Bonobo in Mpartwe

The barber chatted as he clipped my whiskers. He spoke of the bonobo, a term I did not know. I listened, intrigued. Later I did some reading and learned the following:

Primatologist Frans de Waal states bonobos are capable of altruism, compassion, empathy, kindness, patience and sensitivity.

In Alice Springs last Sunday I came across a cluster of individuals that answered to De Waal’s description of bonobos. This was unexpected, as bonobo populations have – until now – been confined to the Congo.

It happened like this.

On the second Sunday of August the great city of Sydney underwent the annual convulsion in which 80,000 people walk, jog or run from the centre of the city to Bondi Beach. That massed migration is called The City to Surf. To that great convulsion I added a minor tremor. The course is 14 kilometres long, equivalent to one third of a full marathon. In order to test my recovery from injury I ran the course twice, starting at Bondi around 6.00 am, reaching the starting line in the city, where I did a u-turn and returned to Bondi. My injured knee did not complain, my small grandchildren decided I was a hero, and I was happy. The dodgy knee surely would be fit for a full marathon the following week.

Following a prolonged period of injury in 2017, I underwent successful knee surgery, after which I did some rehabilitation, and resumed running, feeling grateful and blessed. I increased my distances by degrees, until in January this year I ran a half-marathon distance in the Dominican Republic. I set my eyes on a return to the full marathon. But then I reinjured the same knee. I rested it from running and I hoped. After three weeks of devout hoping the knee had not improved. I consulted a leading knee physiotherapist who demonstrated a marked weakness in the quadriceps muscles that operate the knee joint. I had failed my own imperative: in recovery from orthopaedic surgery the surgeon achieves only forty percent of the job; the remaining sixty percent is up to the patient.

Belatedly I strengthened the wounded knee. For a further two months I did not run. My quads bulged. Strangers stopped me in the streets to admire, to photograph, to lust.

The knee still hurt with every step but the muscles were mighty.

Permitted now to run again, I took some anti-inflammatory medications to pacify the knee. The medications inflamed my kidneys, but the knee still hurt.

A doctor spent a long time regarding my sore knee. Synovitis, he said. He looked at x-rays and costly scans. Bone on bone, he said. Finally he injected some cortisone with local anaesthetic, which confused and deluded the knee. I resumed running, building up by degrees until I could run a half-marathon distance. The knee complained, but not loudly.

I took stock. I had run my latest marathon in Malta, eighteen months previously. That was number fifty. There followed a desert epoch of injury in which I was obliged to miss marathon after marathon. Now in August, I saw looming the City to Surf. One week further out was the Alice Springs Marathon, one of my three favourites. [It is with no disrespect that I favour the Alice event above the Melbourne Marathon (run seventeen times). Likewise Alice beats the Gold Coast (three marathons). Even New York’s mighty event (thrice run) means less to me than the marathon in Alice.]

It came to me last Sunday as I set out on my tenth marathon in the Centre that I’d never really run it right. The town is not truly Alice; those springs aren’t hers. For all I know Alice Todd never saw the waterhole where her husband, Superintendent of Telegraphs, named it for her. In that act of naming, Todd drowned Mpartwe.

Thus I mused as I passed for the first time between the towering walls of Ntaripe. Until now I’d referred to the place as ‘Heavitree Gap’, a name chosen grotesquely for the English town where they hanged witches.

As my right foot struck the concrete path through Ntaripe my knee winced and grimaced. But who, looking upward through those mighty towers of gold, could think a leaden thought? I ran on. Three kilometres into the race, I had hewn for myself already my definitive place. In a field of twenty-nine runners, twenty-eight ran before me.

I passed the next numerous hours in solitude.  The road led east, following the path of Yeperenye, the caterpillar, that created both Anthwerrke , Emily Gap (no-one knows who Emily was) and Adnuringa, the Emu (Jessie Gap – again no-one can account for the name).

That creation caterpillar won my respect. Twenty-one kilometres long, the path of Yeperenye is a fair jog. The sun shone, a brisk wind blew hard into my face and cooled my burning skin as I conducted a conversation with a complaining knee.

Knee: Ouch.

