Last Sunday I watched on TV as Martin Lel of Kenya won the New York Marathon in 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 4 seconds. Then I tied on my battered sneakers, trotted out the door, and jogged down the block and into Central Park to join the race.
Actually, I finance the New York Marathon. Among the major sponsors for many years has been the Rudin Family. The Rudins are my landlord. I've been paying rent to them for forty years. They bestow it on the Marathon, take a tax loss (or so I assume), and get their picture in the paper as public benefactors. But it's my money.
Heading east across the park, I join the runners at the 24 mile marker, not far from the Metropolitan Museum. The marathoners use the road that loops around the park, roped off today, but the pedestrian path that runs alongside it, circuitously parallel, is navigable. By the time I get there, the course is packed with runners: men who have been running for three hours and will finish creditably in less than four, if my math is correct, and women who started half an hour earlier than the men. The excitement is infectious. The sidelines are packed with spectators holding homemade signs and banners. Pride, delight, and awe suffuse their faces as the runners stream by. Some groups wear matching T shirts proclaiming them the "scream team" or "posse" of their friend or family member in the race. They hoot, holler, and cheer for those they know and those they don't alike.
The crowd, both runners and those who cheer them on, is as diverse as ever in New York —and especially fun to see when it's a party, as this is. Every face is smiling. Every ethnic group and nation is represented. The signs and banners blazon encouragement to Bub and Mia and Yan and Kimi. I pick out a skinny guy in red from the river of runners and pick up my pace, trying to keep up with him, just to see if I can. I'm fresh—I haven't just run 24 ½ miles—so I manage it for 50 feet before I let him forge ahead and go back to my usual slow jog.
It's beautiful in Central Park, in spite of the gray sky and a temperature only in the 50s. It doesn't feel cold at all. The air is soft. Grass and weeping willows are still green in this unseasonably warm fall. Some of the lindens have a faint dusting of gold. A maple here and there offers shades of apricot and lemon. To my right as I pass the 25 mile marker, the Wollman Rink, where I learned to skate more than half a century ago, flashes a glimpse of gleaming polar white as a maintenance vehicle lumbers over the bright surface, smoothing the ice. The excitement swells as we near the south end of the park.
What elicits this desire to cheer for total strangers? Why do I have tears in my eyes? The sight of so many people each bent on achieving a personal best? The communal experience of this great city at play? Maybe it's partly that something as simple as running, accessible to all, can be raised to such a high art, such a unifying global moment. Sure, the Marathon, like any sports event, has its economic base and motivation. The winner gets $130,000, which the commentators I heard thought Lel would probably invest in his home town in Kenya, as he has past wins. But money's not what it's about. Not to the people who have turned out for it.
As I reluctantly turn west, then north, and head toward home, the mid-range finishers are beginning to pour out of the park to rendezvous with their friends and families, find someplace to rest their legs, maybe have a celebratory pizza and a beer. Each wears a medallion on a ribbon around his or her neck. They all look tired and very happy. As I cross Central Park West, two guys wrapped in mylar exchange a complicit grin with a guy wrapped in a red fleece blanket crossing the other way. They've done it!