The world’s biggest marathon is more than just a race. It offers the illusion of unity.
Among the many events scheduled during the lead up to Sunday’s New York City Marathon, Friday evening will once again include an official opening ceremony and a “Parade of Nations.” The idea, as race director Peter Ciaccia told Outside in a recent interview, evolved from what was previously known as the “Friendship Run,” in which international visitors congregated outside the U.N. on the day before the marathon and proceeded to the finish in Central Park. The updated version includes national delegations, costumes, and flag-bearers, creating an ostentatious display of global unity. For any other race, it would all be a bit much.
But the New York City Marathon is a spectacle of such magnitude that you can’t help romanticizing it. It’s as if anything on this scale must signify more than a mere footrace. New York is the largest, most internationally diverse marathon in the world; last year, 50,000 runners from 139 countries took part. Rather than a gunshot or starter’s horn, the race commences with a cannon blast, releasing the masses across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. With all due respect to the aesthetic appeal of London’s Royal Mall or Berlin’s Siegessäule, no marathon photo compares to an aerial shot of the Verrazano on race day.
The initial ascent of the Verrazano is the first of many hills that mark New York’s challenging, bridge-filled course, which navigates all five boroughs of the city. Indeed, New York is not what one might call an “easy” marathon, but, as with Boston, its most difficult sections, including the vicious climb of the Queensboro Bridge at mile 15, are essential to its lore. Flat courses may be more conducive to fast times, but if you want to up the competitive drama there’s nothing like a few late-race undulations to see what someone’s made of. In 1983, New Zealand’s Rod Dixon was two-and-half-minutes off the lead with only six miles to go; by chasing down Britain’s Geoff Smith in the hills of Central Park he pulled off the ultimate comeback. And in last year’s race, it was on the climb up 5th Avenue just before entering the park that Shalane Flanagan broke away from defending champ Mary Keitany of Kenya to become the first American woman to win in New York since 1977.
After the race, Flanagan’s victory was heralded not just as a win for her, but as a triumph for American women distance runners in general. A Times article by Lindsay Crouse alluded to the “Shalane Flanagan effect,” arguing that Flanagan’s unapologetic competitiveness had had an infectious impact, elevating a whole generation of female athletes. It takes a big stage to inspire such grand narratives, and it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to suggest that there might also be a “New York City effect.” If you succeed here, your achievement will always be amplified.
A prime example is retired (for now?) Olympian Meb Keflezighi, who ran New York City eleven times. When Keflezighi won the race in 2009, he was the first American man to do so in 27 years. But perhaps the bigger story was that he was a former refugee from Eritrea who came to the United States as a child, and blossomed into one world’s finest marathoners. In doing so, Keflezighi bolstered America’s idealized self-image as a place of opportunity for striving immigrants.
Needless to say, that self-image isn't shared by all. I’m as sorry as you are that I had to bring it up. That’s the other thing about the New York City Marathon. As much as it offers a welcome reprieve from national politics, since the race always falls on the first Sunday in November, it usually takes place just before Election Day. The timing throws everything into sharper relief.
As for the Parade of Nations kickoff event, it also feels like a bit of an anachronism in the age of “build that wall.” At best, the pageantry on display in Central Park offers a fleeting illusion of international cohesion. It’s been argued before that competitive sports can inspire corrosive nationalism. But as much as we like to celebrate the achievements of American athletes, distance running just isn’t an “us versus them” kind of discipline. With the marathon, it’s always been about the common struggle, the idea that, at least for a few hours, everyone is on the same side.