Drama and Passion at the New York City Marathon
The New York Marathon is undeniably one of the great spectacles in sports in this country, winding its way through the sprawling metropolis, clearing everything in its path like a human-powered tornado.
Posted Tuesday, 7 November, 2006
You don’t realize how big a field of nearly 40,000 is until you try to find a single one of them in Central Park after the race is over. Not content to engulf the massive park, the mass of humanity spills out onto the main thoroughfares and side streets in the Upper and Lower West Sides of Manhattan, as weary runners seek warm clothing, food, and loved ones, usually in that order.
This scene contrasts sharply with what a spectator witnessed a few hours earlier, waiting for a runner to arrive in Queens, just past the halfway mark of the race. Then the streets were quiet, as small groups of spectators waited for the participants to arrive. One could not help but be impressed by the cleanliness of this modest neighborhood, in the shadow of Manhattan, which looms just across the river.
Another observation is that of the huge number of people involved behind the scenes in order to allow this drama to unfold in orderly fashion. In just a few city blocks near mile 14 in Queens, dozens of police detail officers are stationed at street crossings, hundreds of children and adults are poised for action at aid station tables, and various and sundry medical, security, and logistics personnel mill about, cell phones and radios at the ready.
The race soon arrives in this neighborhood, unfolding as all major marathons now seem to, with the wheelchairs and hand cyclists leading the way. A lull of several minutes is interrupted by the sound of police motorcycle sirens and a parade of official race vehicles. That means the lead women are about to arrive, given a half-hour head start on the lead men. On this day it is the latter group that is most impressive, as a pack of nearly 30 men speeds by at better than five-minute-per-mile pace. There is strength in numbers, as evidenced by the few that have fallen off the train, helplessly left to soldier on alone.
There will be no more breaks in the action, as a slow trickle of sub-elite men eventually yields to a steady flow of yeomen-like three-hour types (including one former-cyclist-turned-marathoner, now a certified, superstar celebrity), and finally a gusher of humanity that will eventually turn everything so neatly arranged into an unholy mess of discarded cups and gel packets, as well as a sticky, slushy river of water and Gatorade. An energetic young woman, clearly fueled by a double mocha latte, attempts to clear the empty cups from the road with a garden rake, a Sisyphean task if there ever was one. As soon as she has cleared a space in the road, a new avalanche of cups fills it up again.
This scene will be repeated at each and every aid station on the course and at the finish line. By the next day, or perhaps even in a few hours, order will be restored and the roads will be reopened to vehicular traffic. But before then, an interloper makes one last trip past the finish line, now well after 5:00 p.m., when most runners have long since completed the 26.2 miles. But not all. The flow has dwindled to a trickle, as a few hearty and seemingly happy souls troop up Central Park South, completing the final mile of the marathon, now into its eighth hour. These participants seem unbothered by the darkness, the lack of spectators, or the obvious dismantling of course barricades around them. Like the thousands before them, their focus is on the finish line, just around the corner in the park.
By Monday morning 40,000 new and very personal stories will have been created, featuring tales of exultation and euphoria, as well as frustration, heartache, and sadness, dramas the best Hollywood script writers would not be able to match. Placed in proper perspective, it’s almost enough to restore one’s faith in humanity, or least in the power of long-distance running.