Monday, November 7, 2011

I've Seen the Mountains But I'm Not In Love

As befits the occasion, this is a long one.  I want to get it all down before I forget.

I ran in the New York City Marathon yesterday, which is something I've been waiting to do for either a few months (the time it took to train for it) or a couple of years (the time since my last marathon) or the better part of a decade (the time since I first saw the race in person and had some inkling that it looked like fun, even though I couldn't have run two miles without stopping at that point).

There was so much buildup that I worried in advance (which is a thing that I do.  Also, parentheses) ...  I worried in advance that it wouldn't live up to my expectations.  I ended up running well, or about as well as I had hoped to, but the main reason it was such an exciting day is that the race, and the city, showed why they're so easy to love sometimes.  I always wondered, going out and cheering for a while at previous years' marathons, just how much spectators mattered to the runners.  The answer, I can now say, is a ton. Really, they're everything.  It's not like New York is a particularly attractive city, physically -- and certainly not along the marathon route, which, with a few exceptions, alternates between too-wide boulevards and on-ramps and industrial zones.  But what makes the experience of passing through the race course special is the same thing that makes the city special: the people. Diversity is such an overused word, but it's something like that -- so many different faces, different languages, different kinds of music, all radiating goodwill in a place where it's too often in short supply.  It is just a really charming experience, New York at its best.  I wish I could do it again tomorrow.

Obviously for most of the day I was busy with mundane running-related stuff.  People who don't run tend to ask me what I think about when I'm running, and I usually say that I don't really know. The truth is that it's a lot of boring things like, What does my watch say? Should I speed up or slow down? Are my shoulders tight? Are my steps quick enough? etc.  But you're also taking in all kind of stimuli and absorbing them in varying degrees, so your perception changes, from something resembling a movie to something resembling a collage.

Anyway, a few snippets of experience stand out from the day:

-- Arriving at Jackrabbit Sports, my local running store and former employer, at 5:30 a.m. for the bus to the starting line. It was still dark but there was a nervous little crowd out front and inside -- people dressed in crisp new sweatsuits that they'd be throwing away in a few hours. (There's a long, cold wait at the starting line on Staten Island, so people buy cheap throwaway clothes, which the group that organizes the race then collects at the start and donates to charity.) Some people, unbelievably to me, were in the store trying to figure out what to eat or wear in the race that day.  I say unbelievably because I think I had planned this all out in my head weeks in advance, at least.

(This is as good a time as any to throw in a plug for my friend and coach Geoff Badner, who works with runners of all different levels -- I'm somewhere in the middle -- and besides coming up with super-detailed training plans, is very patient with pre-race jitters.)

-- Seeing Todd Colby and Larry Lewis, who between them have thousands of miles worth of marathon experience, just before getting on the bus.  It calms a person down.  I asked Larry for last-minute advice and he said, "No matter how good you feel, slow down." If you still feel good with 10 miles to go, he said, you can speed up then.  I actually did this -- as well as I could, considering how amped up I was -- and it worked.  The man knows what he's talking about.

-- The sunrise over Brooklyn, viewed through the window of the Prospect Park Track Club bus and the cables of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  I don't see a lot of sunrises, and this was an exciting one.

-- Stepping off the bus just as the Jesus and Mary Chain's "New York City" started playing on my headphones.

Laura and I put this on the mix CD we gave to our wedding guests, but I insisted that we not include it on the printed tracklist, because of a very Jesus and Mary Chain-esque reference that he makes to his dick about halfway through.  I dunno, I was afraid elderly guests would go, "Oh look, Dear, a song about New York City!" and skip to it and be scandalized.

Anyway, though, the second half of a second verse, in the crisp morning air on a sunny day surrounded by all the energy and humanity of that pre-start waiting area ... big goosebumps.

-- Sitting on a curb in Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island at 8 a.m., chatting with the Dutch guy on one side of me and the Canadian twins on the other.  Nothing important -- just the course, energy gels, the financial crisis, what to do if you have to pee during the race.  But I really had the feeling I could have gone up to anyone there and started talking and it would have been cool.  There was so much nervous energy in the air that it left people emotionally naked, in what worked out to be a good way.  I didn't get either of their names, and find myself wondering how they did.

