Best Marathon Ever.
Best Experience Ever.
Until last weekend, whenever anyone would ask me which of the marathons I had run I liked the best, I would always answer, truthfully, that I really couldn’t say, that they were all different, that I liked such and such qualities about this one and this and that about another one. No more. The New York marathon is my favorite. Hands down. No contest. It was the best marathon I’ve run and one of the best all around experiences I’ve had. Ever.
First, a little about New Yorkers. The stereotype about New Yorkers is that they’re loud and rude and in your face. The loud and in your face part is most definitely true. But I think it’s based on a certain comfort that comes from living in a place that’s so dense and so full of different kinds of people. If you’re not worried about people thinking less of you because you have a different opinion, then why hold back? Why waste everyone’s time with decorum and insinuation? Just throw it all out there. Once you scratch a tiny bit below the surface, it becomes clear that New Yorkers are as kind and friendly and caring as any group anywhere. And when all of the New York noise and energy is focused on something as positive as a marathon, the result is something truly spectacular.
Each runner in the New York marathon was assigned to one of three “villages” near the start, next to Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island. To get there, you could either take a bus from the various boroughs or the Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan. I took the ferry. The experience was surreal. Before sunrise, thousands of runners, all wearing fancy running shoes and ratty, used throw-away clothes from the Salvation Army (to keep warm before the start), streamed silently up the escalators to the ferry terminal. The atmosphere was calm but intense, with everyone excited in anticipation of a long race, but measured, knowing that the first runners wouldn’t be leaving the corrals for over three hours. The ferry had a police escort boat next to it. The sun started to rise while we were crossing the river. The Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty were beautiful.
The start villages were like carnivals. Thousands of people milled around, stretched, had snacks, waited in line for the port-o-potties. Music and race day rules repeated in loops on giant video screens. Dunkin Donuts gave out free coffee and warm, cotton winter hats. (Genius marketing move – brainwash people when they’re cold and tired and psychologically vulnerable. Whenever I see a Dunkin now, which, in Boston, is usually about 35 times a day, I feel warm and happy and like I want to spend all my money on breakfast sandwiches and munchkins).
The course started at the base of the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island, crossed into Brooklyn, went through all of Brooklyn and a chunk of Queens, over the 59th Street Bridge (now renamed the Ed Koch Bridge) into Manhattan, all the way up 1st Ave. into the Bronx, back down 5th Ave., into Central Park at 89th Street, out onto Central Park South, back into Central Park at Columbus Circle, and ended near 69th Street.
50,304 people ran this year’s New York marathon. And it was estimated that 2 million people were out watching along the course. What that meant from a runner’s perspective is that every foot of the course, with the exception of the bridges, was lined with spectators standing shoulder to shoulder, sometimes four people deep. There were bands on almost every block – so many that the music often ran together and you couldn’t even make out who was playing what. DJs, folk bands, metal bands (one orthodox Jewish one), several Grateful Dead cover bands, drum circles, a gospel rhythm section playing a slow jam outside of a church (if you’re ever going to convert me, that’s the way to do it), bluegrass jam circles, marching bands, folk singers, karaoke, reggae bands, and lots of good ol’ banging on garbage can lids. The noise level ranged from loud to complete sensory overload.
The spirit and energy from the crowds was like nothing I have ever experienced. Several times, I was so moved by the almost hysterical emotion coming from the crowds, that I gasped and teared up and had trouble catching my breath. The power of New York crowds turning their focus on runners slogging through the streets was overwhelming. No polite clapping and quiet approval here. Thousands upon thousands of people, block after block after block were just letting it all hang out. People screamed at individual runners, whether they knew them or not. “DAAAAVVVVVE, you GO!” “Oh YEAH lady with the flower print tights, you KNOW you’re looking GOOOOOD!” “Oh my GAWD you all are KICKIN AAAAASSSSSS!” A yuppie with a sport jacket and loafers was jumping up and down so hard that his cell phone dropped out of his pocket and smashed on the street. Hipsters lost their cool and screamed like little kids. In Central Park South, almost at mile 26, when the runners were out of gas and really looking ragged, the crowd was still deafening. People on the sidelines looked so genuinely concerned and proud and yearning, it felt like every one of them knew each runner like family and had some deep, personal stake in helping him reach the finish.
After the race, volunteers draped bright yellow fleece ponchos over the runners to keep them warm in the crisp November afternoon. They were like angels. Walking down the Upper West Side, strangers said congratulations. The barista at a Starbucks next to the Wall Street bull gave me a free coffee. The bell captain at the Doubletree Hotel where we were staying was so excited to see me come back after the race he was almost screaming at me – “oh MAN, you ran 26 miles!? That is CRAZY! MAN!” After dinner at a fancy restaurant in Chelsea, the waiter brought me a desert, on the house, with “congratulations” written in chocolate on the side of the plate.
I don’t know if an experience like this could happen anywhere else. New Yorkers do things big and they do them loud. I love running because it’s so simple and natural and good. And to run a race where the human spirit is so powerful and distilled and focused upon something so positive and happy – the feeling is almost beyond description. Pure elation. People can do horrible things to one another. But they can also be so good to one another and so supportive that your faith in the whole human race can’t help but be uplifted. Thanks for the show, New York! You sure know how to make a guy feel good.
Here’s Alec Baldwin talking about the New York Marathon. Whoda ever thunk this guy could get me all emotional.
Here’s a touching video of Meb Keflezighi talking about breaking down and having to walk during the race. Depending on how you look at it, you could say that I beat him. Technically, he finished the race 1 hour and 23 minutes faster than I did. But he had to walk a little starting at mile 19, and I didn’t have to walk until mile 24. It’s really a tough course.
Here’s a documentary about Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York Marathon. He was just a weird, quirky dude, and not a very good runner, who started organizing events, which morphed into the marathon. The course starting going through all five boroughs, including the Bronx, in the late ‘70s. Not a time when skinny white runner dudes usually ran voluntarily through the Bronx.