Keep Fit: Notes from a New York City Marathon Spectator

Kara Goucher at 125th Street during the 2014 New York City Marathon.
Kara Goucher at 125th Street during the 2014 New York City Marathon. Photo credit: Kelly Laffey

It was 8:30 a.m. on Sunday in New York, and Third Avenue was empty. Even Starbucks, the earliest of early morning locales, was closed, apparently for lack of a barista.

I wanted to yell to the few souls walking around the wind-blown expanse that was an eerily deserted Midtown. “Do you realize that the most elite distance runners in the world will run up First Avenue in two hours? That the first American male to win the Boston Marathon since 1985 is running here today, just two blocks east? That a Wake Forest alumnus is vying to be the top American contender, and she’s one of the few elites who also has a full-time desk job?”

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My cries to ignite excitement over the TCS New York City Marathon didn’t all fall on deaf ears, as a friend soon joined me in a nearby—open—Starbucks, and we hashed out our plans for optimal viewing.

For as much as I love the idea of the marathon, I’ve never run one (it’s on the bucket list), nor have I watched one. But I love everything about marathons. I love that the roads are closed for upward of seven hours to accommodate people of all levels. I love that marathons are both a place of intense competition and a place where you’ll never hear anyone boo a competitor.

We wanted to focus on the former, competitive aspect, catching the elite women (our running idols) at as many viewing points as possible. We were particularly pumped about cheering on Annie Bersagel, the former Wake Forest runner who works as an international peace lawyer in Oslo, Norway. She graduated before I came to school, but I’ve been inspired by the interviews she gave before the marathon. “A lot of people bloom later,” she told The New York Times last week, commenting on how she’s largely flown under the radar. “And having a shoe contract doesn’t necessarily make you the best.”

Whether you’re a runner or not, it’s hard to line the marathon route and not become a dreamer. The Active Times just named the New York City Marathon the best marathon in the world. Here’s the best way to take it all in:

1. Meet friends at the Starbucks on 59th between 3rd and Lex. Become excited that Starbucks has finally released the holiday cups. Fish the napkin that you still have from the Jitney ride out of your bag. Borrow a pen from the barista, and start mapping out your plan.

2. Google the PR (personal record) of Kara Goucher, your distance running idol. Figure out when she’ll be at Mile 16, just down the street at 59th and 1st. Contemplate the feasibility of catching the elites again when they’re uptown; and again as they circle around the Bronx and down 5th Avenue. Execute Phase 1 by jogging over to Mile 16.

3. Make a plan for how you’re going to cheer for Annie Bersagel, running just behind Kara Goucher. Settle on “Go Annie!” “Go Wake Forest! “Go Deacs!” and agree to start the chant when she passes the first orange cone.

4. Watch the first wheelchair runner cross the bridge. Become both humbled and inspired. Cheer like crazy.

5. Receive text from another friend who got stuck on the subway that she’s coming. Cross fingers that she makes it to 59th and 1st before the elite women pass and the group sprints to the subway.

6. Turn around to find the once-lost friend. Teach her the Annie cheer.

7. Run to 3rd Avenue and dive into the first cab you see, using all three available doors. Inform the cabbie that you’re chasing down the elite female marathoners. Speculate who you think will win.

8. Marvel at the cabbie’s ability to assess the immediacy of the situation. Dodge traffic so wildly that it feels like you’re in a video game. Fantasize about being a contestant on The Amazing Race. Put on seat belt.

9. Get out at 125th and Third. Wait for receipt from cab. Run to 1st Avenue. Situate yourself in the front row. Realize that this, Mile 19, is a huge hill. Watch the lead pack of elite women pass. Cheer like a mad woman. Recognize Kara Goucher’s stride as she runs up First Ave. Spot Annie a minute or so behind her. Scream “Go Deacs!” and get excited that there are few people around to drown out your cheers.

10. Race to 125th and 5th. Wonder if you can cover the .7-ish miles in the same time that the elite women can cover close to three miles. Make it to the front lines with a minute to spare. Cheer for the women for a third, final time. Watch them disappear into the distance. Wait in anxious anticipation for the elite men to show up.

I’ve always thought that the end of Daylight Savings Time, and its invitation to allow darkness to encroach, is the worst day of year. But this year, it fell on the same day as Marathon Sunday. And instead of lamenting the coming winter, I’m inspired.

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