Pheidipides (my running name in Ancient Greek): Yes, I know.

Knee: Ouch, ouch, ouch.

Pheidipides: I know, I know. You think I’m not tiring?

Knee: What are you going to do about it?

Pheidipides: Look at it this way: every ouch is one step fewer to run. Two, actually.

Knee: What do you mean two?

Pheidipides: Do you hear the left knee whinging? It’s run just as many steps as you. It’s just as old. Every ouch brings us two steps closer to the finish…

 

 

Every three kilometres my knees and I arrived at an encampment whence face-painted clowns, Father and Mother Christmas and people wearing hi-vis, rushed towards me, shouting, Water? Jelly Beans? Vaseline? Blue Drink?

These individuals, aged from ten to seventy-five, were volunteers, later identified as Bonobo.  They assured this last-placed runner he was doing marvellously well, he’d make it, no worries, he was looking good. Some even said, not so far to go now.

Although little of what they said was true, it all did me a power of good. I’d stop, drink water, chat with the Bonobo, kindly declining unkosher Jelly Beans while consuming kosher jelly snakes in a range of colours. After downing a red snake, a green snake, a yellow one and a purple, it occurred to me I carried within me my own rainbow serpent. My knee would fall silent, my strength would regather, and off I’d trot.

Solitude lulls. Distance lulls. Rhythm anaesthetises. One leg follows its brother and the mind falls into Low Battery Mode. Thoughts of sublime inanity wander across a terrain of emptied cerebrum. Somehow the mind pays no heed to the ouch of every second step. If I had a thought during the initial 28 kilometres, it ran as follows: yep, I’m tired, yep, I’m sore, but not so tired or sore I need to stop. I must have told myself this simple story about every hundred metres. It worked; I never raised sufficient self-pity to stop running.

I reached the half-way mark and celebrated with a white snake. Good. Tasted like pineapple. Halfway is huge. The mind, the legs, the lungs, the muscles, the will, all organs know, with every following step, that more has been accomplished than remains to conquer. A feeling grows, it swells into a knowing, I will finish this. I dreamed. Nothing daunted. Time, old enemy, held no terrors. Distance? Just more of the same. And all I need do was to look up and succumb to enchantment. Enchantment is precisely the term here. The country is sung, chanted. The country is great, the runner an ant. Reality coalesces into a bowl of cloudless blue, a ball of gentle gold, cliffs of glowing rock. The land belonged to me and I to the land.

And at every three-kilometre mark were the friendly primates, endlessly patient, endlessly benevolent, feeding hope and belief into my being. At intervals in the slow and slower second half I’d hear a volunteer wondering, Howard, do you reckon you’ll catch your plane? Time calculations were beyond me. Care as well. Drifting, swooning, drooping my way back towards Mpartwe, time and I were estranged. How did they know, these primates, I had a plane to catch? How did they know my name? My names, actually; one or two addressed me as Pheidipides.

An ambulance kept me close company all through the second half. The driver paid me the slow, kindly insult of evident concern. Did I want a lift? Did I need a drink?  Would I like a break?

I wanted none of these. In fact I regarded the vehicle with wary mistrust. I knew the rules. The Rulers of the Marathon warned all participants the event must close at twelve noon. There would be no road patrols after that time, no drinks, no volunteers, no Carers exercising Duty of Care. Anyone who hadn’t finished by twelve would be scooped up and conveyed to the finish. Those were the Rules. Such ignominy!  Such self-disgrace! I knew I would resist arrest.

Never a really ruly individual, I truly disliked the Rule of Care in this event, the rule that forbade me to start an  hour or so before the Start proper. Duty of Care, they insisted absurdly. A marathon and a duty of care are essential antonyms. In truth a participant runs at own risk, explicitly so, as stated in the Waiver every single one of us signs. I promised myself if I finished today I would start next year at the hour I needed. Let them disqualify me as they ruly might!

With these ungracious sentiments I wound my way back through Ntaripe. But one kilometre to go. Dreaming again, my mind knowing it was past noon, knowing but uncaring; my body swam, like a weary sperm that scents the ovum, over those final twelve hundred and ninety-six steps.

