Applause: The New York City Marathon

by Thomas Beller

11/03/2002

1 e 84th st ny

Neighborhood: Central Park

The New York City Marathon is fun to watch for several 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, as they ran by.

“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.”

We had wandered into Central Park at three o’clock, four hours after the race started. The runners were still thick on the road. Waves and waves of them running South along Fifth Avenue, gulping from little green Gatorade cups that had been thrust into their hands and then 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. I didn’t expect to see him. Still, it was fun to search the throng of runners going past at the 24 Mile marker, focusing on each face to see if it was Jason. I dialed his cell phone, wondering if maybe he was running with his phone, updating people on his progress. I got the voicemail and left a congratulating message. It was presumptuous. He could have been lying on his back somewhere in Queens for all I knew.

Flags streamed past, attached to jerseys, held in hands or mounted 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!” and “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. A faint look of recognition crossed his face, almost a smile. We waved. At the last moment, I saw that he was running with his sister. She had turned, too, a pair of Brown siblings looking my way. 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 someone whose name, no matter how well I know them, invariably vanishes at the key moment. Now I simply watched brother and sister turn to face forward and continue the race, and I could have sworn I saw on her face a look that was a mixture of disappointment and the odd satisfaction people take in things working out the 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 warmed up for cheering, I cheered some more, just for the hell of it. The runners kept coming. It felt like 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. Or maybe the marathon is a form of self-inflicted 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!” It was pure, undistilled encouragement, and amazingly nonpartisan. Applause filled the air the whole time like rustling leaves.

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