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What We Take From The Marathon

You don't need to run the New York City Marathon to understand what it means, or why it matters so much to runners and city alike.

by David Roth
Nov 10 2016, 2:05pm

Photo by Kevin R. Wexler/The Record via USA TODAY NETWORK

I have lived near the route of the New York City Marathon for the entirety of my adult life. The first long stretch of the race went by the first street I lived on, in a Brooklyn neighborhood that realtors were then still struggling to name, and I would walk down to watch the race roar over and through an avenue that was, every other day of the year, mostly a clamorous and unlovely truck route. I stood next to a since-demolished Muslim day school, in the spongy state of horizonless perpetual hangover that was then my normal resting state, surrounded by neighbors I barely knew, speaking in languages I knew not at all. We all stood there, sort of together and sort of apart, and watched tens of thousands of people chase each other down the avenue.

We lived at a spot early enough in the race that even the jugglers and the plodders and the people wearing costumes still looked fairly fresh by the time they reached us; they were not yet even at the outer boundary of their shorter training runs. I remember looking out a window from my girlfriend's apartment at one of these marathons, a little further down the route, and seeing a man wearing a plush costume that made him look like a pair of hair-studded balls, grinning and high-fiving a bunch of bemused strangers before taking off again. People run to raise money for different causes, and for all I know this man was a warrior for testicular health or testicular awareness. He might also just have wanted to run 26.2 miles dressed as a pair of balls. They all run for different reasons, and if those reasons would necessarily be opaque to someone nursing a coffee and a case of full-spectrum brain ache, I knew enough even then not to doubt that those reasons were both powerful and fully felt. Watch enough games in any sport and you learn to respect work and want; live long enough, and you learn that the thing to do when you see other people struggling is to do what you can to help. It's easy to forget all that, and at this moment we are in the wreckage that forgetting has made. On marathon day, at least, the whole city remembers it.

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It's one of the many miraculous little improbabilities of the marathon that virtually everyone who starts the race finishes it; 51,388 of the 51,995 runners, this year, both of which are preliminary figures and both of which are records. That works out to 98.8 percent. Just as numbers on the page, this is astonishing enough; 51,995 people is enough to fill a city that would be a little larger than Lewiston, Idaho and a little smaller than San Marcos, Texas; the number of men to finish the marathon this year is just a few thousand off the total number of human beings presently living in Bangor, Maine.

The idea of an entire small city being raptured from their homes and appearing on the Staten Island end of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, to run their hearts out in pursuit of whatever it is that will get them to the finish line, is maybe not the most instructive when it comes to thinking about the marathon. I don't know anyone in Lewiston or San Marcos, and the only person I even faintly know in Bangor is a guy who sometimes invites me onto his radio show; I know those cities pretty much exclusively as medium-small type in an atlas. I mention them mostly because the number of strangers living their lives in those towns happened to line up with the number of people that ran all those miles through the larger city in which I live. I don't know what it's like to live there. I just know they are out there, somewhere, in this country.

Find the lie. Photo by Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

What you will notice, if you turn out to watch this small and hopeful city of displaced masochists make its way through the streets, is the way the larger city comes out to surround them. The race course involves some long and lonesome stretches over bridges, and some neighborhoods are quieter than others, but there are also long roaring stretches throughout, with people three or four deep at the police barricades, screaming and clapping and high-fiving strangers. There is a thrill in seeing friends emerge from the crowd, the sort of happy surprise you might feel upon meeting someone you know in a foreign capital. Friends that have run the race tell me that it works the other way around, too: that suddenly seeing someone you care about, standing right there also caring about you, can work as a righteous shove forward at a moment of exhaustion or discomfort or despair.

But most people are not there to pick out their friends, or not just for that. Where I live now, around the 17-mile mark on the course, no one going by is having much fun. Even the fast runners are wan and washed out by then, their faces locked into the gobsmacked shock of someone who has just gotten bad news about a beloved pet. Pretty much everyone else is knock-kneed and zombified by that point, not because they are less ready than they thought but simply because this is fucking hard—they have run a long way, and they have a long way to run, and that is real to them in so urgent and painful a way as to crowd out everything else. A friend who came in from out of town to run the race this year told me that he was excited to see his old apartment building and old neighborhood for the first time in years, and then he just ran right by them in a red fog.

Here is what you see one person after another do on marathon day, when all those strangers are gasping and shuffling through their streets: they try to help. There is only so much that can be done to aid people who have decided to inflict 26.2 miles upon themselves, but every year the city goes about doing all of those things. Cover bands set up on the sidewalk and hump as helpfully as they can through inspirational songs that aren't too hard to play; there is a special emphasis on Bill Conti's Rocky theme, to the point where it appears to be playing on a stumbling loop that resets every ten blocks or so. People make signs and wave them, not just for their friends or people wearing jerseys representing a cause near and dear, but for everyone. On Sunday, I saw a woman holding a sign that said "You're Doing Great."

Most of the hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets do not have props, though, or even a rudimentary knowledge of how to play "Taking Care Of Business" on a bass. Mostly, on the day of the race, you see people, ordinary looking people of every type, just absolutely out of their minds in the attempt to shout some sustaining hope into the strangers staggering by. Runners write their names on themselves, and strangers scream those names for them. A pair of identical twins, balding and pale and a little unsettling in their sweaty twindom, run by wearing shirts that read Steve and Jeff, and a stranger to my right—beard, fleece, Mets hat, someone who works a good job at a bank or a law firm during the week—yells out "double trouble, here we go Steve and Jeff." A couple runs by in matching shirts reading "Martinez Honeymoon" and someone yells "Martinez, you've got this." Jerseys identify runners by their home countries—Italy and Fiji, Denmark and South Africa—or their running clubs—Black Men Run, North Brooklyn Runners—or their charities of choice. Some of them say FOR MOM and it is very clear what that means. Some say things like FRED'S TEAM and you can guess.

It's the damnedest thing: the people dissolve in the marathon. You can track them on an app, but they are never quite where it says they will be. The runners dissolve into tears of simultaneous victory and defeat at the end of the race; "I am used to my body being strong and doing what I tell it to do," my friend tells me later that night, "and then you get there and there is this moment where you can't, and it won't." This is the point, he says, it's the thing that is profound about it to him and also the thing that he finds in sports that make them meaningful: not power or strength, but the leveling way in which they eventually make everyone weak. I cannot speak for the other finishers; I don't run anymore, and even when I did I was mostly happy when I could stop. But I can say why I turn out to cheer on the people of this strange city within our own. It's because of the bravery and strength with which they court and confront weakness, and because it is fun to yell, but mostly it is because of the way that humanity brings this larger place to life.

This is a worried place, now more than almost any time I can remember, and that worrying locks us in, makes us small and wary, keeps us strangers. When the runners come through—this community of struggle and exhaustion, everyone in their own individuated pursuit but shoulder to shoulder all the way across the wide avenues—and the city turns itself inside out with empathy and affection, this place is something different and altogether more hopeful. This is the dissolution that matters most, to me: the communion across the barricades, the shared and unreasonable and unreasoned and unreasoning hope that everyone might somehow get what they need from this punishing thing. The city, the big one and all the little ones within it, unites in that pursuit. We scream and sweat for it, differently but together. We are tired, we cannot go on like this, we are finished, and then somehow we take the next step.

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