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On spectating the New York City Marathon
with fresh eyes

Words by Devin Kelly
Photography by Itai Epstein

Stand on 1st Avenue on the first Sunday of November, and you will see a lot of people. Thousands, actually. Some of those thousands will be right next to you, yelling, screaming, holding signs that are just huge, enormous faces, or signs that say touch this for power, or signs with Star Wars references — do this, you can. Some will be clanging cowbells, banging pots and pans, waking up the people a few floors above who somehow managed to sleep through all the first, initial noise. The noise of another crowd waking up, stretching, brewing coffee, and then wandering out from their various apartments and homes, to find their way to Staten Island.

This year marked the first year I haven’t run the New York City Marathon since 2013. Actually, that’s a lie. I missed one year, 2015. I had been diagnosed with a stress fracture high up on my femur just a few weeks before the race. I was in the best shape ever. When I got the diagnosis, I was so sad that I left the city, too bitter and dejected to watch thousands of others run my race. So, what I mean is that this year marked the first year I really, truly made an effort to spectate the New York City Marathon.

I have also been hurt this year, and underwent surgery on my knee nearly nine months before the marathon. Two months before, I was given the go-ahead to jog again, for just a few minutes at a time, a couple times a week. There was no disenchantment or disillusionment when I woke up on Sunday, November 7th. I dwelled in those rooms months before, and had come to the long, laborious, and complex peace of not knowing exactly what my running future might look like, if it might look the same as it once did. And besides, a couple of my friends were running, and my girlfriend, who loves spectating the marathon with an absolute fervor, wanted to show me how such spectating was done. I was ready to tag along.

When you consistently run and train for marathons, each race takes on this all-encompassing position in your mind. It looms in the distance, at first just a slight lump upon the horizon, but then, as you get closer, it becomes the mountain you have made of it in your imagination. You scaffold up your training from months away, and then, a month out, the race dominates your psyche. You find yourself shaking your legs as you stand, bouncing up and down on your toes. You don’t want to think about time, but it’s all you can think about. You enter, in essence, the tunnel vision that comes with any act that beckons your obsession. There’s a beauty to this, there really is. But there’s also any obsession’s drawback. When I have run a marathon and fallen off the pace I have wanted for myself, I’ve gone through long moments of absolute fog, forgetting the cheers alongside the road. I have felt, in those moments, so sorry for myself that I have forgotten that I am doing something I love. 

And yet, when I found myself standing on 1st Avenue a few Sundays ago, clutching a thermos of coffee, waiting for the first runners to make it down the road, love was the overwhelming, collective sensation. For the city, for each other, for what we were about to witness. We were  about to celebrate something. A couple stood next to my girlfriend and I — one of their children knee-high, clutching a small mixing bowl and a wooden spoon. The little boy banged one against the other as a DJ set up down the block and more people began to gather, holding homemade signs. Then the professional women ran by, and I almost cried. To have the opportunity to watch anything phenomenal up close is a beautiful thing. There’s this desire for stillness, a longing to stop time, and dwell in the extended present moment of someone doing something transcendent. But then, it’s just a second or two later, and the moment is over. The runners are already gone. 

One beautiful thing about the marathon, though, is that the runners keep coming. The small packs of professionals that run past — and the anxious energy that comes with waiting for them — are replaced by a steady stream of runners.  It reminded me of a moment from Colson Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys, where Whitehead’s protagonist talks about watching the marathon and loving those “who weren’t running the course but running deep into their character.” Here in the city, as Whitehead writes, “Everybody was around and by some miracle you didn’t want to wring their neck but give them a hug.” I found my mouth open the whole time, screaming with just my throat at first and then, at my girlfriend’s urging, with my whole body. Some runners had their names written on their singlets, or written on tape they then affixed to their chests, and I screamed those names. I screamed the names of the countries some people wore emblazoned on their shirts. I screamed beard when I saw a beard. I screamed amazing. I screamed wow. I screamed yes.