A penultimate bend, then down a small slope to the final corner, where a marshall spoke, his voice thickened, crooning like a mother to her young, nearly there, nearly there. My own voice choked. Raising a hand in thanks I sank beneath the surface, unable to speak.

A roaring, a swelling sound, a tide of exultation. Rod Moss, my oldest friend in Alice, stands at the kerb. His voice utters benediction, his words are lost, I plunge towards the Line. The legs sprint, both of them. A screaming multitude rejoices – runners, their families, their friends and lovers, officials, volunteers – faces everywhere, beauteous faces, shining with some personal joy. I hear Howard! Howard! at all sides. What is all this juice and all this joy?

 

 

 

 

Later a friend sends me a printout which confirms a Personal Worst time (of nearly six hours) that frankly astonishes me. Pheidipides Goldenberg finished 29th in a field of twenty-nine. The printout demonstrates too, how the Ruling Officials broke their own rules in allowing me to finish beyond the noon cut-off. Indeed the people of the marathon, the runners, the officials, the volunteers, these are our bonobo.

POSTSCRIPT: If you chance to read the resume of Howard Goldenberg you’ll note this late insertion: Howard is the 2018 Alice Springs Marathon Champion (male), (over 70 years).

Running to a Dream

After the Malta Marathon I took a break from long runs. The physical recovery took about one week, two at most, moral recovery much longer. I feared long runs. The thought evoked moral nausea.

Perhaps that’s why I managed to acquire my first real injury in forty years of running. Perhaps that’s why rest brought no cure; why physiotherapy didn’t fix me; why eventually it hurt too much walk. Surgery followed, together with the instruction, ‘No running for 6-8 weeks.’  Disability became my comfort, surgery my excuse, prohibition my refuge.

***

Almost one year pass without a single further marathon. Finally my legs speak up and today, fifty weeks post-Malta, those legs mandate a long run. I decide I’ll try to run to Cabarete and back, a distance of 23 kilometres. We visited the poor Dominican village of Cabarete a couple of days ago, and we know it a little. Cabarete is the home of a Dream.

Here in the Dominican Republic the air perpetually feels thick and today it is a mantle, heavy on the skin. Very soon a fine rain falls about and upon me, a rain too fine to soak my thin singlet. The horizon disappears in the grey, and with the light Sunday morning traffic noises quelled it is a softer world that welcomes me back to the long run.

In this northern part of the country but a single road runs from Puerto Plata to my turning point, Cabarete, and beyond. Some dreamer designated this road a highway, but the reality is simply one lane of traffic twisting in one direction and a second stream struggling back. Potholes large enough for caving lie concealed beneath pooled rainwater. Three vehicles in four are motorcycles, underpowered and overloaded. The bikes carry a load of soft flesh. Usually two ride but sometimes I sight a third body, even occasionally a fourth – generally children – squeezed between driver and pillioned passenger; and my first-world heart misses a beat.

These frail conveyances seek safety on the verge, where I – likewise a frail conveyance – seek safety as I run. I run facing and dodging  the oncoming traffic.

Traffic regulations are observed in DR in the breach. Red lights appear to be advisory only. In one full week of daily runs, I never see a motorcyclist in a helmet. Life expectancy is low here, human life guarded less closely than in my fretful homeland. However today, ‘Domingo, the Lord’s Day,’ I actually sight in the gloom what looks like a helmeted rider. Is this possible, I wonder? A large roadside sign answers: Con Dios Todos es Possible.

 

 

The rain has thickened but it does not dampen my spirits. Luke-warm, it falls vertically in fat drops, cooling me sweetly. Legs free of self-doubt propel me forward, the kilometres turn into miles, nothing hurts. I breathe fresh air fortified by hydrocarbons and the smell of cow manure.

When I asked my friend Edith, ‘are there snakes here in DR?’, she answered: ‘No. No snakes, unless you count the little green ones. They’re harmless.’

Running beneath a pedestrian overpass my shoe strikes the tarmac just beside a serpent lying in the warm wetness. This reptile is about a metre long, striped in the pattern of Australia’s decidedly unharmless Tiger Snake.  This particular serpent would be a baby tiger in Australia; his thickness a little less than one inch. At present this snake has no volume, he is a planar serpent, compressed flat by some overrunning heavy vehicle. My legs cease their running and I study the deceased. His small mouth gapes venomously, as if to frighten Death himself. He looks neither particularly little, not at all green, and absolutely not friendly. But he is extremely dead.

