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A different New York Marathon

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when people jogged or ran, it was mostly for the utilitarian purpose of staying fit; running was exercise.

In the last number of years I have noticed that when people commit to run a marathon, there often is a context, a life event that triggers the decision. A story.

And so marathons have become layers of stories, chapters and books of stories; storied people running storied marathons; for inspiration, for symbolism, to assert resilience, or even their will to live. Often, the decision is to run for those who can no longer run themselves.

As you watch the runners run by so swiftly, as you cheer on total strangers, a random quilt of stories — of which you may not know much — threads itself along the course. The T-shirts alone. They read like an unexpected burst of tributes, of love, of obituaries, of gratitude, and of more love.

Pulsing through it all is our vulnerable yet resilient humanity.

As packs of runners pass you by, so does the human spirit in its full grandeur — in some cases, despite the odds, the choice to move forward again, one footstep at a time.

Living in New York City, I see the New York Marathon — the largest marathon in the world. It is part and parcel of November in New York, as much a part of the landscape as the fiery burnished fall foliage colors of Central Park.

A friend of mine who after 15 years of Manhattan living moved to New Jersey — just a few miles from Manhattan — said she knew she wasn’t in the city anymore not when she had to drive her car for even the smallest errand, but when NY Marathon day arrived. If she hadn’t known it was the first Sunday in November, aka New York Marathon day, she would never know it from her community. That’s when she realized, “I’m not in Kansas (New York City) anymore.” The marathon is that ingrained in New York life.

The city that never sleeps, the city where traffic never halts, shuts down. Why? To welcome over 50,000 runners from around the world to throng its streets! Bridges, boroughs and Central Park . . . they’re all part of the famed course.

In fact, it’s not just New York Marathon day itself. I’ve always loved the day after the marathon, winding, seemingly endlessly, in Central Park, which at this point in the season is always painted in glowing sunset colors. It’s usually a perfect, crisp, fall day with that special fall light. It’s like the calm that settles after a storm. People roam the city from all over the world. Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue is packed, from the Met to the Jewish Museum and all the way to Neue Galerie. In the span of five minutes you hear so many languages. People are out strolling with pleasure, their medals hanging from their neck with pride.

As they pass people by, everyone smiles at them knowingly, a congratulatory glimmer in their eyes. Navy blue flags attached to elegant lamps still flap in the wind with the words: “Marathon Route.”

It’s like the isru chag, the post-holiday of the New York Marathon!

So on a micro level marathon running has become somewhat personal. On an individual level it’s often part of a runner’s story — remembering someone, running for someone, overcoming a hardship, or any other inspirational reason. But on a macro level, this year the New York Marathon ran with a story of its own.

It was a troubling week in New York, the site of a terrorist attack by an ISIS sympathizer on the Tuesday prior to the Marathon. Eight innocent people were killed, most vacationers from Argentina on a school reunion trip, biking down the road on a perfect fall day. Many others were injured.

Not too many years back, there was the Boston Marathon bombing. So somehow there is this cumulative affect of marathon-tinged-with -terror that somehow has also become part of the story.

If any terrorists out there thought they were going to shut down New York’s or New Yorkers’ enthusiasm for the marathon, leaving people frightened at home, boy were they wrong.

Aside from the runners, the 50,000 strong who uplifted the entire city, there were the millions of New Yorker’s flanking the route, cheering on total strangers.

This was the story of this year’s New York Marathon as a whole: a show of endless optimism, strength, resilience, unity.

It was about the unified human spirit and its strength as a collective.

That’s who the day — the marathon — belonged to this year.

Certainly, there are the humorous day-after marathon videos of people barely able to walk or function. (I’ve been there, even if only from running a half marathon.)

But in addition to that, and this year in New York especially, beyond the powerful and individual stories of the runners, this year the marathon was the story of a community whose defiant American spirit shined on the streets of New York, still resonating the next day . . . the day after, the isru chag, ready for the stories that next year’s New York Marathon runners will surely bring.

Copyright © 2017 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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