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.
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).