Although my running of the NYC Marathon in 2008 is my best marathon experience to date, I still would choose spectating the race over running it. I staked out my cheering corner years ago, at 45th Road and Vernon Blvd, right before the 14-mile mark, and right after the water station and port-a-potties. (Of course this is in Queens.) I now recognize the other folks who cheer there year after year, including the couple with the golden retrievers who bring cartons of tissues to offer to snotty runners (once the fast people come through, they hardly ever get a rejection). This year I was joined by my dear friend and running buddy EN and my TeamFox teammate @nyrunningmom.
I got there at 10 AM, and EN and I passed the time before the female elites arrived cheering on the wheelchair athletes. When we shout “Go athlete!” the wheeled competitors usually give us back a composed wave, as if they were visiting dignitaries. I always get choked up when the first few racers come by, overcome with the scope of the event and also with all the effort, planning and dreaming that most of these runners put in to prepare. These folks train for 4 months or longer–heck, I know people who don’t even date the same person for that long.
Before we knew it, the street-clearing police were whoop-whoop-ing their way past. Mary Wittenberg followed, in the lead vehicle (she waved when I shouted “Hi Mary!”), with the motorcycle cops and the press truck in tow. Here they were, the female elites! I will never get over how quickly they pass, as if they were an apparition. Sometimes I even wonder if they hear us when we cheer for them as there is absolutely no acknowledgment. I was shouting my lungs out for Shalane, I was still yelling “Go Shalane!” when they were four blocks away. She looked relaxed and strong, and I was excited that she didn’t really have to share the spotlight with any other top-notch American marathoners. Even though it was the USA Marathon Championships, there wasn’t much noise made about Katie McGregor (who came in second among all Americans), etc. But I can tell you this: no one was looking for Edna Kiplagat– we were cheering for Christelle, Mara, Shalane, Kim and Derartu. This is what I love about the marathon–there’s no calling the winners at this distance. Who predicted Edna for the win? No one! No one was even talking about her until Mile 22!
It was so much fun to root on the American women running in the championship race, since they all had their names on their fancy bibs. This is when I realized that EN is as much of a cheer junkie as I am–to conclude an exciting round of shouting and clapping he would give his goofy laugh of enjoyment, a staccato Huh-huh, huh-huh that after an hour started to bring a smile to my face knowing my friend was getting as much out of this as I was. It felt right, cheering with the guy who had run stride for stride with me through 23 miles of this same marathon.
Soon enough then elite men were approaching. I was jittery with the excitement of seeing Haile run by me live and in person. I was also cheering for Meb, Dathan and Jorge. And I am always pleased to see Goumri on the course; he is one of my favorite underdogs along with Merga. I wish I could write you a few flowery sentences describing what it was like to watch Haile in action (when I ran the NYC Half-Marathon this spring, I followed far behind him on the course, and never clapped eyes on him), but it was all over in the blink of an eye (#twss). Little did I know that the big pack of runners would break up nearly the second they began the ascent up my bridge. My bridge, which will forever will be known as the Bridge that Broke Haile. (At least, that is how I will now refer to her.)
For the first time ever, I’d made a sign for the runners. I wanted to be as inclusive as possible, but I also wanted all my running buddies from Twitter to spot me easily. After the elites, the first runner I saw come by was my GMR teammate AN, who spotted me before I recognized him. Then @Lord_Baker sped by with a smile, then Coach Ramon, and then the river of runners started to flow. I saw dozens of familiar runners, including TNT friends, GMR teammates, and Twitter buddies both local and from out-of-town. An excellent moment was when Matt @luau stopped to give me a big sweaty hug and take an actual picture! I was so excited when I saw my girl @MauraDeedy trot past–she looked strong and happy her first time through the distance. And another marathon debutante, @SharonPaige, ran by me in a bright green shirt, big white headphones, and a look of calm intent upon her face. I thought for sure I’d missed JG of RunWestchester.com fame, but after a while I saw him walking towards me with a half-smile on his face and his hair pleasantly disheveled. His quads had laid down the law a few miles earlier so he was run-walking until he got over my bridge into Manhattan, at which point he would DNF and head home. His plan had always been to stop running around Mile 16, but since he was run-walking it meant that I got to actually converse with him instead of clap and cheer as he ran by. An odd sort of treat–I’d have rather seen JG run by in a blaze of glory, but I was also happy to chat with him.
And so it went, EN and I clapping, cheering and clanging for nearly four hours, until we were dizzy with the ceaseless undulation of runners approaching and departing. The only thing that would snap us out of our zone was when the wind would pick up cold and strong, whipping my sign and numbing my hands. I felt for the runners, who were headed straight into it. Even though the sun was rising, it felt like the temperature was dropping. I had planned to stick it out until 2PM, but at 1:30 most of the racers coming through were walking, with only a few determined souls running. While rationally I understand that every person is on the course with their own set of goals and expectations for the race, it is difficult for me to cheer for folks walking when they are only just halfway through. My heart breaks to see them, because all I can think of is the difficulty that awaits them at Mile 22, Mile 24, or 26 if they are already walking at 14. I know this is simplistic, and I knew that several of my friends were in that walking horde. I hoped they were dressed warmly. I hoped they had brough their cameras and were treating the race as a pleasure cruise to pass the time. I would never want to be out on the course for 7 hours, which is precisely why I admire those who stick it out for that long. I admit it: my thoughts turned towards my warm apartment, and towards the four hours of TV watching I had in front of me (I had DVRed the broadcast of the pro race on NBC). And so, with a final cheer and wave, EN and I hunched into the wind and trudged down 45th Road to the 7 train to find out who had won the professional part of the race, since clearly all the folks we had cheered on this morning were their own kind of winner.
My spectating didn’t end, though, since I spent my hours watching the taped race catching up with all my friends’ race results on Twitter, and tweeting them congratulations. There were more PRs and successful debuts than their were disheartening finishes. By the end of the day, I was amazed at some of the times my friends had thrown down; I was thrilled by the racer’s ebullience and pride; I was affirmed by the achievements and effort. But most of all, I was proud to be counted among them. We were all marathoners, whether it takes us 3 hours or 7 to complete the race. We are all marathoners, whether we run the distance once, or dozens of times.