Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

October 2, 2008

New York City's Greatest Day

When the marathon rolls through town, the five boroughs feel like a land transformed.

Tom Flynn

For the most part things are what they are: Cars get us around, lunch has a leg up on work, and aging quarterbacks go to the Arizona Cardinals to have their love for the game snuffed out. But for one day each year things go on their ear, on the only stage large enough to contain the phenomenon. The surly hug strangers, gridlocked streets become joyous canyons, and a New York minute extends for six hours.

That day is the first Sunday of November and its catalyst is the New York City Marathon. In her book A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York, veteran New York Times sportswriter Liz Robbins sets out to distill the impossible: the spirit of millions of individuals coalescing into running’s single greatest day. Robbins traces the marathon’s transformation from a modest Central Park race under the zealous, paternal guidance of Fred Lebow into today’s five-borough spectacle. Her lens for viewing NYC marathons both past and present is the 2007 running, a race with 39,000+ runners on a perfect New York autumn day. Gelf Magazine talked to Robbins about why running marathons is somewhat crazy, the temptation of the mimosa, and why Marathon Day is the greatest day in New York City. The interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Robbins and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, December 4, in New York's Lower East Side.

Liz Robbins. Photo by Michael Falco.
"It struck me as fascinating, and crazy, and admirable all at once."

Liz Robbins. Photo by Michael Falco.

Gelf Magazine: As I was reading the book it struck me that at certain key points the race moves on this trajectory from being a group of hardcore marathoners into the huge international event that it is now. Is there any one thing you uncovered in your research that was most instrumental in turning the marathon into the race it is today?

Liz Robbins: I think first of you have to look at who won the races and the star power. Not only did Alberto Salazar and Bill Rodgers really bring the star power to the marathon, the marathon also vaulted their careers. In addition you had Grete Waitz; she became this huge superstar even though she didn’t intend to be. She just wanted to see if she could do it.
So the personalities, I would say, are the driving forces in making this race become what it did and one of those personalities, of course, was Fred Lebow.

GM: And Fred’s efforts to recruit those star personalities.

LR: He worked tirelessly to bring this race into the international limelight. He wanted the recognition; he wanted the race and running to have the recognition.

GM: One of the most interesting components of the book was the interplay between participants and spectators. If you go to the Super Bowl, obviously that’s an event set up for the fans, with only a few participants, and you’re going to be clearly only a spectator. But if I were reading this book and I lived in London, would I really want to go over to New York as a non-runner and just watch this race? In a way it’s an impossible day to get around but obviously if you get to experience the marathon, a great day. What would you say to someone coming to watch in New York?

LR: It’s the greatest day in New York City. It’s the one event that can unite five boroughs, and if you’re in the right frame of mind and don’t actually have to get somewhere and know what streets are closed…there’s so much enthusiasm and energy and emotion, not to mention parties. It’s a great shared spirit. Even the people who aren’t running get into it. They’re on the sidelines thinking, “Hmmm…maybe I should be doing this,” or, “Boy, am I glad I’m not doing this; I’ll enjoy my mimosa, thank you very much.” Maybe I’m biased because I live right off the marathon course and I just have always loved running and have always loved the spectacle, but it’s something that’s so unique in New York. Unlike a sporting event where you go to it and you sit in the stadium, this is organic. It follows what Fred said: “Don’t bring people to the race; bring the race to the people.”

GM: You’re writing to an extent to the participants, but also to the spectators and to people who have never even been to the race. That’s a lot tougher than just writing to spectators.

LR: That’s why I wrote the book. I didn’t want to make it one-dimensional. I wanted to involve everybody. You can’t make this a race story, a game story, if you’re covering it, because it’s so multi-dimensional. I also didn’t want to write a book that was just going to be a typical sports book that would be on the shelf for six weeks and wouldn’t really have staying power. By appealing to a wider audience to make these personal stories and featuring not only the runners but the volunteers and the musicians, I wasn’t just thinking about selling books. I was thinking about what’s going to make this interesting to me, knowing that the city as a whole is not just made up of what happens from point A to point B. It’s really everything that happens around the race.

GM: You talk about it being organic; there's the interaction between the runners and the spectators, and throw in the weather and the traditions that evolved along the course. You did a great job taking the narrative off the course at times, so to speak, and looking into the back-story of, say, a band that has been playing along the route for years. I think organic is the right term. Every year has a different composition, the weather is different, that fans are different, the runners are different…

LR: The potholes are deeper.

GM: Exactly.

LR: And the crowds are deeper. I tried to paint the picture that as great as this is, it’s a very crowded race.

GM: The propulsion of the large crowds is pretty amazing. You get into that in the book.

LR: That is what makes this race so unique. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been on the press truck or raced it yourself.

