Sunday, November 6

The New York City Marathon

While most of us are just getting out of bed or trundling off to church this morning, more than a million people will flood onto the streets of New York City for the thirty-sixth running of the ING New York Marathon. About 37,000 of them will actually be participants in this remarkable human drama of sport, will, determination, tragedy, and triumph. It will be the world's largest field on the world's largest stage for one of the world's toughest accomplishments: running 26.2 miles from the Fort Wadsworth staging area on Staten Island, across the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn, up through Queens, across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, along the East Side into the Bronx, back down the West Side to Central Park, and finally to the finish in front of Tavern on the Green.

Yesterday's New York Times had a great op-ed piece by Alan Zwibel, the former Saturday Night Live writer. His brand new novel, The Other Shulman is about a man who runs the New York Marathon in an effort to save his family, his business, and his life. His observations are worth noting:

"Today, I am sorry to say, I will not be running in the New York City Marathon because I've been out promoting my novel about a man who is running in the New York City Marathon and I didn't have time to train. I didn't run in last year's marathon either because I was busy writing my novel about a man who is running in the New York City Marathon and I didn't have time to train. I did, however, run in the 2003 New York City Marathon. I trained hard for that one. I joined a running group, did stretching exercises, watched my diet and finished in 33,517th place. A half-hour slower than the time of my previous marathon, for which I didn't train as hard.

I harbor not even the slightest embarrassment that while I was running, a person could have gotten a full night's sleep. Or have consecutively boiled 130 three-minute eggs. Or that while I was still hauling my 53-year-old carcass through Brooklyn, the winner had not only crossed the finish line at Tavern on the Green but was probably already on a plane back to Kenya.

None of those things bother me because my goal was modest. All I wanted was to finish. To allow the cheers of the crowds carry me through the five boroughs and allow me to revisit some neighborhoods I hadn't seen since childhood. In effect, a tour. I knew my limitations and had no illusions that by dint of a good night's sleep I would miraculously get a burst of energy and become the new winged symbol for FTD.

So at the start of the race, I lined up toward the back of the pack for pretty much the same reason that cowboys, if given the choice, would prefer to be behind the horses during a stampede. And after the gun sounded, it was thrilling being a part of a 35,000-strong throng moving en masse across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on a beautiful November morning.

I also appreciated the wit displayed by my fellow marathoners who had shunned the traditional running shorts and T-shirt and were dressed, oh, let's call it unconventionally, for the 26.2-mile journey. Among them was a bride, a man wrapped in an American flag bouncing red, white and blue basketballs, a one-legged waiter carrying a bar tray with a mug of beer attached to it, Abraham Lincoln, a surgeon and what I believe was a deli clerk. It supplied added color to an already colorful event, and I didn't even mind when they all passed me--figuring that they were either better runners than me or might eventually drop out of the race when they felt their joke was over.

The polar bear did bother me, however. A lot. Whether it was a thin person wearing 200 pounds of white fur or a very fat person wearing a tight furry sweater, I'm not sure, but I first noticed him when he scampered past me in Williamsburg where he was given high fives by Hasidic families who ignored me when I eventually came upon them. Was it possible that, as they were snubbing me, he turned back in my direction and waved at me before turning around and disappearing into the masses ahead? No, I figured. He was probably waving to an amused child who had called out to him or to another tundra-dwelling mammal that was also running that day. So I proceeded along and figured I had seen the last of him because there was no sighting in all of Queens.

Manhattan was another story. For when I came across the Queensboro Bridge, panting and carb-depleted, I turned up First Avenue and spotted him again. Leaning against one of the refreshment tables that are stationed at every mile marker and eating a bagel. The thought that there were still 10 miles to go until the race ended in Central Park was, indeed, a daunting one under normal circumstances. But after a polar bear makes eye contact with you a second time, gestures as if offering you a bite of his sesame bagel, folds his paws in front onto his chest and does an Arctic jig before turning around and heading uptown, you can't help but feel stupid. And unathletic. So I grabbed a bagel of my own and took off. For the sake of accuracy, when I say "took off," I mean that I trudged along in the same direction determined to catch up--which I almost did when he waved to me after he drank some Gatorade in the Bronx, after he had stopped to play the harmonica with a street band in Harlem and after he crossed the finish line about 50 yards ahead of me in Central Park.

To this day it is hard for me to believe that someone dressed as a polar bear actually beat me in the New York City Marathon. Yes, I know I said that just completing the race was victory enough and it was. Still, once this book tour is over, I plan to start training for next year's marathon with another goal in mind--to finish ahead of anyone dressed similarly so my children will stop laughing at me."

My sentiments exactly!