-- After you check your bag and have been herded from one corral, to another, to the Verrazano Bridge toll plaza, you hear the national anthem and the elite runners being introduced. Then they fire off a cannon and the elites take off, and the sound system starts playing Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" on a repeating loop at earsplitting volume.  It's hilarious, and completely schmaltzy, and at that moment is just the most emotionally powerful thing in the world.  These French guys behind me were singing along with it and I wanted to hug them.

-- Running over the bridge to start the race, with TV and police helicopters hovering off to the side, the Manhattan skyline in the distance to the left, a few random bridge workers looking on from the side. I read recently where Deena Kastor called it the most exciting starting line in the history of marathons, and she would know better than me, so I have to say that from my limited experience she's got to be right.

-- I'm not going to say in this space that I peed off the Verrazano Bridge. But if you've overhydrated a bit in the start area, and you're jogging along and you see all these other dudes peeing off the side of the bridge, you start to think things to yourself.  And what I thought was, "When else could I urinate off something this tall?"

-- After this it gets blurry. Running through Bay Ridge in the early miles and thinking about how my dad grew up a block from the route.  Slapping hands with rows of little kids alongside the road in Sunset Park.  Picking out friends I had been looking for, and friends I hadn't expected to see, in the crowds along Fourth Avenue in Park Slope.  I waved to my old block on Carroll Street, even though I don't think any of the neighbors there would recognize me if they saw me.  Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene was the loudest, where the street narrows and the people are closer to the race. A high school marching band plays the Rocky theme over and over. In South Williamsburg you get plenty of bemused stares, and the occasional quiet word of encouragement, from the local Hasidic men, who are wearing approximately 50 times as many clothes as you are and look somewhat more relaxed, too.  Up past Peter Luger's, thinking about the hamburger with old friends the other day or the steak for the next special occasion, and under the Williamsburg Bridge toward Northside Williamsburg, where the streets narrow again and the kids are loud. Then Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, with Jay-Z blasting out somebody's window and a bizarre Polish guido dance-rap act performing on a sidewalk.

-- Brooklyn, in short, is just far and away the best borough of the race.  There's this trope that you hear a lot of in the weeks approaching the marathon, something to the effect of, "When you come off the Queensborough Bridge onto First Avenue it will be the loudest cheer you'll ever hear in your life."  Well, no.  When I came off the bridge -- and this, relatively speaking, was near the beginning of the race -- I saw a giant crowd on the sidewalk, staring silent and slack-jawed.  I don't know what they were waiting for, but they certainly weren't cheering.  I hate to do the obvious thing and make the various boroughs' marathon-spectating behavior into a metaphor for their broader personalities, but ... yeah.  Brooklyn was where all the most genuine energy in the city was, and Manhattan was full of people who had heard it was where they were supposed to go, but then didn't know what to do once they got there.

-- Now I'm getting out of chronological order.  Queens was fun.  It's funny how the music along the course varies with the neighborhood.  Heard more than a little unironic metal music in Queens.

-- The Queensborough Bridge is the race's steepest hill aside from the very start, but what's eerie about it is that there are no spectators.  You go from a couple hours of people screaming at you into a zone of relative silence, where the only sound is your own breathing, the breathing of the runners around you, and the shuffling of everyone's shoes.  And you're running on the lower level, so it's basically a dark, quiet tunnel with occasional glimpses of the river and the Empire State Building out the side.  It has a bit of mystique among NYC marathoners, and deservedly so, if only because the vibe is kind of badass.

-- After First Avenue in Manhattan, which does actually get friendlier and louder as you head north and the frattiness quotient increases, you cross over into the Mott Haven section of the Bronx for a mile or two.  The Bronx has a reputation, probably well-earned in past years, for being a bit of a dead spot along the course.  The thing is that Mott Haven is the lowest-income neighborhood the race passes through, and most of the people who could be out watching there have better things to worry about.  But it did seem to me that the Bronx is making an effort to represent, and that gave me a really warm feeling. I tried to slap more hands here, to smile at more people who yelled my name, because I wanted them to know that their presence out there, cheering for an event that really can turn monotonous for a spectator, was appreciated.

-- I should probably explain here that nobody in the Bronx, with a couple of exceptions who weren't present at the race, knows my name.  The thing is that, like most of the runners, I had written my first name on my shirt so that people could see it and cheer for me.  This always seemed a little dumb to me: "If you know they don't know your name, why do you care if they're yelling it?  What difference does it make to have the encouragement of some stranger who has to read your name off your shirt?" Yadda yadda.  Well, I can't fully explain why -- I think it has roots in the early childhood process by which we learn our own names from our parents -- but hearing anybody yelling your name in an encouraging way, stranger or not, feels great.  So every time I do one of these, I write my name on my shirt, and feel silly doing it, and then during the race I'm incredibly happy that I did.

