The day before the New York City Marathon, walking in Central Park up to the big blue finish line arch and then down the final 800 meters of the race course we’d be running the next day, I said to Syd, “You think we have a shot at winning this thing or what?”
Which is funny because it’s absurd, and it’s absurd because there are only about 65 elite runners in the race, and the rest of the 50,000 people who sign up for the NYC Marathon have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the race. You could argue that we’re all “losers,” although a few dozen people I guess get the fastest time in their age group and therefore “win.” But most of us are not winning in any real sense of the word.
Syd’s calf muscle, prone to painful strains, was a ticking time bomb, we both probably knew, deep down. This year’s NYC Marathon, his 14th, was going to be his last ever—he told me that last year. Which is why I signed up for this year’s race, to run with him.
He was 61 this year, and definitely not hoping for a PR time, just looking to finish, maybe a bit faster than last year, when he got injured nine days before the race, decided to run anyway, and ended up walking almost the entire 26.2 miles and finishing in 6:22.
I wasn’t exactly in the best shape of my life this year either—our baby turned four months old the day I flew to New York, and we of course were getting fairly ragged sleep all summer. And I messed up my back doing too much work too fast on a construction project at our house in August, took five weeks off running, started up again seven weeks before the race, and then did something to my ankle. So I had adjusted my expectations in the week leading up to the race, setting the goals of a) make it to the starting line and b) make it to the finish line.
Syd and I were placed in different start waves, so he’d be on the top of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge for the first two miles, and I’d be on the lower deck. We had the same start time, 10:20, so we made a plan to meet up after all three start waves converged, just after the Mile 4 aid station.
It was hot on Sunday, by NYC Marathon standards: high of 75 degrees, humid, and not cooling off much at night. On my walk to the subway from my hotel that morning, I sweated inside the light jacket I was wearing. I told a friend the day before that the temperature was “inappropriate.”
Syd said he’d probably be doing 11-minute miles, so I tried to keep an easy pace up and down the bridge, and still ended up at our rendezvous point a couple minutes early. Syd shuffled over to me, we took off running again, and three miles later, he winced, immediately stopped running, and announced, “There goes my calf.” It was definitely shitty news, but not totally unexpected. Maybe it would have been nice for it to happen a little later in the race, say, Mile 26.1, or even Mile 16. But there we were. We kept moving, walking at a pretty good clip, talking back and forth, kind of deciding on a plan, which was no plan: We just kicked the can down the road, to make a decision later, maybe. When we had more information. I guess you pretty much know an injury isn’t going to start magically feeling better when you still have 19 miles to go, so the question becomes something like: Can you handle it? Which is a way of saying, “Can you make yourself believe that this is worth the pain?”
A funny thing about Syd: He doesn’t even really like running. He just loves the NYC Marathon, and to gain entry to the NYC Marathon, he does the New York Road Runners 9 +1 program, which means you have to run nine New York Road Runners races in a year and volunteer at one race. So he trains for the marathon, which of course involves lots of running, which he doesn’t like. Somehow, in his mind, the marathon is worth it. Which is hard to argue with if you’ve ever run it.
We walked a lot, jogging some, whenever Syd was up to it. We stopped and talked to Syd’s dad John at Mile 8 in Brooklyn, where he always stands, right before the turn onto Lafayette, and then we stopped and talked to my friend and editor Judy around Mile 8.5. Often, the music, or the cheering crowds, or a string of people holding their hands out for high fives, would send us into a spontaneous jog, and we rode that out until Syd needed to walk again. It is hard to overstate the sheer intensity of the crowd for the NYC Marathon. It does wax and wane a bit, depending on the location, and disappears completely on most of the bridges, but overall, it is a truly singular human experience. It’s a gauntlet of positivity and encouragement, keeping you afloat like a sort of life preserver as you swim through your own fatigue and self-doubt. I will always be mystified at what motivates people to leave their homes to help complete strangers get through a hard thing like a marathon, and why it works so well. I suspect there is some day drinking involved in some cases, but overwhelmingly it’s just a tunnel of joy. There is no opposing team to root against, no quarterback to wish ill upon, no referees to blame when things go wrong, just a bunch of real people with real jobs and real worries and real problems, trying hard for one day, and it has some sort of gravitational pull.
Maybe I should try harder to run faster, but I have such a difficult time giving a shit about my finishing time while that spectacle of humanity is exploding all around me as I move through the city streets: Listening to spectators and runners shout “Mexico!” back and forth when a runner spots someone holding a Mexican flag; seeing sweaty runners in the middle of the sweatiest marathon in years stop at their group of people and give out sloppy hugs before continuing on; hearing people yell encouragement to someone named Mike or Kerry or whoever, realizing they had just read a total stranger’s name off their shirt and decided to cheer for them as they ran by; hearing something in French from the side of the street and then the French runners in front of us yell “Merci!” back; everyone taking the time and energy to high-five little kids. One of the biggest and most frequent joys of the race is witnessing a runner seeing their people on the sidelines, especially when those people go completely batshit for their runner. If you didn’t know better, you might think they all just found out they’d all won tens of thousands of dollars on some sort of game show—but no, they’re just excited for their friend, or spouse, or mom, or kid, who is still upright and moving forward after running halfway across New York.
