From the sidelines of the 2019 NYC marathon

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My sentiments exactly

Here it is, delayed by my traditional post-marathon trip (look for a report on Brooklyn in Texas, coming soon) and general laziness: the view from the sidelines of this year’s NYC marathon. Seeing as how I presume to publish a spectator’s guide every year, it only seems right to share how my own spectating went down.

Pre-race – an odd encounter

I began the day, as is my custom, with a run along the Fourth Avenue segment of the course, from roughly Mile 7 in Park Slope to Mile 2.something in Bay Ridge. Thanks to the end of daylight savings time (daylight savings time is a fraud and a scourge, as far as I’m concerned, and I look forward to its end almost as much as I look forward to the marathon), I was able to set out in full light a little after 7 am. As I ran, I kept a rough count of the people I saw along the course. In descending order of frequency, they included:

  • Race volunteers (thank you, all of you)
  • Cyclists
  • Cops
  • NYC Department of Transportation trucks and personnel (so that runners would have fresh, sticky asphalt to step in, which I suppose is marginally better than potholes)
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Musicians
  • Other runners
  • Skateboarders
  • People telling me I was going the wrong way (only two this year, well under the norm)
  • A guy wearing a marathon race bib, seemingly doing strides on 92nd St

The last comes with a story. I called out a greeting to him (probably something wildly original, like, “you’re going the wrong way”), and he surprised me with a question:

“Do you know who I am?”

I didn’t have a clue. He was about my age, about my height, reasonably fit, reasonably pleasant looking, and absolutely not ringing any bells.

“I’m the Chicago Marathon . . . ”

Oh my God, I thought, it’s the Chicago Marathon director – Corey, isn’t it? Last name starts with a P? Or is it Carey? Something Polish that starts with a P, I’m pretty sure. Keith and Kevin’s friend. But he was the director ages ago, is he still there . . .

” . . . the Chicago Marathon hero. I disarmed that guy with the gun.”

I was mortified to be unaware of a shooter at the Chicago Marathon. It’s true that I’m not following distance running the way I used to, but how could I have missed that? Was it even possible? Was this guy just messing with me?

“Wow,” was all I said. And then, maybe, something like, “take care, and have a great race.”

I still couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t already at the start, or how he planned to get there, but then, what did I know about the ways of heroes who disarm shooters?

Still embarrassed by my ignorance (someone with a gun at the Chicago Marathon? really?), I found a quiet, sheltered corner and turned to Google. Yes, there was an incident on a train on the morning of the Chicago Marathon. And there was a picture of the guy, next to a story in the Boston Globe entitled, “Mass. man, no stranger to heroic actions, disarms gunman on Chicago subway train.”

I felt as though I had brushed greatness, and then brushed it off.

I ran back along 92nd St, hoping I’d catch sight of the guy again, and sure enough, there he was. I ran up to him, breathless, in fangirl mode: “You know, I didn’t really know your story when you first mentioned it, but I was looking it up just now, and wow! What you did was really amazing.”

And then, I am embarrassed to say, I asked if he’d pose for a selfie with me.

He did, I thanked him and wished him well, and then we ran our separate ways. I did see him again on Fourth Avenue on my way home; I pushed myself to catch up with him and said something complimentary about his pace, which he either didn’t hear or ignored. Not wanting to be a stalker, I let him go.

Perhaps the New York Road Runners had comped him a last-minute entry to the NYC Marathon, I thought. That would have been a nice gesture, though I still couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t at the start. Perhaps he just wanted to avoid the hoopla, the inevitable accolades, the tiresome requests for selfies. If he was planning to jump in along the course and do the race as a fun run, well, why not? It seemed to me as though he’d earned that right, and then some.

Around 45th St, I called “time” on my run and ducked into the subway, where I did some more googling as I waited for the R train. The story of the Chicago Marathon subway gunman was just a bit more complicated than the few facts I’d gleaned from my first, quick, street corner look. Yes, the incident took place on the morning of the marathon, at a station near O’Hare. Yes, there was a gun. And an aggressive panhandler, whose gun it was. Perhaps his jacket fell open or his shirt rode up, exposing it to view. Perhaps he flashed it deliberately and menacingly. Perhaps he waved it. Perhaps he pointed it at someone. Perhaps he wasn’t an aggressive panhandler at all, but a mugger, an armed robber.

Accounts differ.

What’s clear is that no shots were fired, and we’ll never know if shots would have been fired or not, because what’s also clear is that the man I’d met jumped the guy, pinned him against the door of the train, and wrested his gun from him. Another passenger may or may not have assisted.

Still and all, it’s pretty impressive that someone on their way to run a major marathon would intervene to disarm a potentially dangerous assailant – impressive in a normally courageous way, and doubly impressive for the willingness to throw away one’s pre-race routine and risk one’s race plan (you must be a marathoner to fully appreciate this). Except the Chicago Marathon hero wasn’t actually registered for the Chicago Marathon; it took internet running sleuths about five minutes to ascertain that the bib he was wearing was for the 2016 race, and belonged to someone else. Nor had he run the race 12 times in the past, a number that popped up in press accounts. In fact, if the race records are to be believed, he hasn’t run it once – at least not legally. 