GM: Over to the runners. You really cover a broad band from the elite runners down to the recreational runners. If I were to look at the finishing times, I could clearly see the two-something-hour-runners versus the six-hour runners and say, OK, big difference. Did you find commonality between the recreational runners and someone competing to win?

LR: Absolutely. The two biggest traits that the groups share are a love for the sport and a very strange compulsion to finish the race and to do it for their own reasons. Everybody has a reason why they run: The grandmother Cindy Peterson who’s running because this, for her, is an expression of power and freedom; she’s run 35 marathons since she turned 55. Then there's Paula Radcliffe, who’s doing it because this is what she knows. Her life is competition and she would not be complete without it. Somehow marathons, and the running and the training, replace something that people are looking for and have lost.

"After covering the NBA for eight years and covering professional and college sports for most of my career, it was such a breath of fresh air covering some of these runners."
GM: Pain and hardship are common themes. There's almost a way of people either saying, “I’ve encountered hardship and I’m going to strike one back against it,” or “I’m steeling myself for future difficulties,” through running the marathon. I presume you found that, based on some of the people whom you profiled.

LR: Maybe people don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but you’re right, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I suppose, and think there are people who prove that “I can do it” so when the next obstacle comes they can say, “Hey, I ran a marathon.”

GM: Yeah, it’s kind of nice to have that in your back pocket. Two of the women elite runners really caught my attention: Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia and Paula Radcliffe. Jelena you talk about early on in the race as experiencing stabbing pain in her hip and later in the book you talk about some of the injuries that Paula encounters. I found it interesting that the elite runners would so injure their bodies to be at the top of their game. They continually push themselves to injury. Was that surprising to you?

LR: I don’t think it’s surprising because I’ve been covering sports for 17 years and just know that for anyone who is a distance runner or does anything along the lines of triathlons or ultra-marathons, this is part of the game. It struck me as fascinating, and crazy, and admirable all at once. I think we all go through so much pain no matter what we’re doing whether it’s working in our careers or trying to work harder as a recreational athlete. In a way I felt sort of sorry for Paula that this is what she feels like she needs to do, but that’s her choice, and that’s who she is. She’s not going to change. Look at what she did at the Olympic marathon. It was courageous given her injuries, but she finished. She was in terrible pain, but she did it.

GM: Obviously there are some compelling stories on the men’s side, as well. Hendrik Ramaala of South Africa…

LR: What an amazing character. I chose him just because he had such depth.

GM: That comes across.

LR: From his family history living in Johannesburg to his disposition, I’ve never met a more generous or open person in the sport, in a very self-effacing and fun way. This is a man who, a day after the New York City Marathon, he spent two hours with a very young kid with a limited future who ran the Olympic trials the day before the Marathon, just kind of talking to him about marathon running. Then we walked off to Toys"R"Us to buy a toy for Hendrik’s son. After covering the NBA for eight years and covering professional and college sports for most of my career, it was such a breath of fresh air covering some of these runners. Hendrik isn’t a runner, he’s a person.

GM: Yeah, the book was great in covering some of the African runners; you get behind the Kenyan runners’ mystique, for example, and show what it’s like to be a runner over there and what it means to their families. So often they’re perceived as these nameless Kenyans who win so many races simply because of their nation’s running prowess.
Switching gears, what were you like on race morning knowing you were going into this and had the coverage in front of you?

LR: Wow, race morning…I did a lot on race day.

GM: I know there were a thousand things you covered, some of which you could have filled in prior to and after the race, but obviously you must have been all over.

LR: I woke up at 4:30 and I got downtown and took the ferry. That was the best way to start the day. It was so placid, and you could see the city so well, right behind the Statue of Liberty, these great, amazing buildings of gold and orange. Short of doing yoga it was the best way to start the day. And then you arrive and take the bus and talk to everybody on the shuttles and then get right into Fort Wadsworth [the Marathon’s staging area/starting point] and I spent a good two hours there trolling for stories and seeing people whom I knew. And then I ran back and forth from the elite runners area to the other areas. It was so key to get that description right because that’s the way the day starts and people identify with the anxiety and the nervous energy and the “let’s just go already.” I wanted to set the tone.

From there Robbins tells the story of her race day that is exhausting to even hear, entailing running portions of the race, jumping on the press truck following the elite women, checking in with colleagues following the men, hopping into the race to join some of the runners she profiles in the book, and then hopping back into the race elsewhere to join with other runners or experience a different portion of the marathon. It borders on Thompson’s manic Gonzo journalism but Liz avoids the first person and thankfully Hunter’s hallucinatory binges. As with the runners, compulsion was needed to push coverage of the event through to the finish line from “inside” the race.

GM: I think you made the right choice not to run the race; it would have been a lot more limiting. Obviously the stories of Henrik and Paula none of us would have, because no one can keep up with them.

LR: Right. This isn’t supposed to be a first-person account. I wanted to make this book different. Everybody knows you’re not going to break a world record in New York. It’s about the experience.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.







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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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