The first Sunday in November, when tens of thousands of runners course through Brooklyn, is one of my favorite days of the year. Yes, it starts on Staten Island and eventually detours through Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Manhattan again – but the best part of the New York City Marathon is right here in Brooklyn.
That’s an entirely objective fact.
In the past, I’ve followed the runners from point to point on the course and then hit the Prospect Park Track Club reunion celebration on the Upper West Side, returning home well after dark. This year, for a variety of reasons, I stayed closer to home. But some traditions are sacrosanct; as in the past, I took advantage of the end of daylight savings time to head out early and run Fourth Avenue in the pre-race quiet.
A few other runners – and many cyclists – had the same idea. In fact, I’d say that Fourth Avenue in the early morning hours of Marathon Sunday belongs to the cyclists. They always turn out in force, and who can blame them? Instead of being confined to the garbage-strewn gutter that is the Fourth Avenue bike lane, where death shadows each intersection, you can pedal at speed down a ridiculously broad expanse of ridiculously smooth asphalt.
A second nonnegotiable tradition is a post-run stop at Reyes Deli, on Fourth Avenue between 14th and 15th streets. I order my ritual breakfast sandwich Toluqueño (eggs scrambled with chorizo, topped with cheese, avocado and salsa roja, and tucked into a roll that’s neither too squishy nor too crusty), then hang out and chat with the other customers, a mix of regulars, marathon fans, cops working the event, and Reyes’ own director of marathon security, whose Monday-Friday job is in building maintenance. Come inside with me – there’s time, the wheelers are just starting to go by and the first runners won’t be arriving for another 45 minutes – and check out the scene.
Not much about running yet in this running post, I know! I’ll spare my readers the sweaty selfie – after an easy five miles I was a mess, hair plastered to my scalp, shirt plastered to my menopausal belly, sodden shorts sagging unbecomingly – and hurry home to shower before heading back down to Fourth to await the lead women.
Here they come!
. . . and there they go.
During the lull between the elite women and the elite men, the other spectators and I cheered on the wheelers and puzzled over the identity of the handful of obviously non-elite runners who passed at long intervals, mostly singly, a few in pairs. They were wearing bibs, so they weren’t bandits. Perhaps, I speculated, they were official entrants who for whatever reason had abandoned their race plans and not gone to the start, but still wanted to run a portion of the course unofficially – a shocking violation of race rules and also, to an even more shocking degree, of race etiquette. I resolutely refused to cheer for them.
Eventually, we figured out that these were Mastercard holders who’d paid $1,500 (I looked up the amount later) for the “Priceless” (registered trademark) experience of an early race start . . . for the experience, in other words, of running alone until being passed by scores, and then hundreds, and then thousands, of more talented and better-prepared runners.
This information did not make me any more inclined to cheer for them. On the contrary, I drew pleasure from the pain visible on some of their faces at just 6.X miles. This was especially the case if they were wearing a “Team Mastercard” shirt.
Not only am I stickler for race rules and etiquette, I am also a bitch.
Finally, the official vehicles that heralded the lead men! But where were they? All I saw was one guy.
At this early stage in a marathon, there is pretty much always a lead pack. One runner, or two or three, might be a bit out front; maybe even more than a bit. But in a star-studded field like that of the New York City Marathon, you don’t expect to see one person running with nary a competitor in sight. I could barely make out the line of cars and motorcycles escorting the next group of runners, much less the runners themselves. They were blocks away.
So who was this? A sprinter who’d jumped in for a mile or two for shits and giggles? An unusually fast Mastercard customer?
It was, of course, the Brazilian Daniel Do Nascimento, a sub-2:05 marathoner who made the gutsy? foolish? suicidal? decision to go out at world-record pace. He would lead the race all the way into the Bronx, where he collapsed. Having suffered my own share of race collapses gunning, not for the record books, but for an age group place, I will speak no words of criticism, only admiration and sympathy and relief that, according to his agent, he’s okay.
The rest of the elite men flew by a minute or two later – my signal to take a break from spectating and pick up a few items at the weekly farmers market (oddly untouched by the massive event taking place just a block away) before joining my PPTC teammates at Fourth Avenue and 3rd Street to cheer on the civilian masses.
The character of the race changes completely after the elites, the sub-elites and the fastest club runners pass by. It becomes a festival. And as much as I love and appreciate the purity and elegance and, yes, excitement of the sport of running, for a spectator at the marathon distance, the festival is way more fun. Do Nascimento and his chase pack were in Queens by now; the best way to follow the front of the race would be to go home and turn on the television. But that would mean missing the spectacle of thousands of runners who’d trained (or not, in some cases) to run the greatest marathon in the world streaming through my very own neighborhood.
The French and Italians were back in force. There were runners from Spain and Cataluña, from Argentina and Chile, from the world. There was a teammate (wild cheers, cowbells) and another (more wild cheers, more cowbells). There was a pair of women running together, “Sis” on one of their shirts, “ters” on the other. There was the guy who always runs bare-chested with an Aztec helmet. There were runners filming us (put those phones away, guys, please!). There were blind runners with guides. There were men whose nipples I feared for. There were grizzled masters runners, my heroes.
There were also, as always, way too many runners wearing earbuds. Here is the deal I will offer them: go ahead and run with your music, if you find it helps you, and I will refrain from judging you for it. All I ask in return is that you not put your fucking name on your fucking shirt so that I can save my voice (already hoarse, and there are another three waves of runners to come) for someone who is actually tuned in to the cacophony of the course.
A little before 11am, I went home to catch the finish on television (I knew by then that Do Nascimento had collapsed around Mile 21), returning later to see runners from the final waves. There were more charity shirts at this point, and more people walking, but also wide smiles and wild cheering.
And that was that. I cheered on Wave 4, caught a few runners from the fifth and final wave, and then headed home. I’m on the fence as to which marathon-spectating strategy I prefer – staying put along Fourth Avenue to see the different waves at the same point in the race from morning into afternoon, or hopping on the subway to catch runners as they cover the distance, often seeing the same people multiple times.
What I do know is that come the first Sunday in November, I’ll be out there.