Last Damn Bridge

This is a story about being convinced to do something ludicrous and surviving to tell the tale. A few months ago, a friend told me that he had decided to run the NYC marathon and that I should sign up to run it too. I gave my knee jerk response whenever a crazy person asks me to do something crazy. Yes, it was something I’ve thought about attempting. Yes, it was something on my someday/maybe list, but there was just too much going on. How could I possibly find time to train for this thing? Never mind the impossible task of running way farther than any mentally stable person should ever run in a single sitting. What kind of father would I be if I was away from my kids that long to train? I was reaching.

I told him I’d think about it.

I mentioned it to my wife, and she passed the news on to her friend, thinking I’d be talked out of it by her husband who had run the NYC marathon before. This backfired gloriously. When he heard I was “thinking” about it, he was flabbergasted that I was considering not running. You have to do it, he said. It’s not going to get any easier as you get older. Plus, you have to always find ways to push yourself. He used the Life’s Ticking Clock and Always Better Yourself arguments on me which I am utterly powerless against. I went home that day, signed up and spent much of the next several months cursing those two scoundrels who had talked me into this mess. Preparation took a lot of early mornings, an astounding amount of support from my wife and a healthy dose of my mind breaking. Still, on race day, I felt physically and mentally prepared. Excited even. Yet, ready as I was, I was not at all prepared for what I actually experienced on November 5th.

This was my first marathon. Now, for all the crazies that keep asking me when my next one is, let me pause here to state, for the record, that calling it my “first” marathon is not meant to at all imply a series. Still, I can see why people get addicted to these things. That day was one of the best in my life and not for any reasons of personal achievement. Quite the opposite in fact.

Let me explain.

Over a million people braved the rain to come out and cheer. Thousands of people volunteered to get this logistical behemoth done. Over fifty thousand people finished the race and I was honored to be in that good company. These things are not just random numbers to me. I will always remember the feeling of all those people united in a common cause. Even immediately after the start cannon went off, I felt this all encompassing sense of one as the self drifted away.

After running over the Verrazano bridge to start the race, in the first breath of space where a person can stand, there is someone there cheering. Then, there’s another. And another. People are cheering for you the entire race and offering high fives to complete strangers. I heard my name yelled over and over through all 26.2 miles even though I started several thousand people behind the runners who actually knew what they were doing. It took me a couple of miles before I stopped turning to try and figure out who I knew that was calling me (I had my name on my shirt).

People from all walks of life came out in droves, in the rain, to cheer on complete strangers. A million of them.

In Brooklyn, there was a woman who brought her children to shout encouragement as we ran by. Her kids held out these big metal bowls filled with halved bananas. Whenever a runner took one, they cheered like they just saw Spiderman. In Queens, there was a group who would all chant the same runner’s name to give them a last boost of encouragement before going over the Queensboro bridge. One of them would pick a name out and the group would start chanting it over and over. They were probably a little (or a lot) drunk. I saw over a dozen live bands. There were people playing classic rock, punk, hip hop. There were marching bands. A lot of people with bongos. On 1st Ave in the 60s and 70s there were people 5-6 deep, pushing up against barricades to cheer. It was there that I saw my wife and my kids. Spotting them in the crowd and pausing to give them quick hugs and kisses is pure liquid magic and a moment I will never forget.

Just before we ran into the Bronx, the crowds thinned a little and there was an older man standing on a street corner by himself. He kept saying, over and over, “Good job. You’ve got it. Keep going. Almost there.” It was too low to hear until I was only a few steps away. It was like he was trying to personally say it to each runner.

There were signs ranging from cut and dry encouragement (Go Runners!) to hilarious (Run Like Mueller has dirt on you) to obscure references that I was proud to get about 50% of the time. I slapped several posters with Super Mario Bros extra life mushrooms and I swear, each one shaved 20 seconds off my finish time. My personal favorite sign came as we left the Bronx to re-enter Manhattan. A woman proudly held one that said “Last Damn Bridge.” That sign looked like it had seen many marathons. She had perfectly captured what we were all feeling. I gave her a tired thumbs up and she waved the sign so much I was worried she was going to go over the railing. She and all the fans were just as much a part of the day as the fifty thousand finishers, if not more.

Right there is what it feels like to run this thing.

That day, I had fully shown up for my life and I wasn’t alone. There were parts of the run where I was focused only on myself and it made every step significantly harder. I focused on every ache in every muscle. I thought about how far I had to go and the upcoming hills. Thoughts of slowing down started creeping into my head. What brought me back to the present and back to the experience was the shared energy. Every time I started dragging, I’d angle closer to the crowd and I no longer had to run by myself.

At no point was I alone.

I ran with the names of cancer survivors and victims on my shirt. I felt every one of them with me the whole way. I had prints of my kids’ hands, strategically positioned by my wife so it would feel like they were pushing me forward. I was surrounded by runners shouting encouragement to each other. I saw more flags than I could count. I saw blind runners. BLIND runners. My personal pains did not seem all that meaningful. We were all in it together. The crowds, the runners, the volunteers, the people cheering on from further away. Everyone was just one small part of this literally breathtaking enterprise of the human spirit. I saw all ages and shapes and races united in a common purpose. Some people cheered on specific runners and each runner was intent on getting themselves across that finish line. Yet, we were all part of something bigger. We were part of possibility. We were one.

Far too often we’re reminded of the divisions between us; divisions by political party, by geography or religion. Divisions by gender. Divisions by race. Humans are tribal by nature but we’ve lost the sense of finding your tribe by common ground and instead look to define it by who is excluded. As I plodded through each borough, no one cared what political party I support. No one cared about my economic status or which church I go to or what my stance on gun control is. People cheered and people ran and sometimes people did both and there was no room for division. We’re all on this rock together, like it or not, and at the end of the day, despite our differences, we’re way more the same than different. People just want a good life for their kids. People just want their life to have meaning. People want to feel loved. People want to cheer on other people who are working hard towards a difficult goal and people want to believe that they can do great things.

I crossed that finish line and I breathed deep into that feeling of unity. Then, I wanted more. Perhaps not more marathons because I do like to pretend at some semblance of sanity, but more common ground. More community. More unity. Most of all, more calling people to task when they would have the audacity to try to take those things from us.

That last part is important because things don’t get better if we spend all our time thinking everyone’s viewpoint is valid, even the ones who are trying to harm or exclude others. Things get done when we put the gloves away to find a common place to start from but take them back out when someone is trying to salt that ground before we can even get started.

These are things you have to work for. You know, I hate it when people run a marathon and then all of a sudden everything is a damn running analogy, but anyway, finding the common ground is like training for a race. It’s grueling. If it came easy, everyone would do it. It takes practice, preparation and above all else, discipline. Even when the thing you’ve been training for comes, it takes even more effort to deliver. You can’t expect to just show up and have some grand sense of unity. You have to practice it all the time and you have to resist the negative influences pulling you in the wrong direction. More than anything else, that’s what I learned from the marathon and I’m grateful for being talked into it, if for different reasons than I expected.

Thanks for reading.

PS – if you like my writing (or I suppose even if you don’t) please consider donating to one of the many charities that are involved with the NYC marathon. I personally ran with Fred’s Team and I cannot recommend them enough as a worthwhile cause for your money. If any of this has inspired you to enter your own race, (and I’m now one of those people who will suggest that you do) then I’d wholeheartedly recommend them as a cause to run for – their support of runners is outstanding.

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