I run on.

Tottering along on its four circular feet an ancient motorized cart passes me, headed for the tourist district. Loaded chaotically with watermelons the cart conveys undefeated optimism. In the family of a watermelon seller life and sustenance, hang by a filament. I recall my Papa, a professional watermelon seller operating in the waters offshore from the fishing port of Yaffo (Jaffa) in the 1890’s. Hunger drove Papa from school before he’d finished Third Grade. He’d buy watermelons in the market and swim them far out to sea in the hope of making a sale to thirsty fishermen in their boats offshore.

Eventually I arrive at Cabarete’s sole traffic light, my turning point. Nothing hurts, breathing is easy, I’m feeling strong, nothing daunts me. I turn and run for home. Is it raining still? Strangely, I’ve stopped noticing; it seems to make no difference in this damp-never-wet-for-long-never-very-dry place.

Back to snake overpass and here, on the opposite side of the ‘highway’ lies another serpent, his dead brother’s twin. Something unexpected happens: I feel sorrow for the poor dead creature, crushed, spine broken and wrenched into a violent right angle that is, anatomically, all wrong angle.  D H Lawrence’s ‘Snake’ comes to mind:

Was it humility, to feel so honoured?

I felt so honoured.

Reading the roadside hoardings as I run, pretty soon I crack the code: if the language is English the signboard addresses pink people, Gringos, especially Yanquis. The pink have the money for this spiffy resort, that shmick kitesurf school, these elegant condominiums.

As in Australia, the person in DR who cleans your room, or cooks for you is not pink. He or she is pigmented and poor.

An eatery describes its fare in emphatic upper case:

BURRITO’S

 

TACO’S

 

BOWL’S

It is to puke. The feral apostrophe has invaded the hispanosphere.

Grammar-appalled, I run on.

 

Here’s another roadside notice: an attractive female face beams down at the traffic. On her fitted t-shirt one reads:DREAM PROJECT, Dominican Republic Education And Mentoring. Surrounding her, small dark faces bend over books, desks, small trays; little fingers grip pencils in a rainbow of colours. The scene of infant industry carries a powerful message. Along the lower margin a reminder: WWW.DREAMPROJECTDOMINICA.ORG

I recognise those pleasing features. Together with my Australian-American family I visited the Dream Project a couple of days ago.

Traralgon Marathon Report

Given the event took place over a week ago this report is pretty tardy. The truth is I have nothing to report.
If you’d asked me for my report thirty-nine years ago, I’d have leaped into print. Likewise had you enquired in June 1990, I’d have been bursting with news. In 2000 I reported on my run with Fidel. Even though he rode much of the way in my car, Fidel was awarded a Finisher’s medal as First Dog across the line. And in 2007 there was news of a different order.

But in 2017 I have nothing to report.

The Traralgon Marathon is Australia’s senior event. This year marks its fiftieth running. As well as being our first marathon, Traralgon is Victoria’s Country Marathon Championship. All in all a pretty lustrous affair. Competing under his nomme des jambs of Pheidipides, Howard Goldenberg ran his maiden marathon at Traralgon thirty-nine years ago. That year 181 runners started and 141 finished. I still have the official printout of the results. At the foot of the second of two roneoed sheets of paper (this report antedated the internet), you’d read: In 141st place, Pheidipides Goldenberg; time: 4 hours, 31 minutes, 31 seconds.

Every time I run a marathon I write one. That simple passage through time and space, so simple, so elemental, you mightn’t credit it worthy of remark. But every running feels remarkable to the runner. In the marathon the runner encounters the sole self, discovering some things that are unwelcome and others that make the runner feel a little proud. In a marathon, as Zatopek remarked, we all die a little. The event is charged with significance for this runner because the essentially solitary passage through time and space always involves encounters with others. It is the comradeship, the fellow feeling, the respect that elevate our experience. In that sense the marathon is a metaphor for our lives.

