In a minute or two, I’m going to tell you about my experience not running, but bearing witness to the New York marathon this weekend, which reminded me of the importance of community if not the actual point of being alive, but if you’re in a hurry or not in the mood for my emotional extolling, allow me to unbury the lede: Next time there’s a race in your city, it’s with a heart three times its normal size that I recommend you do everything you can to go. I know you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: Clear your calendar, set your alarm, show up with a warm drink and one of those noisy toys that makes runners feel motivated to keep going. Cheer your stupid little head off, marvel at the human propensity—no, desire—to endure, let the uncut optimism flood your veins. Forget yourself. Leave better than you came.
You don’t have to know anyone racing—I didn’t. I showed up at the Barclays Center at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning in a coat and gloves, looking around for my colleague and friend Gyan. She’d mentioned on Friday that she was planning to cheer on her friend Ben, and I shamelessly asked if I could join. I recalled the exhilaration—or was it a high?—of watching my brother run the Brooklyn Half in May and, not unlike a junky, wanted to feel it again. She said of course, and so I stood alone in the cold Park Slope sun, awaiting her group’s arrival, chills spreading across my skin every time I heard a crowd roar from a couple blocks away. It had started! People were running! Were they tired? Were they dressed appropriately? Were they okay?! Spectating a marathon is nothing if not an empathy binge.
Gyan, Michael, and Ben’s girlfriend Lou arrived a few minutes later. It was 50 degrees, and Ben hadn’t slept last night, Lou said. He was nervous. He was trying to do the race in under three hours—which means running a 6:50 mile pace for 26.22 miles, if you care to feel deeply out of shape. We settled into a spot near the eight-mile mark, joining the long snaking lines of buzzing spectators wearing beanies and pink cheeks, holding signs for their loved ones in their gloved hands. The racing path was currently empty, but the emotional buzz I’d experienced last spring had already returned. That the simple act of standing among fellow New Yorkers with a common purpose can move me to tears says more about the state of (my) modern life than I’d care to explain.
The first racers we saw were differently abled athletes—the subjects of the roars I’d heard earlier—speeding by in what I learned are called push rim wheelchairs or hand cycles (here’s how this looks). Next came the “elite women” runners, and soon after, the “elite men,” who sped by at what I would describe as a 100-meter-sprinter’s pace. Watching this kind of physical achievement is surreal. If you think their will and determination didn’t absolutely ruin me, I haven’t adequately expressed the sappiness a city-wide race serves up like free lunch. Every time someone passed, the crowds would shower them with so much encouragement the racers couldn’t help but smile through their pain. Name a more pure exchange!
Soon the rest of the runners came in massive droves—around 50,000 people participate in the New York City Marathon, which starts in Staten Island, snakes across Brooklyn and Queens, peaks in the Bronx then cascades down through Manhattan for a dramatic Central Park finish. It hits all five boroughs, and the participants are an appropriately diverse mish-mash of people. I saw old men and young women, runners of every race and every size, people in Spiderman costumes and religious garb. Sweat dripping down cheeks and arms, shoulders crunched up in pain, arms reaching out for high fives, faces breaking into smiles at all the cheers, pride radiating off chests. As they passed, all of us hollering for them like our lives depended on it, I imagined who they were in their everyday lives, and what had they given up in order to pursue this massive accomplishment. They were probably behind on Netflix. Their Screen Time must be way down. Good for them! (I’m sorry to say these thoughts actually crossed my mind.)
At my most lost and cynical, I used to think running a marathon was a self-aggrandizing flex people pursued when their lives got boring. And it’s true that only some have the resources to train, but I now see this pursuit as proof of the human spirit. The willingness to stare down an immense challenge and then push through it. And for the rest of us: the desire to show up, screaming until our voices crack, armed with a genuine altruistic desire to see others reach their goals. It’s hard to describe what it feels like to do this. What’s the opposite of heartbreaking? Heartwarming feels insufficient. Maybe it’s heart-healing or spirit-bolstering, although those aren’t quite right either. I guess the experience can’t be captured in words or on a screen, and that’s precisely what makes it a special, maybe even vital, reminder of what it means to be alive.
(Ben finished in 2:58, two minutes under his goal.)
Good news, fellow marathon freaks: There are 15 races happening this coming weekend all over the country! Find out if one of them is happening in your city here.
Feature photo via Getty Images.