Me and a friend wandered into Central Park yesterday afternoon to watch the New York City Marathon. By the time we got there it was nearly three O’clock, four hours after the race started, but the runners were still thick on the road, waves and waves of them running South, gulping from little green Gatorade cups and throwing them dramatically on the ground. Many of them didn’t even look that sweaty, and not because it was chilly. They looked like they’d simply run out of sweat.
I was waiting for my friend Jason Brown to go by, but I didn’t expect to see him. Still, it was fun to search the throng of runners going past at the 24 Mile marker, trying to focus on each face so I didn’t miss him. I dialed his cell phone, wondering if maybe he was running with his phone, updating people on his progress. But I got the voicemail, and left a congratulating message.
The New York City Marathon is fun to watch for a number of reasons.
The leaves in Central Park are beautiful, still on the trees but fragile and colorful.
It’s moving to see the look of physical pain on the runner’s faces.
It’s moving to see that zoned out, exultant look on the runner’s faces.
It’s interesting to watch everyone watching these looks of pain and exultation.
“There’s so many of them!” said my friend.
“There’s thirty one thousand eight hundred entries,” a guy standing next to us said. “And forty percent of the people aren’t from America.”
Flags streamed past, attached to jerseys, held on little sticks; a shaggy haired man in a green T shirt ran by with “Scotland” scrawled in pen on the back of his shirt; two separate men ran by wearing those blue, bell shaped helmets worn by the British police–one was in full uniform, the other just wore the hat, and otherwise was dressed like a runner. I wondered if they were friends.
Lot’s of people held up signs. “Go Daddy!” “You did it Petra,” things like that.
A few minutes later, Jason ran by. I was startled to see him. I started screaming, “Jason! Jason! Yes! Yes!” There was a note of panic in my voice. He turned to search the crowd, cheeks flushed, dazed, but going strong, and we waved. A faint look of recognition crossed his face, almost a smile. At the last moment I saw that he was running with his sister. She turned, too. I searched for her name but in that split second my mind froze, exactly the way it does at parties when it is time to introduce people who’s name, not matter how well I know them, invariably vanishes at the key moment. Now I simply watched brother and sister turn forward to continue the race, and I could have swore I saw on her face a look that was a mixture of disappointment and the odd satisfaction people take in things working out they way they expect: someone had forgotten her name again. I felt bad for a while. “What was her name? Damn it!” I said.
“Carolyn,” said my friend, who had only met her once.
Having heard my own voice call out, and gotten warmed up for cheering, I cheered some more, just for the hell of it. The runners kept coming. I knew them all. There were little eruptions of excitement now and then when some people on the sidelines saw a person they knew, but almost the whole time there was a steady chorus of yells and claps and cheers, and I realized that more than anything else, this steady encouragement between anonymous people was what was making the experience so lovely. It was a bit like that civic cohesiveness that New Yorkers are known for in times of emergency, except there was no emergency.
Everyone stood in one long seemingly endless line on either side of the road cheering for a seemingly endless stream of runners, calling out, “You can make it!” “Good job!” “Keep on going!” Things like that. It was pure undistilled encouragement, and amazingly nonpartisan. Applause filled the air the whole time like rustling leaves.