Suddenly, his presence in Bay Ridge instead of Fort Wadsworth, and the (now that I thought of it) faded and wrinkled race number pinned to his sweats made more sense. The grinning selfie I’d taken with him earlier now made me sad, and a little queasy, which is why I’m not posting it here.

But I still hope he had a great time banditing NYC, and a safe subway ride afterwards.

The race – new food, familiar faces

I know what you’re thinking – enough heroics! What did you eat on Marathon Day, Linda?

My carefully thought-out food intake plan ran into a few snags; the day was not the moveable feast I’d enjoyed in years past. Yafa Cafe was still in the process of opening up on my outbound run-by – no worries, I’d catch it on the way back – so my first stop was Pasticceria Rocco at the far end of Bay Ridge. After years of watching them set up on marathon morning – employees were struggling to carry dangerously heavy urns of scalding coffee and hot chocolate out to the sidewalk when I arrived – I had never actually tried their acclaimed cannoli. That’s my loss. My order of a single mini-cannoli seemed to puzzle the woman behind the counter (was it my incredible self-control that left her nonplussed, or my cheapness?), but she filled it individually, with care, and once I had eaten it, I kind of wished I’d ordered a box . . . or at least a large one.

I can also report that they offer plenty of milky sweet seasonal beverages (chestnut latte with whipped cream, anyone? how about pumpkin tea?) and some pretty wild pancakes (coconut honey bran? espresso chocolate coffee crumb?) that didn’t appeal to me but might to you.

The main reason I’d limited myself to one mini-cannoli wasn’t self-control (ha!) or even cheapness, but because I was anticipating a square – or maybe two – of Yafa’s Yemeni honeycomb cake on my return run. It was a crushing disappointment to discover that the honeycomb cake was still in transit as of 8:30, by which time I was starting to check my watch and calculate the time I’d need to shower and change and get down to Fourth Avenue to catch the lead women.

Honeycomb cake-less, I backtracked to Panadería Don Paco López for a consoling and healthy, if somewhat mysterious, green juice (there’s pineapple in there, I know, and celery; parsley, perhaps? or kale? nopales? what else?), then hopped on the R train. There’d be no empanada filled with arroz con leche from Inés Bakery for me this year, nor (I checked my watch again and swallowed hard) a Mexican breakfast sandwich from Reyes Grocery. It was time to transition from eater to spectator.

Showered and dressed in warmer layers, I made it to Fourth Avenue and 6th Street at 9:35, just in time to cheer for the elite women. Eric having very sweetly offered to stop by the Fifth Avenue farmers’ market to pick up a loaf of Orwasher’s pumpkin challah (available in limited quantities for something like four weeks a year, weather permitting, that bread provokes scheming, queuing and hoarding behavior worthy of a Soviet-era Muscovite), I was free to amble on down to the official PPTC cheer section at Fourth Av and 3rd St to await the lead men.

They blazed by at 10:15, more or less, followed by the stragglers among the elites and a few foolhardy, brave or grievously underestimated runners with non-elite bibs, followed by the best club runners, and just a bit farther back (the gap keeps shrinking every year), our own PPTC stars. At 10:30 on the dot, the 3 hour pace group passed, and the number of ordinary mortals – many wearing shirts with their national colors, or their names, or customized messages (“When will Andy stop doing marathons?”), or even costumes – increased. Around 11:00, the crowd of runners thinned out – Wave 1 had mostly passed, Wave 2 was just beginning to hit – and I headed for the G train and Greenpoint.

Greenpoint has become one of my favorite viewing spots, for the relative intimacy of Manhattan Avenue (so much narrower than Fourth), its abundant food options and, by this point in the race (it was a bit after 11:30 by now), the mix of runners from the first two waves. Those wearing Wave 1 bibs looked pained, as though they were regretting their overambitious goals, their poor pacing, the lies they’d told NYRR and themselves to get their starting position, their flawed training, their consumption of alcohol and fried food, their choice of shoes, their life choices in general, their choice to run a marathon in particular. Those from Wave 2, in contrast, looked strong and fast.

I saw my teammate, Frank DeLeo, slight and lean and running in sandals. I saw runners I didn’t know, but for whatever mysterious and arbitrary reason remembered, from my earlier spectating post along Fourth Avenue: the guy with long, flowing black tresses, the older man running for the Ayotzinapa 43, the man whose shirt asked when Andy would stop doing marathons.

I was hungry by now, feeling my non-consumption of Yafa’s Yemeni honeycomb cake and Reyes Grocery’s eggs toluqueño sandwich. What I wasn’t feeling was a yen for Polish food. Yes, Greenpoint is a historically Polish neighborhood, and yes, Polka Dot Cafe is charming, but weren’t my annual visits there on Marathon Day veering perilously close to cliche? As fate would have it, the first storefront I saw when I turned away from the runners was Xi’an Famous Foods. Their Greenpoint outpost has been open at least as long as I’ve been doing these spectator write-ups, but I’d never ventured inside.

