As with just about anything New York-related, there’s a Jewish aspect to the city’s annual marathon, the 26-mile river of humanity that gushes through the five boroughs on the first sunday of November.
For over 30 years, Shearith Yisrael, a historic congregation on Central Park West, has organized a minyan for marathon runners near the race’s start line. This year, three pre-race Shachrit services were held in a small tent next to one of the administration buildings at Fort Wadsworth, at the base of the Verrazano Bridge, where the race begins. There were tables of tefillin bags, and photos of services from years when the race fell on Rosh Chodesh, showing Torah readers decked out in their marathon bibs. A fellow racer helped me put on tefillin, something I admittedly hadn’t done for awhile. The service ended with the shir shel yom, the psalm for the day of the week, which, I noticed, includes the line: Mi ya’aleh b’har Adonei? (Who will ascend God’s mountain?) The words brought on a chill of recognition, even the suggestion of tears. Maybe it was talking about the marathon, I thought. This is a totally solipsistic reading, but those words from the Shachrit service would echo through my head for the next five hours, and longer.
The Verrazano is the only link between Staten Island and any of the four other boroughs, making it a necessary part of any five-borough marathon route. Still, while running along its top deck, soaking in the wondrous absurdity of sharing a giant suspension bridge with tens of thousands of other blissed-out people, the symbolism felt unmistakable to me, as if there were deeper messages built into the course: Up here, you run along a ribbon of light, as ethereal and infinite as Rainbow Road in Mario Kart, threading through archways that welcome you to the very heavens, with the city below unmoving and seemingly uninhabited, as if it isn’t even a real place. But soon, you descend into the disillusionment and corruption of the earth below—including your own. The race is not some out-of-body idyl. The adrenaline, and the unreality of those first few miles doesn’t morph the city into a pure, extra-sensory plane. Really, it’s something more like the exact opposite.
But I could fool myself for the first handful of miles. At mile 2, the race turned into a backstreet in Bay Ridge, where the druggy peals of a Spacemen 3 song blasted from an amp on a fire escape. This was a good sign. On 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, I heard gospel choirs and marching bands. I wondered what the 15,000 runners from foreign countries were experiencing right now. In the midst of a presidential election of unsurpassed rancor and nastiness, a runner from Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy or Mexico (to name just a few of the more strongly represented nationalities) would see our streets teeming with life and spontaneity and guarded by smiling cops and firefighters, with runners eased along its route by over 10,000 volunteers. Along Bedford Avenue, home to Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community, they’d see something that might not even exist back in their home countries: gleaming facades decked in rows of Hebrew lettering, with Kolel students darting down the street as if there were no marathon at all. Over 26 miles, our visitors would run past everything wonderful about New York and America, and perhaps come away with a sense of a sort of innate national decency that not even our horrifying politics could erase. How ecstatic it all was—at least until the living torture of the high teens, when the race really began.
The middle miles brought portents of the trouble ahead. Runners dodged a flattened rat carcass halfway along the up-grade of the Queensborough Bridge—what was the poor vermin even doing there, so far off the ground? A jumbotron at 1st Ave revealed that it was 1:16 PM, a demystifying and disheartening convergence of marathon-time and actual time. I watched a runner get her feet examined at a medical tent and it made me feel a stab of jealousy. The race enters the Bronx at 125th street, and then leaves the Bronx at 137th street, which feels like negative progress. The 20s yielded my most important discovery from Sunday: Running 26.2 miles is exponentially harder than running, say, 22.5 miles. In terms of mental and physical torment, the distances don’t even rate on the same scale (my final time was 4 hours and 57 minutes, a hobbyist’s time, and good for the 33rd percentile).
By mile 21, I had already come to grips with the reality that the race would never end. This was my life now, step after excruciating step. I had chosen this, and now I was stuck with it, forever. The crowds turned from a help to an annoyance: No, you aren’t “almost there” at mile 20, or even mile 25, for that matter. My experience would be a ceaseless torrent of discomfort, with no gratification in store. Perhaps this was just as well, I realized running uphill along Central Park, somewhere around mile 23.
There are events one looks forward to in life—a holiday or a vacation or a Phish concert, say—that seem to flash by before you can process or even enjoy them, and then disappear into a barely differentiated mass of experience. A marathon is the opposite. You feel all of it; during and after, there’s no doubt that the time and the distance is inflicting something important on you, something that you’re glad to have but that you’ve also definitely had enough of. This surfeit of suffering stands in contrast to the great majority of things, which usually don’t live up to the hype: By the end of mile 24, hobbling through a sharp downhill in Central Park, with the crowds and foliage blurring by and the finish line an entire astronomical unit away, I had achieved a kind of satisfaction. A marathon doesn’t disappoint. You feel all of it.
I started to understanding something else about what I was doing and why I was doing it, as I turned past the Plaza Hotel and onto Central Park South, my legs beginning to return to me. I wasn’t running this to prove that I could do it, but because I knew I could do it. Life is an uncertain enterprise, and it offers relatively few chances to fully live out one’s expectations for oneself. But here, I was actually doing exactly that! Doing it within the artificial and perhaps inevitably meaningless framework of an athletic competition—but doing it nonetheless. In draining my own body and mind, I had traveled to a dreamlike realm of supreme control and fulfillment. Perhaps, I thought, this is why I’d seen so many runners with photos of dead friends and loved ones on their running shirts: The race was proof that certainty and control could be reclaimed even within a cruel and arbitrary state of existence. The race was their small rebuke to reality. It would be mine as well, even without a similar adversity to spur me. Who could climb God’s mountain?, I thought, the line pulsating louder as the end approached. Today, it would be me.
Reality returned with swift vengeance. After crossing the finish line, runners are herded along Central Park’s west loop for over half-mile, with a small army of inquisitive medical spotters surveying the human wreckage for any sign of trouble. At one point, I could feel myself falling backwards, as my line of vision angled about 45 degrees upwards. I caught myself, then chugged a Gatorade. Interesting, I thought. So that’s what fainting is like. File that away for future reference. Everything ached; standing up was a cruelty. Somewhere in the seventies along Central Park West, still an agonizing half a mile from the family and friends waiting for me, I sat down on a bench and thought about how much I had seen, done, and felt for the first time over the previous 5 or 6 hours. I mumbled a “shehehechyanu” under my breath, and for the day’s last time, my eyes welled with tears.