Thursday, November 8, 2007

Running Alongside the Marathon

Elizabeth Zelvin

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!


Ken Isaacson said...

Way back in 1978, I was given a rare behind-the-scenes look at the NY Marathon. It was my last year of law school, and I was sharing an apartment with a guy who was finishing up at the NY School of Podiatric Medicine. The school set up a clinic at the finish line to tend to the runners after they'd completed the grueling course.

Jeff was able to get me "creds" so I could pass through security and wander around with my camera. It reminded me of an episode of M*A*S*H--cots everywhere, people hobbling around, Mylar cloaks wrapped around them to regulate their body temperature...

The photos I shot have long been lost, but I've always remembered the scene....

Ken Isaaacson

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Ken, I had a behind the scenes look at the other end a few years back: early morning as the runners waited for the race to start at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. I volunteered to be part of the "psyching team" with other mental health professionals. I actually got to stand on the Verrazano Bridge facing the oncoming runners as the first group to start, the "elite" women (including a neighbor from my building)and the hordes tossing away their jackets as they cross the bridge. (These are gathered up and given to the homeless.)

Rick Bylina said...

I ran my first marathon as a 17-year-old high school senior before the world had heard of Frank Shorter in Munich which was the spark for the running craze. There were 33 people for the marathon (about 80 for the five miler), and the race director was very happy. The first aid station was THIRTEEN miles into the race. The winner struggled home over the ridiculously hilly course in 3:03. I got a 25 mile DNF. I ran six more with a personal best of 2:48 before I became fat, old, tired, and lazy.

The runners smile and share their aches and pains, because they've joined a club, an exclusive club, that barely 100 years ago had only a handful of members. Either that, or they're high off the feeling of accomplishing something, just like I did when I finished writing my first book.