-- The only thing is that by the end of a marathon, you've heard your name shouted by strangers so many times that it has basically lost all meaning and become a nonsense sound.   Still, it was a nonsense sound that was good to hear during the race's hilly last few miles in and around Central Park.  Again, I knew intellectually that when people yelled that I was looking good, they were just trying to be encouraging, and that they really don't know what I usually look like for comparison.  But intellect has no place at this stage of the race, and, while I wasn't one of the unfortunate people walking at this stage, I did think to myself, "There's no way I'm slowing down with all these people watching."

-- And then we ran down Central Park South, and back into the park at Columbus Circle, and it was over. Almost caught Apollo Ohno, but not quite.  Had a nice chat with an Icelandic guy who lives in London while we got our foil blankets.  Shared a mean laugh with a nearby finisher about a third guy who was throwing up by the bag-claim area -- "He made it this far, for that!" -- and then emerged onto a sunny New York City street where it was ok to walk.

My pal Nathan Schiller, who has a literary magazine, published an essay the other day wondering why so many normal people sign up to run marathons.  I don't think he'd mind my saying that he comes up with more questions than answers.  It's a thought-provoking piece and you should read it.

It was rattling around my head in the days before the race, though, partly because of some of the points Nathan makes and partly because it reminded me of other points that he doesn't make.  Nathan -- who is a way better runner than me, by the way, and I say that with no false humility -- is conflicted, and I daresay a little sour, about a lot of the hype, marketing and sentimentality that have come to surround marathons in general, and the New York City Marathon -- pardon me, the ING New York City Marathon -- in particular.  And in some big ways, he's right: The endless selling of shirts is lame, as is the underlying premise of the "finisher medal" that everyone gets, not to mention the mechanically personalized email I got today from race director Mary Wittenberg informing me and every other finisher, "You are incredible -- a champion in your own right!" (This is a woman who was once a nationally competitive marathoner and who knew Grete Waitz personally.  I might be many things to her, if we were ever to meet, but I doubt I'd strike her as incredible.)

I even laugh a little, not necessarily out loud but somewhere deep inside my intellect, when people shoot holes in the concept of the marathon-as-meaningful-accomplishment, inevitably noting the efficiency with which it transfers money from rich, slow white people to poor, incredibly fast Africans.

(There was a part of Nathan's essay that cracked me up, in which he described watching the race go by:
When the three-hour group rolls past, I’ll be wondering if I, too, look that slow. And when all the four-hour-plus marathoners plod on by, with friends and family cheering their magnificent accomplishment (can you imagine how weird it’d be if we did this for our friends’ rec league basketball championship game?), I’ll wonder if they’ll ever run again.
As a three-and-a-half-hour marathoner -- so somebody exactly halfway between "Do I look that slow?" and "Will he ever do this again?" -- I can only imagine what thoughts I might have evoked. Maybe something like, "My God, must he continue with that?")

What I'm trying to say is, this is not a day about which I can feel cynical, or even particularly analytical.  The rec basketball thing is an aside that he probably doesn't mean for people to dwell on too much (sorry), but here goes. All I can say is that the New York City marathon, even leaving aside all the hype, really is different from rec basketball.  In short, It's harder.  And it's nice to watch people try hard things and succeed at them.  It's ennobling, and inspiring.  So that, I think, is why the spectators come out.

As for the runners , I guess I'd point to the entire rest of this post as my personal answer.  The marathon can be a pain in the butt, and too expensive, and self-important and a lot of other bad things, but -- much like a lot of Frank Sinatra -- that doesn't mean it isn't fun too.

I'm reminded of a night, after my first marathon (Philadelphia) when a different friend raised basically the same question.  We were sipping beers, and I was complaining about how sore my legs were and the blisters on my toes, and he said, "Why do people run marathons?" I said something about liking the challenge, and the process of setting a goal and preparing for it, and being a fundamentally competitive person and liking to test myself.

All true enough.  But what I wished afterward that I had said was, "Why do you play the piano?"  It's an equally valid question, and equally pointless.  They're both hard to do, and in both cases the difficulty you overcome is a big part -- though not nearly all -- of what makes them so rewarding.


  1. I smiled the whole time I was reading this. Great race and race report, Jake!