November 6, 2011

My first apartment in New York City was at 91st Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. One chilly Sunday in November the first year I lived there, I walked outside to replenish my refrigerator at a grocery store around the corner. I was surprised to find First Avenue full of people.

First Avenue is not like Fifth Avenue, which hosts parades with surprising frequency. It’s not like Broadway, a thoroughfare for cars and pedestrians up and down the island. First Avenue is, for lack of a kinder term, a little bland (at first glance, at least)).

But on this particular Sunday the streets were lined with spectators, all looking expectantly downtown. Within a few minutes the reason for this phenomenon became clear: the female lead pack of that year’s ING marathon was about to run past.

New York often makes me feel like an anthropologist – it’s so easy to unexpectedly find oneself in surprising scenes in which you’re in close proximity to a community activity, but not actually a part of their celebration, cause, or shouts. You’re in it, but not of it. Observing, but not invested.

Personally, I think this is kind of neat. It challenges my status quo and enlightens me to groups and thoughts I wouldn’t otherwise have known existed. It makes me grow, and in my own small opinion, growth is always good.

So the first time my path crossed (almost literally) that of the New York marathon, I was intrigued. I watched the leading women fly past in a blur; listened to the crowd cheer; looked at the myriad phenotypes represented among the observers.

Then I went and got some groceries.

My curiosity is not so easily assuaged though, so a little later I went back outside and witnessed the deluge that is the 45,000 nonprofessional runners who run the course each November.

And that was my first encounter with my city’s legendary race.

Five more marathons have taken place since then, and aside from one unfortunate year when I had to work at 6:30am, I’ve made a point of attending them all, for at least a little while.

Because I love it. It’s become one of my favorite days of the year.

I love the marathon because I respect the endeavor. There’s no reason to run 26.2 miles. It’s painful, difficult, and probably not a ton of fun. And simply not necessary. But I have to admire people who choose to push their bodies and minds, who explore the boundaries of their capabilities, who challenge their own notions of “possible.”

I love the marathon because there’s no marathon “type.” Fit 30-somethings in expensive athletic garb run alongside 70+-year-old men in yamakas. Who run alongside pairs of guys dressed as Batman and Robin. Who run alongside minuscule 22-year-olds in sports bras and short shorts and are nothing but muscle. Swedish women wearing yellow wigs and blue face paint. 40-year-olds pushing what seem to be their 70-year-old parents in wheelchairs. Some run with a long loping gait; others shuffle along, their feet never really leaving the ground. Some are 6’5”, others are 4’3”. Some are lanky, so skinny you wonder how they stand up (let alone run), others probably draw skepticism from their coworkers when they explain what their plans are on the first weekend of November. Some are legless, some are armless. All of them are testing their own individual limits, but doing so together.

I love the marathon because of the anonymous support and good will. Everyone on the sidewalks is simply happy for those running – they cheer them on without requiring acknowledgment or anything at all in return. I can only imagine what it’s like to run it – when you’re standing still the cheering comes and goes, but in fact it’s more likely a wave, which propagates along the course at the same pace as the runners.

I love the marathon because the weather always seems to conspire to make it the loveliest day of autumn.

I love the marathon because of the man in 2010 with two prosthetic legs, who hit the 30K mark in the quiet lull between the professional women and professional men. His face and body screamed of pain, yet he radiated a silent confidence in his ability to finish. To overcome the discomfort of the moment to achieve something bigger. As he passed, I wiped tears from my eyes.

I love the marathon because for every kilometer of the race (just over 42), over a million dollars are raised for charity, and that’s pretty dang cool.

I love the marathon because it is quintessentially New York. Geographically; demographically; even spiritually.

I love the marathon because you can really see the stories. Once you start looking into the runners’ faces you understand it’s not just a homogenous wave of athletes. Some run for charity, others in memory of a loved one, others for their own peace of mind. Some struggle. Some power along in a Zen state. Some are affluent and established, others are struggling students. Too often in life I find myself stereotyping, and much too often, this stereotyping doesn’t give the person on the other side of my judgment the respect they deserve. For some reason, the marathon clicks as my annual reminder that everyone, everywhere has a whole life behind them, another ahead of them, and is doing the best they can to get by right now.

2 Responses to “Marathon”

  1. Marci Says:

    Ran onto your comments through Chris Gullibeau’s site. Love your thoughts on the marathon…felt like I was there watching. I have not been to NY but if I go I will try to go in the Fall. Never thought of watching a marathon before…thanks!

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