Suddenly, hand-ripped noodles in some sort of spicy sauce were the only thing in the world I wanted to eat.

It was a good choice. My Mt. Qi pork noodles were slippery and savory, tinglingly spicy and invigoratingly sour, warming and delicious. Ravenous, I slurped them up with abandon, flailing my chopsticks, raining droplets of red pepper broth onto the counter, down my shirt . . . and into my left eye.

Once in my life, on a late night picket line during the Detroit newspaper strike of 1995-1997, I blundered into a cloud of police pepper spray. This was much worse. In searing pain, unable to see at all on the left and half-blinded on the right by the pain, oh my god the pain, I stumbled for the restroom (where the hell was it? where was the light switch? why did I care about the goddamn light, since I couldn’t see, anyhow?). Somehow I found the tap and flushed my eye with water, which seemed to spread the pain without diffusing it. My eyes – the left, for physiological reasons, the right, out of sympathy – brimmed and overflowed, but there was no crying away the pain. Each time I blinked, willing the tap water and tears to wash away those fiendish flecks of devil pepper, I felt a dozen needles stab my eyeball. What on earth had I been eating?

Not soon enough, but eventually, the pain abated. I could see again. I blew my nose and returned to my stool at the counter, where my abandoned backpack was still propped, thank god, and my bowl still held a few noodles in a slick of red sauce.

Naturally, I finished the bowl.

Outside, runners continued to stream past the 12-mile mark. It was 12:20 as I headed to the Greenpoint Av station, and the race’s winners had already crossed the finish in Central Park. But still they came, in their hundreds and thousands, Waves 3 and 4 mixed in with Wave 2 now. Runners from Wave 1 were mercifully few (do the math of twelve miles, 9:40 starting time and 12:20 current time, and shudder at just how bad a day those few were having).

I used my time on the (crowded) G train to the Court Square station to decide whether to watch a bit of the race in Queens, or continue on into Manhattan. I checked my watch, along with my phone’s fast-dropping battery, and opted for Manhattan via the (more crowded) E and (most crowded) 6.

In the past, I’ve run back and forth on 116th between First Av (to catch runners at the 19-mile mark) and Fifth Av (to catch them between miles 22 and 23). It’s the best place on the course to toggle back and forth between runners at different stages of the race – because, believe me, those 3-4 miles and two bridges warp time and space on Marathon Day, stretching and bending it, opening cosmic rifts, aging the runners and hurling them, dazed, toward the faraway galaxy called Central Park.

This year, I found myself feeling unexpectedly weary (perhaps the incident at Xi’an had taken a toll?) and headed straight for Fifth Av, where I planted myself for the duration. Once again, I recognized a few runners whose faces or outfits had stuck in my mind (look, it’s Snow White from Greenpoint!). Mostly, though, I was struck by what seemed to be a breakdown in race decorum. The police tape cordoning off the course had been stretched and trampled so thoroughly it might as well never have existed. Spectators ventured farther and farther from the curb, narrowing the space for the runners. More than one person – then more than two, then more than five – crossed the avenue, forcing runners to swerve.

Seriously, people, what’s your problem? If you have no alternative but to cross the course, you should do it like me: find a gap, jump into the race, and jog alongside the runners, passing them steadily but not ostentatiously, as you make your way to the other side and quickly step onto the sidewalk, feeling exhilarated and thinking that maybe, just maybe, you have another marathon in you.

Post-race – cowbells and sweaty embraces

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The 72nd St station at 5:13 pm on marathon day

My illicit quarter-mile on the course put me on the right side of Fifth Av for the subway to the PPTC post-marathon reunion and party on the Upper West Side. Whether I’m running or watching, this annual event makes me feel a little sorry for all the people I see on the street, trudging and limping and shivering despite their blue ponchos, who aren’t heading for a warm elementary school full of waiting family and friends and friends who are like family. I took on cowbell duty this year, which meant standing outside the door with my PPTC cowbell at the ready, then ringing it like a madwoman as each new finisher approached, signalling the people in the room to get ready to cheer their fool heads off.

Times were recorded, junk food was eaten, hot chocolate and Gatorade drunk, sweaty embraces and stories exchanged. It was dark by the time I left, but the sidewalks, subway platforms and trains were still packed with blue ponchos – and back in Central Park, finishers continued to cross the line, giddy despite the pain.

I don’t know about them, but I can’t wait til next year.

1 thought on “From the sidelines of the 2019 NYC marathon

  1. I loved reading this and the Chicago guy story definitely threw me for a loop. After 5 years of watching the marathon from Brooklyn (well, I ran 2 of those) and specifically from my old apartment on 4th Avenue, this was the first time I’ve spectated from my new home base in Manhattan, after volunteering in Central Park in the morning. I’m happy to say I found a nice little coffee shop near 130th and 5th with warm drinks and tasty snacks. I thought of you and ways I can make the experience more dynamic in future years, particularly with some shuffling between 1st avenue and 5th avenue. Cheers!

    Like

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