Sunday was the New York marathon. I'm not an athlete; I get winded just briskly walking the mile to the racecourse to cheer on my friends. But there's something inspiring about watching people accomplish that thing they've wanted to do for years, that thing they've trained for and anticipated for months. That thing that to complete requires some sort of superhuman PUSH, determination like no other.
I reached the corner of 110th street and 5th avenue just in time to cheer on a childhood friend who was racing the 3 hour clock. People were shaking bells, blowing horns. A band played "Hero" in the shadow of Duke Ellington's statue -- "is this encouraging or depressing? I can't tell" -- and cops kept the spectators flush with the curb. We caught sight of our friend a block away, and screamed his name. In seconds he was gone, and I moved down to 108th, where I ran along with Tracie for a few blocks and encouraged her that she'd get to have a beer when it was all over.
There aren't a lot of spectators at 108th. In this stretch of 5th avenue, there are casualties. Many runners pressing themselves against lampposts, trees, walls, working the kinks out of cramping muscles. Their faces are red, strangled. Postures slumping. It's a mostly silent place, the band in the distance, the sound of sneakers on concrete and the passing huffs of those who are still on their toes. There are dry-heavers and people with a dead look in their eyes. It's a horrible sight. Which is why I like to stand there, in that dead zone, clapping my ridiculously loud (eardrum busting!) clap. Telling these people, these broken dry-heaving people, that they can do it.
I don't know the psychology involved, but I've heard from various marathoners that it helps to hear people just call out their name as a bit of encouragement. Something in me tells me that if I were doing something particularly difficult, and someone shouted "way to go Zan!" I'd feel bolstered. Or at least pretend to be. So I started shouting out the names of strangers.
Who knows if it was me, but I counted at least three of these strangers who were walking by the time they hit 108th street, who heard my ridiculous clap, my lone "you can do it!", looked at me, and their expression changed from the dead despair of defeated men to the inspired confidence of runners. And they would start running.
I think long-distance runners are their own brand of crazy. But they do it because they love it, or because they feel compelled to. And wouldn't we all like someone to tell us we can do whatever we love, whatever we feel compelled to do. If we just push past the hardest part. If we have someone there to help us push. Even when we're at the point of breaking.
(A special congratulations to Tracie, Chris, Till, Edison Peña, Greg, Kafi, the man who pointed to the greenery and asked if this was Central Park, the two runners from Hong Kong consulting the route map like lost tourists, the three walkers who became runners, and the man in a banana suit holding maracas. You all make me smile.)
Elsewhere, as close as I'll get to athletics: I discover the meaning of "action jeans."
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.