A watcher of the Barcelona Olympic Marathon might have caught images of the leading bunch of five as they passed their drink stop with seven kilometres to go. They had, running in intense humidity and heat, slowly outpaced a score of household names from Kenya and Tanzania and Korea and Japan and Australia. These five were the bravest of the brave on that particular day. One of these five, one only, would become immortal. Four of the five grabbed their special drinks at the 35 KM mark. The fifth grabbed and missed. And ran on, turning back being out of the question. The four drank and ran and drank again. One of those four passed his unfinished drink to the fifth. I do not recall whether the drink-giver won the event – I fancy he did not – but in that moment he joined the Immortals. In such small moments we see the glory of the marathon.
All this reads a bit portentously. Most running – and all of mine – is more comedic or shambolic than deep. In the field of my third Traralgon I sighted at the Start the esteemed and beloved Cliff Young, Australia’s most famous potato farmer, a previous winner of the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon. Cliffy used to go on his training runs wearing his hobnail work boots. If he needed a haircut he’d trot the thirty kilometres from his farm to Colac, then run back home again. That day in Traralgon I wondered if I’d manage to get close to him. Around the three KM mark my legs became over-excited and accelerated and I hauled him in. Running a couple of paces behind Cliff I admired the light lacework of his tracksuit material. I drew closer. The lacework was in fact the work of a legion of hungry moths. Through the mothholes I could see and admire the pale skin of those spindly old legs.
‘Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot/But he’ll remember with advantages/What feats he did that day.’ Thus Shakespeare. It was in Traralgon that I ran my best marathon time. In those better years I’d usually finish in three and a half hours – not flash but respectable. Around 1990, everything went well. By the twenty km mark the field was well strung out, each runner alone with his thoughts and his hopes and his faltering strength. Somehow on this day only my shoelace faltered. I heard a slap, slap, slap – one slap at every second stride. I looked down; my right shoelace had untied itself. I stopped, resting my foot on the lower timber of a little footbridge. I tied the lace and cursed myself for the loss rhythm. 

Where strength falters it is rhythm that lulls the unthinking legs with metre that beguiles like music or poetry. I straightened and placed one foot forward, then the second, now the first, now the second. And here, quickly, rhythm returned. I ran on and on. I passed a browsing cow. She looked up and gazed at me, ruminating. I passed a lonely church. I counted cars parked on the verge, calculating numbers of worshippers.


Approaching Traralgon on the return loop I saw the smoking chimneys of the power station blackening the winter blue with coal smoke. Crossing the river I was welcomed by a pelican gliding overhead in his landing approach. I blessed the bird of good augury. After that I think I thought of nothing. At forty kilometres I felt weary and I cursed the distance remaining. I slowed, realising I was about to ruin everything. I never recovered my pace. I cursed my feeble will.

A short time later that felt like a long time I crossed the Line. My time of three hours and fifteen minutes and thirteen seconds was to be my best ever.

Four weeks before this year’s Traralgon I ran a brisk 6.2 kilometres on unforgiving concrete. I thrashed along, full of surprised pleasure in my pace. Later, when I checked the elapsed time (35 minutes) I was reminded how, nowadays, mediocrity is beyond me. After the encounter with the concrete my right knee started to hurt. The after-pain of running always reminds me of the achievement that brought it about. Pain always passes but while it lasts I smile with small pride.

In 2007 my elder brother Dennis, always thirsty for my company, offered to come along with me to Traralgon. With him Dennis brought a hitch-hiker, his flatmate and devoted companion, Sahara the Hound. Sahara was a dog I never managed to like. In this I came closer than most. For Sahara was a raucous, snapping, yelping creature, anti-social, sociopathic in fact. Sahara yapped and snarled her way into the rear of the car, lay down on the seat, growled a bit and fell into silence, then into sleep. For the duration of the two-hour drive Dennis and I spoke as brothers do, of nothing and of everything. We arrived, I registered and showed Dennis the Finish Line. ‘I estimate I’ll get here in four to four-and–half hours,’ I told him. My estimate was incorrect; I crossed the line in 3 hours, 45 minutes, beating the only other sixty-plus-year old male by a handy margin. In disbelief I checked and rechecked my time.

