Monday, August 11, 2008

Peculiar Human Race

This particular story begins last week when my younger son Liamh calls me and asks if I want him and his bro Jesse to spend next Sunday with me or can they go on the City to Surf? Takes a while to work out what this means but in the end I do. We arrange that they'll come here for the weekend as usual Friday arvo and then early Sunday morning I'll take them into the City to rendezvous with their Mum and a few other people so they can do the run - or rather, for their group, the walk. I don't really want to surrender the Sunday with them but nor is there any tiny part of me that wants to join the race to Bondi ... so ... Saturday I call their mother to confirm the arrangements for Sunday and find out that she's sick, a headache or something, and isn't going. When the boys hear this their faces both fall and Jesse almost starts to cry. Funny the way they always look like their mother when they cry, is that because they've seen her do it when they've probably never seen me? Even tho' I like to think I'm a New Age Guy and can, and do, cry ... ? Anyway, I say - knowing it's stupid, knowing I'll regret it - that'll I'll go with them. Smiles all round and we fall to the happy work of planning. Next morning we cram into the carriage of the 8.02 to Central along with various athletic types with their Numbers and Uniforms and Water Bottles and Heartbeat Monitors and Portable Entertainment Systems. They look weird in amongst the hungover Goths and other Party People sagging on the seats all mascara and sweat-stained after their night out dancing. There's even a guy dressed in red as some kind of super hero reading the Sunday paper and he's not a party person, he's going in the race. Apparently dressing up is one of the things people do ... we get to the Archibald fountain in Hyde Park a bit before 8.45 and stand around with the all sorts that we'll be walking to Bondi with ... two people dressed as FEET (a right and a left) with an escort of Ninjas, for instance. A couple of ANZ ATMs. Someone done up as a Purple Star who at one point takes the costume off and lies by the fountain panting even though it's a chilly morning and the cloud hasn't burnt off yet. She's a bit chubby and is with the Starlight Foundation. Our party of about a dozen, it turns out, is representing BDSRA - The Australian Chapter of Batten Disease Support and Research Association. I know nothing about this beyond the fact that my kids have been doing a bit of collecting for charity in Pearl Beach with a fellow named Philip. I meet Philip, who's in his thirties perhaps, a paediatrician at Newcastle Hospital and a tireless campaigner in support of those who have Batten Disease. You always wonder about adults that your children hang around with so I take a good look at him. He's personable and friendly enough and reminds of an over grown kid himself. That's clearly how the other children relate to him - my two, a 12 year old called Cody who had a brother who died of the disease, another about 9 called Cameron. Philip's parents are there, he's like a big kid with them too. Also Cody's mother Vanessa, she has a sweet face and reminds me of my friend Jean from Norfolk Island whom I haven't seen for years. A couple of blonde women who might be mother and daughter. I smile at them but somehow fail to introduce myself. It takes bloody ages for our 'race' to start, we sort of mill around for a while then queue with literally thousands of others outside St Mary's cathedral while some loud smarmy voice through a vast PA tries to ginger us up for what's ahead. Even before we reach the start line this voice tells us that the first of the runners has already crossed the finish line at Bondi, 42 minutes after the real race began at 9.00 am. Oh well, doesn't matter, we finally reach the corner of Park and William and we're off ... ! Straggling down the main drag towards Kings Cross. First thing I notice is the trail of garments littering the road - Paradise for Hobos, Jesse shrills and it turns out he's right. One of the traditions of the race is that you discard your over garments as you run and the Smith Family follows up later and collects them to give to the poor. This is not the only litter trail of course, there are the plastic bottles and plastic cups, millions of them and then there are all sorts of other strange things. Liamh finds a tiny running shoe, about an inch long, and each of the kids manages to souvenir one of those reflector / lane divider things set into municipal roads to guide traffic. I like looking in the tarseal for the things that have become trapped there - coins, keys, a padlock, the tines of a metal fork, a defunct watch face. It's actually quite fun to be swinging along the highway where usually only the vehicular traffic goes, the wrong way through the tunnel under Kings Cross and on down the hill to Rushcutters Bay. Funny people though - every dagg you never saw is out today with their dream of an athleticism that, for most of us, our lumpy bodies can do nothing but deny. There's a couple ball room dancing the whole way, that looks tedious beyond belief but they seem determined to stick it out. There go the ATMs. There go the FEET with their escort of Ninjas, it seems to have something to do with a podiatry clinic. There's a Viking all in black with two women in lycra bodysuits as an escort, I can't work out what that's about. I hear a sound like birds twittering and four Japanese women dressed as Geisha go by with running shoes instead of geta showing incongruously on their feet below their kimono. Philip is collecting for Batten Disease along the way, he likes to have a kid or two attending when he asks for money so we keep stopping to importune the rich partying on their balconies in Double Bay and then again in Rose Bay. At the drinks stations the gutters literally flow with Gatorade, something I never imagined I would see. Coming up Heartbreak Hill on the other side of Rose Bay we are ambushed by an offensive - in both senses - group of twenty-somethings working for RSVP, the dating agency. They have water-soaked sponges in the shape of purple hearts that they try to stamp you with. I avoid them by heading for the footpath but Liamh finds one of the purple hearts on the road, sneaks up behind me and gets me between the shoulder blades. That white long sleeved cotton T shirt I've kept pristine for about a year now will never be the same again but the kids are so excited and