‘Baby shark’ made his mark.

It was around this point, as I tried desperately to get that unbelievably catchy earworm out of my head, that I began to reconsider the notion of a bucket list. At the time it felt like a philosophical breakthrough; in hindsight it was likely a bid to rationalise unrealised dreams.

Maurice Brosnan at the MCG post marathon

Yet, what really is the point of a bucket list? Its very nature means you tick the box and move on. No space for revisiting or reflection. Some of mine was accomplished, much of it wasn’t. Should they be clearly split into successes and failures? Scratching an event off the list can’t be all there is to it. Life should not be lived by a checklist.

If I ran the same distance today instead of Sunday, the sense of enjoyment would not be remotely comparable. Sunday was not about what I did. It was about what I was a part of.

The bucket list for 2022? Right now, I have no ambition to run 42 kilometres ever again. But I’ll definitely run another marathon.