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Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Running Affair (a true NYC Marathon Love Story)

Last year as I wandered along the NYC Marathon route I met an amazing bunch of people and one story, demonstrating the positive potential of random New York City encounters particular stood out. Here's that story in video and written form. Hope you have a good view of the Marathon.

Music:"Reach Out I'll Be There" by The Four Tops
The Four Tops - Essential Collection: Four Tops - Reach Out I'll Be There

Today's running of the New York City marathon will offer many intense and passive means of bystander participation. Some ways are almost as involved as running the race itself. But you don't have to be one of the hundreds of water bearing volunteers passing out hundreds of ounces of H2O to the masses. You don't have to play an instrument as is done at various points along the route, although it can greatly enhances the mood if you're belting out great sounds adding to the runner's sonic cacophony. You don't even need to bring a flag, although it's cool when people put on a giddy display of national backing.

However if you want low cost high impact results, I'd say pound for pound clasping hands (or giving five as we'd call it in the old neighborhood) with a marathon runner is one of the most fulfilling actions of the entire passive marathon watching experience. You, leaving your hand out to be slapped by a marathon runner you may never even see is the best is the greatest interaction for the generally uninitiated because it requires so little of the bystander. You only need extend your arm, hand and palm open, fingers spread like a wide welcoming smile. the runner stretches their hand out and in that brief contact you're able to offer good luck, hope, praise and allegiance to dozens maybe even hundreds. Which of course stimulates you as well, to embellish if nothing else. After all if you give "five" to a deflating runner who surges on after and wins, how can you not claim having had a hand in the victory?

But it's gotta be more empowering for the runner. Perhaps after six or nine or fifteen, certainly after twenty or so miles the mind must begin to peer dimly through a tunnel vision that can enhance focus but is just as able to become so transfixing as to block awareness and motivation. I imagine the runner in those fixated stretches, then a hand reaching out before them inviting, waiting passively. Then crack! It happens.

I've never run the marathon so I can't know from the runner's perspective, but it's gotta be more empowering for the runner. I've seen something happen when runner and bystander make that manual contact. Yours and their hands crash like human cymbals. A sudden jolt of focus, an explosion of unexpected encouragement. You become a pacemaker encouraging their required rhythm. And then it's over but the runner is sharper, more aware, redirected.

Amazing that it happens at all given the physics of the event. Marathon runners travel at an average of twelve miles per hour. If a moving car hit a parked car at that speed expensive damage would result. Despite the meaty mitt encircling much of our palm, it seems likely to think having somebody run their hand into yours at twelve miles an hour is gonna sting at least. So overcoming risk aversion is the first hurtle. Then there's the issue of aim. Again think twelve miles an hour. And consider it's not the comparably smooth ride of a car but the up and down, back and forth, bumpity jumpity of running. You'd be a head bobbing in a sea of bobble heads. Packed as well, so add to that a visibility limited to the back of the person a few inches in front of you. Objects are flashing into view, then gone. Salmon have an easier time locating things.

From my observations, of the hand-shake/clasps,pounds,fives I saw it was fifty-fifty between last minute sudden clasps and runners deliberate honing in on the supportive hand like a targeted missile.

During last year's marathon I was in Brooklyn, where Fort Greene tumbles down into Clinton Hill which promptly runs into Bedford-Stuyvesant. I took note of the many people giving that supportive hand to the runners. Eventually I reached the corner of Bedford and Lafayette avenues, across from KFC in what is usually accepted to still be Bed-Stuy. I noticed a spectator whose entire method of handshake, hand clasp, high five giving, separated him from the rest and that was Danny. Clearly he chose his spot, that corner where literally and sometimes figuratively the race turns. His hand remained aloft, just enough into the race as to matter, all the time I was there and I imagined long before and after. He was the Grizzly of the stream for that corner, except that instead of destroying hope with a swat he seemed to pound life and good will back into the runners he caught.

I was curious and spoke with Danny he explained that he held his hand out as a half target half energy boosting social connector because he made the runner's happy and that at the very least it made him happy. Then Shereen, the lovely woman standing beside Danny added it was also a showing of support. Shereen would know, thirteen years ago she and Danny met on that very corner.

On that day years ago Danny and Shereen exchanged numbers, courted, eventually married and have returned to that same spot every year since to continue their marathon watching tradition and share the love.

After meeting them I began to see, probably for the first time in 30 years of viewership how the New York City marathon strengthens and demonstrates that very New York City phenomon of possible, sudden, sometimes emotional bonds being created instantly between the diverse millions of New York's passing strangers. Often with lasting effect. While at the same time for those more deeply invested in New York City day in and day out, the marathon offers a warm touchstone for relationships that run and never lag.

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