As ever, Dennis swelled with pride at the achievement of his younger brother. Here I was, 2007 Traralgon and Victorian Country Marathon champion (male, sixty-plus). I duly added the achievement to my Resume.

During the drive home, Sahara slept again. Again Dennis and I chatted. Dennis told me of a question he’d been mulling: ‘ I’ve decided: I’m going to have the operation, Doff. I’ll lose weight and I’ll be able to exercise. I’ll have more energy because I won’t have sleep apnoea anymore. The doctor says I’ll be cured of my diabetes.’ I misgave but said nothing. ‘Doff, I know you’re super-cautious. I’m the opposite. I’ll have the operation and I’ll get my life back!’ I hoped he would. Dennis went on: he’d complete his MBA in a month or so, he’d graduate then he’d have the surgery. After recovering from the operation Dennis said he’d revive his business.

Two months later Dennis graduated at the head of his class, with High Distinction. In September he underwent bariatric surgery. Fourteen days later he died of complications. Every June the Traralgon Marathon comes around and I remember.

In 2017 my training was the best for years. I entered, paid, arranged to travel with a support team comprised of a friend and his 11-year-old son. We booked overnight accommodation in Traralgon and I saw my physio about the oddly persistent knee ache. My physio, a gifted and devoted torturer, rubbed and pressed and stretched me. She prescribed exercises, with which – to our mutual surprise – I complied. And my knee hurt more. I had an x-ray that showed a pristine joint and a panel of four physios gathered in conclave before the light-box to advise me. I rested the knee as they suggested. I took the dicey non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication that threatened my remaining kidney function. My physio taped my knee. I rested further and lost fitness. Two days before race day I could not walk to the toilet without pain. We cancelled the accommodation. The good people at Traralgon Harriers gave me a rain check to 2018.   

In 2017 I have nothing to report.
 
 
 
Footnote (kneenote, really): my knee feels better every day.

All this Juice and all this Joy

The first signs, mere hints, come creeping into our lives. Mornings aren’t so dark, the air doesn’t bite, birds sing their old early songs, bobbing figures are sighted in the streetscape. The wind turns northerly, bearing scents and pollens. Gardens burst into sudden colour, the sky seems higher, its lowering grey gives way to – to what? Can this be blue? We don’t readily trust these auguries, for this winter has frostbitten our trust in nature’s cycles. But soon it is undeniable: spring, SPRING is here!

Runners come out of hibernation; it is they whom we sight bobbing up and down on our streets, all of them preparing for the Melbourne Marathon. They bob but I bob not. My wretched, traitorous right calf locks and bites with every step, hissing at me, Pheidipides, you can forget the Marathon this October.

Meanwhile two identical envelopes arrive in the mail, both addressed to Pheidipides Goldenberg, both from the marathon people. I open the first and find my runner’s bib and the electronic chip that will time my run. A wry pleasure, these, tokens of a challenge that might yet defeat me before I start. The second envelope contains a second electronic chip and a second bib with PHEIDIPIDES printed across it with a runner’s number below. That number is not the same number as on bib Number One. What can this mean? Am I two persons? (Come to that, am I one person?) My I.T. skills being as they are I must have completed an entry form, hit ‘pay’, sent it off, forgotten I’d done it and repeated the entire process. So here I am, a runner torn, forlorn, with two identities.

This Melbourne Marathon will be – would be – my forty-eighth. Not a novelty then, but yet entirely different. Come October 18 I won’t run for myself but as a companion, a support person to a true hero, one of the very few runners to have completed every single Melbourne Marathon. I wrote of this hero last year: how, recently diagnosed with a serious condition, then treated with rays and our medical poisons, he ran and managed to grind out a finish despite his disease. To accompany this modest man will be a privilege. He responds to my self-invitation, Howard, I can’t allow you to sacrifice your marathon for mine. I’ll slow you down…

Inwardly I laughed. This man who knows fears and deeps far beyond my knowing, cannot know my capacity for running a new Personal Worst. And with two electronic chips, each secured to a running shoe, and each uniquely linked to a bib number, I will follow myself over the Line and finish both last and second last.