I was following along with the progress of two of my best friends, ones whom I had run with in college. When they came by, I hopped the fence that was no longer there and ran alongside them. It wasn’t far but it was beautiful: to be running with my friends again, yes, but also to be an intimate spectator to their own act of endurance, to yell one of my friend’s names at the crowds and ask them to yell it back to him. They did. They always did. They yelled mustache at my friend’s mustache. He laughed and ached. We all did. 

When I pulled off, I thought about how, years before, distraught through injury, I chose not to watch the marathon. I felt, at the time, obsessed with the idea of testing my own limits and measuring my own ability to set new limits. I also measured my relationship to myself by my own ability to meet or exceed those measurements. I didn’t understand that such acts occur within a collective network, that there is a dependency to life, and that acknowledging such a dependency offers volumes of inherent value. What I mean is that, sometimes, watching feels just as beautiful as doing. And always, watching is its own kind of doing.

It was watching that allowed us to witness the people whose suffering formed these deep lines on their faces and the people smiling through their sweat and the people wearing not a single shirt and the people with shirts wrapped around their waists. The people running and the people walking and the people running, then walking, then running again. People, always. Always people. Every so often, someone would spot a friend in the crowd and their friend would spot them and they’d yell and cry and hold their hands to their faces and hug and say oh my god or I can’t believe it or you’re doing this and then the hug would be released and the runner would go off again, on their journey.

I thought of the times I had run a marathon and chased a fast time, and how, when I eventually blew up, my pace slowing, my dominating thought was one of shame. I’d feel ashamed to be running slower than I had planned, and I assumed everyone knew that. But the truth is that no one knows, or cares. When you’re caught up in that tunnel vision of your own obsession, you don’t see what’s really happening, which is nothing, really. You might be slowing down, but you’re still part of this beautiful celebration. There are tens of thousands of others, and you’re not alone — you’re with them. If only I had offered myself more grace, I thought, while standing again on 1st Avenue, I would have had more fun. To escape the tunnel vision, to witness the world in all of its celebration and sorrow is also one way of understanding and maybe even forgiving ourselves. In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell writes: “Perhaps the granularity of attention we achieve outward also extends inward, so that as the perceptual details of our environment unfold in surprising ways, so too do our own intricacies and contradictions.” And when we know ourselves as such contradictory, complex beings, ones who succeed and fail often in the same breath, we have an easier time joining in our own celebration.

And it’s that celebration that’s on display during a marathon. That joy. That deep, abiding sense of the collective that I wish extended long after the race ended and people resumed what we all resume each day: our ordinary lives. As Colson Whitehead asks in his novel: “Who wouldn’t celebrate that?” I walked down 1st Avenue and saw shufflers and walkers and stop-and-starters. We yelled what names we saw, and gave high-fives. There were those who stared into the sky with absolute longing. There were people, you could tell, who were holding the thought of something precious in their mind, who seemed to be running for something so pure and powerful that it might make their heart the size of an elephant if that were possible. And there was one runner, I remember, who came up to us and pointed at my friend’s scarf. The temperature was dropping. It was starting to get dark. It’s a beautiful scarf, the runner said, and, without even hesitating, my friend took it off his neck and held it out for her. Do you want it, he said, and she said yes, and it was hers. 

We are met, each day, with the various limits of our various individual existences. Maybe life is not about turning inward in the face of those challenges and trying to determine how we can each break those limits. No. Maybe life is about turning outward to acknowledge each person’s daily act of trying in this collectively trying world. Maybe life is, in part, about celebration. The best part about spectating the marathon was that I could watch it for so long. It felt like forever. I didn’t have to be caught up within the narrowed focus of my own vision and thought. The lens widened: there was so much happening, and so much of it was beautiful. And the worst part was that, when the race ended, and the last runners made their way down 1st Avenue, it ended so quickly. Barricades were lifted. People shuffled back home. Cars rejoined the street. The next morning, there was only the faded blue line of the course to mark the fact that the marathon had happened. We offer ourselves these moments of pure, collective joy, and then we go back so quickly to being ourselves. I wish it weren’t so. I think we often forget that witness is part of the beauty of being alive. I forget this all the time, caught up as I am in being myself. I’m still thinking about that scarf, though, the joy of watching such a small act of kindness. As I write this, it’s cold in New York. I wonder if that runner is still wearing it now.