New York City Marathon for the Masses

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

marathon05.jpgNew Yorkers are abuzz with their Yankees back in the thick of the World Series here at the end of October. The annual first of November New York City Marathon is also running its 40th edition on Sunday and New York is as crazy for the event as it was in its early frenzy days of the 1970's. For the second year, more than 100,000 applied and 40,000 will step up to the starting line at the Verazzano Narrows Bridge, prepared for the pain that will come from running 26.2 miles, yet also anticipating the adrenaline rush from passing through dozens of lively, cheering neighborhoods, from Staten Island, through Brooklyn, into Queens, up into the Bronx, and finishing in Central Park in Manhattan.

For the many years I lived in New York, I remember the Marathon as one of the days that pulled the whole city together. Much more inclusive than a sporting event, it's a collective experience of diversity and hope. And, even though many great world-class runners have graced the city streets with their beautiful strides and incomprehensible speed, the heroes of that race have always been the ones to come to the finish line much later, at the very brink of their limits.

Recently a college cross-country coach was quoted in the New York Times saying that to run a marathon in six, seven, eight hours is a joke and that there used to be pride in saying you ran a marathon but not anymore, now that people are clocking such slow times. Well, to pick just one among thousands, I remember when Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee went on a weight loss campaign a few years ago, largely to encourage citizens of his state to get in better shape and no longer rate as America's fattest state. Governor Huckabee ran the New York Marathon in 5:33:43, wearing bib #110, signifying the 110 pounds lost during his fitness campaign. So I guess this cross-country coach would say his effort that day was meaningless. He was so darn slow. Yet he sure meant a lot to the folks down in Arkansas by doing something difficult, something neither he nor his constituents had ever imagined his overweight, out-of-shape self could do.

The marathon is an Olympic event, true. And in that setting, it's a special two-plus hours whereby the men cover the grueling distance at an unfathomable pace of under five minutes per mile, the women at just over five minutes per mile. And in the great city marathons around the world, the elite are protected from the masses so that they can compete and still clock those fleet-footed miles, but from Berlin to London to Hong Kong to Chicago, the masses are the races' raison d'etre. In many circles, running a marathon has landed on the list of things to accomplish before one dies.

There is one elite, or at least formerly elite, runner to mention for Sunday's race. That's Joan Benoit Samuelson who won the first-ever women's Olympic marathon twenty-five years ago, 1984. I had the great fortune of riding in the ABC motorcycle side car in covering that historic race and thus watched Joanie stride for stride over those 26.2 miles through the streets of Los Angeles. She wasn't the classic distance runner. Short legs, short stride. But tough as nails. Her concentration was so intense it seemed as though she didn't blink for the 2 hour, 24-minute duration.

Since the year Joan Benoit Samuelson won that first Olympic gold medal, the number of individuals to finish a marathon in the U.S. yearly has quadrupled, to 425,000. Over that time, both men and women non-elite runners on average are covering the distance about 45 minutes slower. Who cares? Speed isn't the point. The soul of the marathon is to finish, regardless of time.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad