The People of the New York City Marathon
Like any great race, the NYC Marathon is the sum of its parts
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The New York City Marathon will take place this Sunday. As I’ve written before, part of the marathon’s unique appeal is its capacity to encompass the aspirations of thousands of individuals, regardless of ability level or socioeconomic status. The marathon belongs to everyone, because it belongs to no one. Almost every other major sporting event involves gushing over a few celebrity athletes or a billion-dollar franchise. But the New York City Marathon isn’t really about the top finishers any more than it’s about those who stumble into Central Park hours later in a state of exhausted euphoria. For spectators and participants alike, the whole thing frequently ends up being a weirdly moving experience. How often do we cheer for total strangers just for the hell of it?
To celebrate the occasion of the world’s largest marathon, we asked five local club runners who will be running on Sunday to share their thoughts leading up to the race.
(The following accounts have been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Club: Black Girls Run!
Random (But Relevant) Fact: Bowers grew up on Lafayette Avenue and Saint James Place—the marathon course went right past her house.
“I used to have a side job where I did drug testing for elite athletes. One time, I had the opportunity to test a prominent marathon runner—I don’t want to say which one. We were talking, and she asked me if I run. At the time, I was probably 20 pounds heavier, and I’m looking at her like, ‘Are you crazy?’ But she was like, ‘No, really. You can run.’ Obviously I was younger then, definitely heavier, and I was like, ‘What is she talking about? I don’t run. I don’t even run for the bus.’ I’m looking at this woman who does this for a living and wondering if she’s just being nice, but it kind of stayed in the back of my head. Encouragement can come from anywhere, so I always try to be encouraging to other people, because you never know what people might use years later. I did my first New York Road Runners run about five years ago—just kind of as a fun thing. I had some friends who ran. In the park, they got me running from one tree to the next tree. That’s how it started. One tree to the next tree, then stop, walk, and one tree to the next tree again. And now, here we are.”
Club: Central Park Track Club
40th New York City Marathon
Random (But Relevant) Fact: Shaver is currently tied for second in the category of most consecutive NYC Marathons.
“Well, I’ve done them all since I was 24 years old. I had competed at Penn State University and was two years out of college when I saw the race go through the five boroughs the first time (in 1976). I just thought, ‘This is so cool. I have to do this.’ My motivation has changed dramatically over the years—you can’t be a 24-year-old and do something until you’re 65 and be motivated in the same way. I lack cartilage in both knees, and for the past three years it’s been very painful to run on hard surfaces. These days, I just want to finish. For somebody who has run fast in the past, I don’t know that I want to continue to do the marathon if I have to walk a fair amount. (I never wanted to concentrate on the marathon. It’s just that when you run PRs in the 10K or 10 miles, everybody wants to know what you can do in the marathon.) I’d run the marathon for many years before the streak even occurred to me. Somebody said, ‘You’re a streaker!’ and I didn’t know what they were talking about. It didn’t really take on that kind of importance until other people told me it was important. Motivation is an interesting thing. I run almost every day because it just really frees me, but it doesn’t rule my life. I’ve had friends over the years who were just so into it that they burned out in three years. I think the only way to keep going for as long as I’ve kept going is just to keep it in perspective. I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It’s harder now, but I do have the motivation of trying to keep this streak going.”
Club: Black Roses NYC
Second New York Marathon
Random (But Relevant) Fact: McNeilly just set her marathon PR (3:14:38) in Berlin in September.
“Coming off one marathon and going to the next, the hardest part in preparing for New York was not my body, but my mind. There’s a burnout you experience after putting so much effort and time into preparing for one race. As a marathoner, you have to dig deep within yourself. You go to the gullies and the trenches to just find the energy and the time. And if anybody knows how Black Roses train—you are digging very often. I almost had to get away from my group for a bit to just reset mentally and gear up for this again. To be quite honest, I don’t care for racing that much. Not to say I’m not a competitive person; when I get out there, I’m gonna put in work. But I don’t like that cloud hanging over me that I’m obligated to spend my Saturday doing an 18-mile run. I want to be like, ‘Oh, I can kill my run at 11 miles if I feel like it, and it’s not going to faze anything.’ It’s that feeling of obligation that I don’t like. I don’t mind the training, because there’s so much beauty in the struggle and because I’m not training alone—I’m out there with ten other people, and they’re just as miserable as me. But I’m just having fun, and that’s pretty much why I’m doing it. I’m not even stressed about finishing time. Granted, I want to PR and I want to BQ, but I keep on telling people that, at the end of the day, I don’t get a bigger medal because I ran faster than you. Also, if you run a 3:04 and I come through at 3:15—same thing. It doesn’t make a difference. Speed is relative. So I’m just out here having fun. And now that I’ve conquered four out of the six Marathon Majors [Chicago, Boston, New York, and Berlin], I’m just waiting to do the next two, and then I’ll stop marathoning. That’s pretty much the lie I tell myself to get by.”
Club: Dashing Whippets
Seventh New York City Marathon
Random (But Relevant) Fact: Roeske has summited Mount Everest twice, including a 2016 ascent without supplemental oxygen.
“I love the New York City Marathon so much—it’s the best day of the year for me. After I experienced New York for the first time, in 2010, I didn’t want to miss it. I’ve heard from friends who run other marathons in other cities, and they’ve all told me that nothing compares to it. It’s inspiring to be around so many people who are struggling to reach their own goals. Everyone is in that race giving everything they have. Even though it’s a much more solitary pursuit, I get similar inspiration from climbing big mountains—that sense that I worked really hard for one clearly defined goal. The bigger goals that I have in my life are much less clear, more ambiguous. So the question becomes: How do I take inspiration for those bigger goals from that one thing that, in terms of the steps needed to accomplish it, was easy to focus on? I don’t know exactly, but I think that’s why the marathon has that symbolic value for a lot of people. The marathon is hard, but it’s also easy in that you kind of know what you need to do.”
Birhanu Dare Kemal
Club: West Side Runners
Fourth New York City Marathon
Random (But Relevant) Fact: In 2015, Dare Kemal finished ninth overall in the NYC Marathon.
“This is the fourth time I’m running New York. In 2015, when I came in ninth, I was with the leaders until about 22 miles, but then I lost my power. So I worked really hard for 2016, hoping to win. I was training at elevation in my country (Ethiopia) and was running more than 220 kilometers (137 miles) per week. But during the race, I got an injury on my foot and had to drop out after 15 miles. This year, I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for two months and didn’t really get better. When I came back, I couldn’t run fast. I was running 30 minutes for the 10K, when I was expecting to run 29, maybe 28 minutes. So I don’t think elevation is good for me. I’ve tried two or three times, with no result. Some people like high altitude. Some people like low altitude. But I think my body is most comfortable in New York City. In 2015, I trained here and it worked well. I like it here, and I have an advantage because I know the course. Usually, athletes come from other places to race here. But I train here and try to do the best for myself and for New York. Some people think New York is good for racing and not good for training—I want to change that idea. I wouldn’t want to race another city marathon more than two times. But New York? Maybe I’ll do it ten times!”