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The Sweet Taste of Humble Pie

You're never the same after the New York City Marathon.

By 10.31.02

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The 33rd New York City Marathon will be run this Sunday. Each year the race organizers pick a motto, and this year's is simple: "Love It." To the uninitiated, this must seem like a command instead of a sentiment. But for most of its runners, loving the Marathon is easy.

There are many things to love about the New York City Marathon, and they have been well documented elsewhere. A few bear repeating.

Most of the superlatives you've heard about the race are true. It is the biggest (or nearly the biggest), and it must be the best, because it's in New York, isn't it? It is among the most democratic of marathons, where elite runners from around the world share the course with 6-hour marathoners, wheelchair entrants, thousands of first-timers, and no shortage of awe-inspiring runners with prosthetic limbs, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and other grim conditions.

It's true that the crowds in the streets of the five boroughs of the City seem to be cheering just for you -- and it's true that when you hit the dreaded "Wall," they will cheer even harder. People really do run the race in full costume -- Gumby, Batman, the Blues Brothers, Bugs Bunny, and so on. It's true that marriages have taken place on the course, and it's true that most people cross the finish line. And it's true in some degree that running the race, and finishing, is an adventure in discovering one's inner reserves, overcoming adversity, and all those other marketing phrases so common in the age of extreme sports.

BUT NOW THAT WE'VE gotten that out of the way, I want to talk about the real magic of the New York City Marathon, and why so many runners Love It. They love it first because like all marathons, it is humbling, and human beings are naturally attracted to experiences that bring us face to face with awe. Even if the experience is painful -- and you better believe there will be a generous helping of pain -- most of us emerge with a sense of gratitude, not only for having made it, but for being divested of certain illusions.

I'll give you an example of what I mean. Some years back, I made the mistake of swimming on the wrong part of a beach in Mexico. It was high tide, and I was eager to do some body surfing, but in no time I was caught in an undertow that felt like a force field. I was very fortunate to escape with my life, and I have never viewed the water in the same way again. Standing on the beach afterwards, looking at the surf that had so wanted to ingest me, I still didn't feel quite safe. The old lines of Coleridge -- "A sadder and a wiser man/He rose the morrow morn" -- never rang so true.

At certain points, running a marathon is like being caught in an undertow. I have run New York five times, and each year there has been at least one point when my struggle to survive in Mexico became vivid in my mind. Besides the physical and spiritual similarities -- the floundering limbs, the breathlessness, the desire for someone to help you -- there is the common thread of futility. You realize that you are alone and facing opponents that never lose -- the great ocean and the great distance.

One emerges from both situations with a profound respect for the laws of nature. As with my feelings towards water, I've never carried the same sense of physical invincibility after my experiences in the marathon. Arrogance is not possible when the ocean is reminding you that you're puny, or when the quad muscles in your legs feel like steel bands and you have still 10 miles to run.

The difference is, futility in the water means death. Futility on the marathon course means a slower time, or if worse comes to worse, dropping out. Fortunately, I have never had to do that, though I came close once, when muscle spasms caused the region above my knees to vibrate like a player piano. The thought of dropping out, however, has been something like the thought of suicide was for Sartre -- a frequent consolation to get me through some trying moments.

But you never want to drop out of a marathon if you can possibly avoid it. And in New York City, with as many as two million people lining the streets, there is no place to hide.

This is the second reason why runners love New York -- it combines challenge with public exhibition. The crowds in New York are enormous, and though most runners talk of them with wonder for the encouragement they provide, if you're not feeling so hot they can be intimidating, even unwelcome.

Other marathons have sparser crowds, and some, like Big Sur in Carmel, California, have almost none, presenting an entirely different set of challenges. You are deprived of the morale boosts cheering crowds can give you and have to run through your hardest moments alone. On the other hand, you are also given a much more private setting in which to quit. On mile 20 by the side of some mountain, you might still have your pride, but nobody's watching if you want to pack it in. It's that old story about the difference between one's private and public behavior. What New York does is collapse the distinction. You're on stage, and your public persona is you.

This realization tends to become most clear when you are most desperate. Among marathoners, the infamous "Wall" is that point in the race when your reserves have been depleted and you are forced to get by on will. The Wall is said to occur anytime from mile 20 onwards. Sports physiologists have determined that after 20 miles, even conditioned runners will have depleted the glycogen stores in the blood that they spent weeks building with carbohydrates. Glycogen is stored fuel that can be readily converted to glucose for energy. When its reserves are gone, the body starts to produce lactic acid instead, which is responsible for making your quads scream, among other lovely things.

Of course, there's no rule that says you can't hit the Wall before mile 20. In New York I have done so as early as mile 15. That's a bad place to feel tired -- on the Queensborough Bridge that takes runners onto First Avenue in Manhattan, famous for its cauldron of sound. If you hit the Wall at that point, the First Avenue crowds will seem less like a cheering section and more like a mob in the Coliseum, as hungry as the lions. So what if they're yelling encouragement; it still feels like a public execution.

On the long journey north on First Avenue, the crowds thin and the exhilaration diminishes, and the desperation of your condition slowly dawns on you. If you do manage to make it through First Avenue without "blowing up," as the jargon goes, you eventually reach mile 20 at the Willis Avenue Bridge, where the race moves into the Bronx. This is where the undertow really grabs you, and the only sensible goal, as in the water, is to survive.

BUT FOR ALL OF THIS, YOU get to a point in New York where you know you will finish no matter what, if you literally have to crawl to the finish line. Forgetting about your pre-race aspirations, you are now pushed along by a perhaps more powerful motivator: Shame. Your life is not at stake, but it feels like some aspect of your character is. This is the effect of the public nature of the race. For some, the crowds are a salvation. For others of a more severe turn of mind, they are a chastening. Either way, they will push you along.

This is also where the marketing phrases about overcoming adversity are true, but only as a minor premise. The marketers leave out the main idea: that you overcome adversity in order to survive, not to win. Winning went out of your mind miles ago, and I don't mean winning as in finishing first. I mean winning in the way the race's organizers and boosters position it -- as a triumphant, life affirming growth experience, etc.

I understand why they speak of the race this way. How would you recruit people to run the marathon if you spoke of it like I do? But the true spirit of the marathon for me is encapsulated in a story of the Civil War. After a battle in which they suffered horrid losses, General Sherman said to General Grant, "Well Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" To which Grant replied, "Yeah. Lick 'em tomorrow, though."

Running marathons is about losing, and going forward anyway. You do that enough in life, and you will go far. I'm not sure if you will grow, or if you will have new insights into yourself, or if you will even want to run the race again. But when you cross the finish line in New York, you won't just be humble, you will be tough, because you will have gone through a great public trial.

That's worth running a race for, I'd say. That's worth loving a race for, I know. If you don't believe me, just remember I left out the fun parts on purpose.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.