The Faithful Fibroblast

Late last October the Boston Athletic Association sent me an email which read:

‘Dear Pheidipides Goldenberg*,

Kindly advise us of your postal address forthwith so we can forward the race package for your entry to the 2015 Boston Marathon.’

I sent my details forthwith and equally forthwith I began to train for the great event. Now, my alert reader might recall the sincerity and warmth with which I wallowed in self-pity in my incapacity last (southern) winter. I posted a piece titled ‘Farewell’ https://howardgoldenberg.com/2014/07/28/farewell-farewell/, a lament for injuries that would permanently prevent running. I indulged in a prolonged period of warming sorrow, recalling better times. After three decades of running that were halcyon my winter of 2014 was halcyoff.

I know well not to expect an injured and abused skeleton, aged in its late sixties, to heal. My forty-four marathons had smashed knee joints and mashed vertebrae. Sciatica taunted my left thigh with every footfall. I stopped running and I rode a weasel bike. This morally feeble substitute served until osteoarthritis screamed from my left knee whenever I pushed down on the pedal. I stopped all exercise and sulked and nursed that achilles’ limb.

Sulking did me good. After a team of physiotherapists rubbed and probed and pressed sore spots until I squealed; and having found those sorest spots they pressed harder and I squealed the more; and after they prescribed exercises too intricate for me to conceive, to be repeated thirty times a day; and after I tried each exercise once before giving it away; after all this I sulked. And in my sulking I enlisted the faithful fibroblast and it is to that unglamorous cell that I owe thanks.

I last met the fibroblast in my second year of medical school. That was in 1965. I learned then of that industrious cell, of its role in building connective tissues. The fibroblast is the humble builder’s labourer of the foetus. It creates the neonatal skeleton and muscles. Once the human – so intricate, so cunning, so elegant in design, so glorious in execution – has been built the fibroblast might deservedly rest on its laurels. But it does not. Instead it lurks and waits for any damage it might be called upon to repair.

Sprain an ankle and fibroblasts swarm to the site, building, building, building. They create a fibrous scaffolding which, together with nests of new capillaries, is appreciated as a hot swelling at the site of the tear in the ligament. Slowly, thanklessly, this busy little cell knits new fibres to replace the old. Slowly the damaged dancer or skier or hockey player rises and flies again.
But that leaper or runner or slider is fifteen or thirty. Chockers with fibroblasts, at those ages she is indestructible.

Then the day arrives that she turns fifty, when her collagen sags, her ovaries shrink, her mood sours and she sweats her nights through and celebrates the menopause ‘and all the daughters of song are brought low.’

Her man is even more pathetic when ‘desire fails and man goeth to his long home and the mourners go about the streets.’

On the other (more cheerful) hand the poet John Donne wrote:
‘… from rest and sleep
Which but thy pictures be
Much pleasure…’

My spine had rest and my knee slept. June came and passed and with it passed the marathon in Traralgon. August came and for the first time in ages I missed the marathon in Alice Springs. In October Melbourne ran its annual marathon without Pheidipides Goldenberg.

Then Boston sent me that email.

And together with Johnny Donne my knee sang and my spine caroled: ‘Death, thou shalt die,’ as I rose and ran. Since October I have tested the knees on the rocky slopes at Wilson’s Promontory. I have tried but failed to provoke the sciatic nerve in Central Queensland and in outback NSW. I have thrashed the skeleton in Pittsburgh, in New York and in Boston where, three weeks ago I ran the slopes of Heartbreak Hill. I froze but I felt no pain. The next week I ran fast up the length of London’s Muswell Hill to the top, then I turned around and galloped down. This short run constitutes a brutal abuse of synovial membrane, of articular cartilage, ligament and tendon.

I listened for protests from the body. But neither degenerate hip nor spinal nerve made any murmur. Incredulous, I gave thanks to the long ignored, sadly neglected, ever-faithful fibroblast.

One of my favourite poems for sulking is Ecclesiastes, 12. With language like this it’s a pleasure to be sad. Here’s a fuller portion for your enjoyment. You don’t need to run a marathon or injure your body:

1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

2 While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

3 In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

4 And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

5 Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

6 Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

8 Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

*My running name

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