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The cheering started many hours before the race. I’ve read that 10,000 people officially volunteer for the marathon, and a cluster of them stood just past the row of bomb-sniffing dogs in the terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan where we boarded the 6 a.m. ferry to Staten Island. I spent most of the 25-minute boat ride waiting for the bathroom—there is no higher concern for a marathon runner than taking care of that, and also there’s not much else to do—and then walked through the mall that anchors the other end of the ferry route, to a schoolbus where I sat over a wheel well with my legs tucked up under my elbows. Two Australians sat behind me trying to reckon with a friend’s hatred of golf.
We drove in a mysterious, hilly loop around a neighborhood of vast and haunted Victorian mansions before arriving at the second, and by no means final, police perimeter of the day. Friendly cops examined the clear plastic bags in which we’d brought our belongings; a man in uniform with an assault rifle scrolled on his phone. I found my way to the Orange Village—each wave of runners is divided into three colors, with a corresponding start area on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge—used one of the 1,500 surrounding portable toilets, waited in line for a miniature cup of Dunkin Coffee, meditated, ate some overnight oats prepared by my boyfriend, designated the spoon I had used to eat them lucky, and tucked the spoon into my half-tights for use in all future races. A cannon blast indicated the start of the first runners, the pros, and I made another swing at the bathroom, whose queue was long and almost slow enough to make me miss my own wave—an unnecessary risk, given that there were yet more toilets in the starting corral where they cloistered us for the last half-hour before our own start.
I’ve never managed to adjust for the effect that race-day adrenaline has on my perception of speed and time, and I found myself passing other runners on the uphill half of the bridge, well ahead of my target pace. Some of them passed me back on the way down into Brooklyn, and I let them, knowing steadiness would be my friend even if I stayed aggressive on speed. The screeching malconent of a tendon in my knee made itself known with no delay whatsoever, and I nodded to it like an unpleasant neighbor. Don’t engage. Clean slate today.
In Brooklyn, Fourth Avenue stretched ahead for miles, and all of them were full of runners and lined by spectators. I mean without a break, an indistinct and plenteous infinity like early CGI of ancient Romans parading. I metronomed through the whole borough, still ahead of goal but feeling like I wasn’t pushing too hard and that, anyway, the later stages of the race would pull me back. In the Fort Greene and Williamsburg neighborhoods, the sidewalks so teemed that people spilled into the streets, laughing and high-fiving and dancing and, honestly, getting in the way. But there was neither time nor vibrational margin to begrudge them. I passed James—in a custom-made jersey with my name on it—and my mom near the L stop at Bedford Avenue and blew them a kiss, and James’s video of me shows someone enraptured, buoyant, a boy.
You get through half the course before you leave Brooklyn, by way of a modest bridge into the Long Island City portion of Queens—the race’s third borough, where I felt my body downshifting out of a surprisingly long period of exuberance. Here the long slow runs I’ve done all year became useful, because I knew there would be no need to stop if I found the right pace. In the miles after the halfway point I dropped gradually to about 7 miles per hour, from 7.5, and stayed there through the end.
The roadway on Queensboro Bridge, to Manhattan, at first slants up like the deck of a parking garage where you’ve lost your car but you’re also on mushrooms and/or in a nightmare. I’d always pictured this famously difficult portion of the route as being on the tiny, perilously intermingled pedestrian/bike path off to the bridge’s edge, where I’d done all my practicing, but of course for this they’d closed the road. By now I was feeling socked, and worried about a long slide into oblivion, but I got to the top and canted downward instead into the loudest wall of cheering yet.
There’s a video of me slugging it up First Avenue, doing an impression of someone with remaining vitality, arms lifted for the camera as if trying to express triumph in a language to which I’ve just been introduced. Nothing about the rest of the race was easy. All of it felt at least a little uphill. My knee hurt, but so did everything else: hamstrings, elbows. It turns out you can’t use a hydration vest at the marathon, and so this sweaty giant found himself sweeping little sip-cups of water from roadside volunteers like an apatosaurus foraging Costco samples.
“Who are these people cheering for?” I thought an hour/year later when I turned into the park off Fifth Avenue. (When did Fifth Avenue become a mountainside?) “Well, Michael,” I replied by way of calculating but well-intended encouragement. “They’re cheering for you.”
There comes a point when it’s too late to stop and too late to slow down and too late to worry about how painful everything is and too late to be irritated that you can’t enjoy the glory of this because you’re so dementedly fatigued, and this point lasts roughly forever, past a whole profusion of signs indicating comical increments of distance, and then after one last stab-in-the-gut incline you can see the finish line, and your boyfriend and mom are shouting your name and you smile again in the video of that moment as if some part of you, deeply, still perceives the astonishing fact: You’re alive. Not just alive at the end of the marathon, but alive in Central Park and alive in New York City and alive on Earth and alive in the essence of being and, just to boot, aware of it. The part of you that perceives this has the sense and the remaining, maybe perpetual, vigor to know that even if the outer, exhausted, worried, beleaguered you can’t name it, that’s the whole equation for joy. And people have always known this in their bodies even if they couldn’t get to it in their heads. And that’s why we have the marathon.
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