having so much fun it'd be pointless getting angry. And anyway I don't feel angry. Somewhere round about the top of Heartbreak Hill, we look back and see the vehicles that are bringing up the end of the procession and realise we are running just about last. I don't really care but Jesse suddenly starts to feel competitive. He forges ahead, loops back once to check in with me and then says he's going to speed up for good now. Off he goes into the distance before I can say anything about a rendezvous point. We're only at about the halfway mark, which seems unbelievable given the state of my feet and knees but it's true, there's the 7 K marker. I've kind of used up my store of conversation with Philip, his eyes glaze over when I tell him a bit about what I do and then, later, when he says so long as you're not making things worse and I quote First Do No Harm ... back at him, we reach a wordless agreement to walk the walk not talk the talk. Vanessa I get on much better with but at a certain point, and I remember this from my brief career as a teenage cross-country runner, a sort of grim determination takes over every other thought and emotion and you just keep on keeping on going. By the time we turn from New into Old South Head Road and then into Military Road I'm suffering from pain in my hips as well as feet and knees and starting to fall behind. Liamh loyally keeps me company for quite a while, we chat about this and that, mostly how tired we are, and then he says, oh, I think I'll catch up with the others now and off he goes too. I can see them all ahead for a while and then, and I don't know when this happens, I can't. By now the weather, which has been fine and cool for most of the walk, is starting to pack up, you can see long ragged brown-grey clouds raining over the City and darker ones above the beach ahead. By the time I'm plodding down towards Bondi, with about two kilometers to go, it's raining, lightly at first then more and more heavily. Cold wet rain. I've got a denim jacket in my bag so I put that on but what about the kids? Their hoodies are in my bag too and suddenly I realise I don't know where either of them is. I'm not worried about Liamh, he'll stick close to Philip and Vanessa and will be fine - but what about Jesse? As I come round the bend in North Bondi and see the beach spread out before me I feel the first twinge of panic: the place is in absolute chaos. Thousands of people are leaving the actual beach, either because they've completed this dumb race or else because it's rained on their picnic/sunbathing/posing or whatever. Most of the participants in the race have fled to the other side of the road to get under cover of the shop awnings there while the brave or foolish few continue in the designated corridor for runners. I've forgotten my pains now, I don't care about the rain, I want to find my kids. Coming along Campbell Parade I overtake Vanessa and Cody and Cameron and she tells me yes, Liamh's ahead with Philip but no-one has yet seen Jesse. I keep company with her for a while, just as well, because I think the queues for the buses up Bondi Road are the finish line when it's actually down the other way by the old Bondi pavilion. Vanessa tells me that, although she's Sydney born and bred (Terrey Hills, in the north west) she has never been to Bondi Beach before. I congratulate her for walking here the first time then forge ahead to find my boys. You go through three barriers but I don't know what any of them are for except that at the last one you can get a medal but I don't bother, it seems as futile as trying to get money from the two bedraggled ATMs standing forlornly back there, too wide to go through any barrier. Bona fide participants in the race are issued with an electronic device that they attach to their shoe and this has to be detached too. None of us has one of these apart from Jesse, who's travelling as someone called Matthew Love, a boy who couldn't come for some reason. That'll make for nice complications if he really is lost. Just beyond the third barrier I see someone waving frantically, it's Philip and there's Liamh standing with him. In the flood of (partial) relief I finally track down a resemblance that's been nagging at me all day - what Philip looks like is a Teletubby though I'm not prepared to go any further and try to work out which one. I go over. Seen Jesse? I ask as casual as I can. No. Vanessa and the others, I tell him, are just coming. So that's good. I put Liamh's hoodie on him and check if he's okay. He is. I look around: where do you start? There's a lost boy, about Liamh's age or younger, walking around crying. No-one's taking any notice of him and I think, I would, but I can't, I have to find Jesse first. There's no sign of him. We discuss the desultory rendezvous point, McDonalds at Bondi, that we made before setting out but I can't remember if Jesse was a party to that discussion or not. Anyway he doesn't know Bondi and I doubt if he'd go there. What I think he'd do is wait at the end, wait exactly where we are. So why isn't he here? We've been standing around for about ten minutes, not really knowing what the hell to do, when he saunters up as if he's just got back from the loo or something. His new #5 haircut all starry with raindrops. I've been on the bridge, he says, looking for you. I'm not in the least bit angry, just relieved ... really, really relieved. Apart from everything else, I haven't emptied my bladder since leaving home at 7.45 and the pressure is beginning to make my balls ache. There were queues at all the portaloos along the way and I simply refused to stand and wait. So off we go, all four of us, Me and Jess and Monkey and the Teletubby, to the line of queueless portaloos past the long Gatorade stand covered with full plastic glasses of yellow liquid looking exactly like urine. Staring down at the bizarre and unseemly human waste in my receptacle for a very long time, I think what strange and uncomfortable people we are, how meaningless our rituals, how false and hollow our enthusiasms, how meretricious our wants and insatiable our desires. But I forget all about that once I'm done. The sun's coming out, the green-blue water of the ocean is beautiful, my kids are found and they are just so proud of the medals around their necks that there isn't anything else to do but praise and celebrate all the way home. Later we hear that someone, a 26 year old man, collapsed and died about 200 metres from the finish line.