Syd and I kept persevering, which is kind of the only trick we had in our bag. I didn’t mention quitting, partly because I didn’t even want to speak its name, lest we start thinking about it. I was pretty sure, like 90 percent sure, that Syd was too dumb to quit, which is probably a reason we’re such good friends. But we didn’t need that negative energy, so I kept it out of my mouth, which kept it out of my mind. A couple times, Syd halfway mentioned that maybe I should just go ahead without him, which was a fucking ridiculous idea for many reasons, including a) I would feel like a shitty friend if I did and b) I would have to sit around and wait for him to eat pizza after the race, which is not exactly torture, but is not enjoyable either.
We kept shuffling, over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens where we stopped to talk to Syd’s wife, Debi, and his mom, Trudy, over the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, then over the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx, and finally back into Manhattan over the Madison Street Bridge. Time can drag during a marathon whether you’re running fast or slow, so I tried to keep morale up with jokes and chatter with Syd:
- What do you think happens to all those free Dunkin Donuts beanies they hand out to runners at the start village?
- I mean besides all the ones that end up on the street, which obviously become trash? (some of them end up on eBay, apparently)
- Do they embroider the year on the hats, or do they give the same hats every year? (they put the year on the hats)
- Are they going to have like 30,000 leftover hats this year because it was so warm at the start, and no one needed a hat to keep warm? (possibly)
- Do people actually wear the pink-and-orange hats after they return home from the marathon? (?)
- Wouldn’t it be more environmentally friendly, and also tasty, for them to give out donuts instead of hats? (yes, in my humble opinion)
- How the FUCK is that runner over there still wearing this year’s free Dunkin’ Donuts hat at Mile 18 when it is so HOT? (?!?!?!?!)
I planned poorly and didn’t eat quite enough food before the race, and as an ultrarunner, delighted in the scavenger hunt of free food offered by strangers on the side of the course. Between miles 4 and 26.2, I ate half a banana, three Fun Size Snickers bars, an Oreo, half a glazed donut, a chocolate truffle, and an entire individual can of Pringles from my friend Brian, who I stopped to talk to for nearly five minutes at Mile 20, and who informed me that he stops at Mile 20 of the Philadelphia Marathon every year, walks into a coffee shop on the side of the race course, and orders and drinks an espresso before finishing the race, which I think is a great way to live one’s life.
We shuffled onto 5th Avenue, which I believe is the biggest small hill on Earth, at least when you’re running the marathon, and we walked for a while, starting to jog as we turned right into the park at 90th Street. I expected Syd would get swept up in the energy and madness of all the people cheering in the park and he’d run most of it, and he did. We turned onto 59th Street, the three blocks taking forever even though we were running, and even passing people, and then dipped back into the park off Columbus Circle. We were going to make it.
We crossed the finish line and I pushed the stop button on my watch without even looking at it. Syd and I hugged, then kept trudging through the finish area, where a volunteer handed us our finisher medals, which we then jokingly draped over each other’s heads simultaneously. We shuffled along with the rest of the zombies, and I wondered how many people got the race they wanted. I feel like you can nearly always wonder if you could have gone faster: if you had just pushed a little more, or if it had been a little cooler temps, or if you hadn’t stopped to use the port-a-potty at Mile 14, or if you had trained more or better, or slept better the night before, or been better hydrated, or whatever. I guess it’s always a negotiation between the race you want, and the race you get. I told Syd I was motivated to get him to the finish line so he didn’t have to do the whole thing over again next year. We kept walking as the sun set, everyone moving slowly in various states of disrepair, sometimes congratulating each other, every one of us with the exact same piece of jewelry around our neck, the finisher medal.
I remember a few years ago when it became fashionable to talk shit about giving kids participation trophies, and how they were making kids soft, or spoiled, or lazy, or something like that. Because only winners should get trophies, or medals, and I guess losers should learn to work harder until they become winners.
Right around that same time, I started running ultramarathons. At the finish line of each one, I got a belt buckle or a medal saying I’d finished the race, 31 miles, or 50 miles, or 100 miles. I have a box of them in a drawer in our house, each one in a little bag along with the bib I wore in the race. I don’t have any plans for them; I just wanted to keep them all together, and every time I get a new one, I add it to the box. Each of them is a reminder of a fun memory I made somewhere, running around all day or all night in the mountains somewhere, or running a marathon in a city.
Lots of runners wear their NYC Marathon finisher medals around the city for the rest of the afternoon and evening, and even into the next day, and the day after. I never have, but this year I ended up walking across Midtown back to my hotel in the t-shirt I wore during the race, and I hadn’t taken my race bib off yet. Complete strangers on the street, at the crosswalk, in the elevator, and in the lobby of my hotel saw the bib and took the time to say congratulations—like the city’s enthusiasm for the marathon doesn’t quite stop when the race is over. A couple people asked me how the race was, and of course I didn’t have a fast time, and my friend was in a lot of pain for a long time during it, and it was hot, and I got really dehydrated, and all that, but when people asked, I just said, “ah, it was great,” and I was not lying.
- If you like stories about running, you might like my new book,Have Fun Out There or Not: The Semi-Rad Running Essays, available now, and already beloved by several early readers, including my mom, who said it was “great!”
- My other running book, I Hate Running and You Can Too, has now been translated into German, Slovak, Korean, and Russian and as I understand it, is doing OK in the United States and Canada too
- This graphic resonated enough that three people have gotten it tattooed on them somewhere—thankfully it’s also available on a t-shirt (and a coffee mug)
- All of my running-related t-shirts and coffee mugs are here
- Are you following me on Strava? I have been trying to add more jokes and bad poetry into my posts there
- As always, you can support the running essays and illustrations I make by joining my Patreon (and you’ll get access to free stuff and members-only content)