I sat at a bar on 7th Avenue, just south of Central Park, and watched them go by. It was a perfect day. The temperature was in the mid 50s, the skies were clear, the crowds were festive. And it was New York’s first chance to unite en masse and celebrate their precious and scarred city since the unspeakable tragedy less than two months prior.
I'd been in New York less than 9 months. I, too, lived through that terrible September morning, having lost friends and colleagues, and I grieved for a city that I was gradually learning to call my own. However, as was my wont, I anesthetized the terror with copious amounts of booze. My drinking was always a problem but never more so than just after 9/11. I felt I had carte blanche to act any way I pleased, including drinking myself to oblivion every night. After all, my thinking went, the world was coming to an end so I might as well be blottoed beyond comprehension when it happened.
I’m not sure what came over me that day as I watched those runners. It was surely a bit of envy and awe at how those thousands of men and women pushed through all the pain and agony of not only that day, but the previous days as well. The fact that they trained for countless hours, sacrificed time with family and friends, skipped dates and brunch and, heaven forbid, booze, just for the torment of running 26.2 miles. Why, I thought, would they do such a thing?
I could never do that, I thought. Though I had accomplished many things , most of these things had been in spite of myself. I also failed 95% of anything I ever tried . I rarely finished what I started and had such a penchant for self-sabotage that it was guaranteed if I succeeded at something, shortly thereafter I would thoroughly and completely destroy it .
The proximity of that bar stool to the marathon was not lost on me. Though I was just feet away from the runners, I was many lifetimes away from the run. It was not their world that angered me as much as it was that my world had become so abysmally small. I wanted to be them. I just didn't want to do what it took to get where they were going.
I had dreams, sure, but dreams not pursued are cold reminders of a life not lived. My dreams flourished in my gin soaked mind but brought to bear against the unforgiving morning light that seemed to blister my head, the work necessary to bring those dreams into reality was beyond the reach. At 25 years old I was the town drunk. Life had already passed me by. Every single person who was closely associated with me knew that alcohol was my number one priority and nothing - absolutely nothing - could come between me and the drink. I had come to live by the drink and surely I would die by it too.
As the months became years and I resigned myself, one tumbler after next, to my fate, I never failed to note the marathon. And with each passing year the dream diminished until eventually it became the distant memory of foolish youth. It was a fitting metaphor for my life, a life that was as impossible as the marathon itself.
And then, some years later, in the midst of the most trying time of my existence, as I watched a man I loved more than anything slowly die, as he slipped the bonds of life and my once imperious problems began to seem insignificant, I laced up a pair of running shoes and I started to run. And with the help of friends I trained for my first race of 4 miles. Suddenly I was a runner and though the 26.2 was still the fancy of my drunken fantasy, it was no longer impossible. Running was providing me with the slightest hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. I ran, not to escape life, but instead to be a part of life with all its attendant heartache and despair, in all its glory and brilliance. I ran to be present. I ran to live.
I still struggled with my demons and progress was as intermittent as my sobriety, but no matter how dark my world became, running always provided a glint of sanity. And though faint at times, that glint was often all it took.
July 2012 I began to train for the New York City Marathon. Just weeks out of an eight day hospital stay related to a binge that nearly claimed my life, I was determined to turn the dream into reality. My entry had been guaranteed, my fees had been paid, and the only the thing that came between me and the finish line was getting my body in shape to run the 26.2 miles. Or so I thought.
Training for a marathon is intense. For a November marathon one must start training in the heat and humidity of the summer. There are hundreds of lonely miles, runs in the rain, runs before the sun makes its debut, runs with leg pain and stomach pain and mental anguish, long runs on Sundays that wipe out the entire day. You must rest, and monitor, and gauge, and gu, and learn to listen to your heart and legs and ignore your mind. There are journals to keep and shoes to test. Your running clothes begin to permanently smell like a 6th grade boys' locker room no matter how many odor masking agents you put in the wash, there's a sense of alarm at every creak of a joint or sniffle or sneeze. Ibuprofen is bought in bulk, toenails turn black and fall off, chaffing occurs in crevices on your body you never knew existed. The marathon becomes everything and everything else is just periphery. I ran long runs in Virginia Beach, did speed work on the banks of Lake George, ran 10Ks and 5Ks and half marathons, ran the hills of Washington Heights and the flats of Jersey City.
And then the God damned bottom fell out.
Sandy hit and delivered such a devastating blow that even a city accustomed to catastrophes of cataclysmic proportions was left stunned and knocked aback. As half of Manhattan was left without power and parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn were battered beyond recognition, the city's citizenry began to fight among themselves. And the fighting got nasty...and personal
A marathon, long known for its unifying narrative was now the great divide. People took sides, took to social media to deride their perceived opponents, took to City Hall, took to the airwaves. Each side took the city by storm almost to levels that washed out the storm coverage itself.
Mary Wittenberg, the CEO of New York Road Runners (NYRR), the organization that puts on the marathon, became the storm's bête noire and was demonized and pilloried in ways that you would've thought she was responsible for the storm itself . The anonymity of the internet provided fertile ground for people to threaten runners with tomato and feces pelting should they choose to run the race. Dear friends, people who knew how much the race meant to me, were publicly chastising runners and vehemently staking an anti-marathon position.
And the pro-running crowd wasn't much better. There seemed to be an attitude of indifference or worse towards the suffering millions. They rallied behind trite platitudes like "New Yorkers bounce back from anything" and "The run, like the show, must go on". NYRR, in a decision that can only be described as one of the most tone deaf in recent history, assured the runners that indeed the race would go on and confidently encouraged those traveling to make their planned trips to New York.
Feeling completely deflated, damned if I did, damned if I didn't, I made my way to the Javits Center in midtown where the marathon expo was being held to pick up my bib, t shirt, swag bag etc. My dream race had flipped on its head and was turning into a nightmare. I had no idea what to expect along the marathon route or what us 40,000 runners would encounter. I just knew I was running, as conflicted as I was about that fact.
As I left the expo, my phone rang.
"They cancelled the marathon" Ric, the man whose death sentence had inspired me to run in the first place and whose miraculous recovery I am still at a loss to understand, said. "They're having a press conference. That Mary woman and the mayor, they cancelled it."
"There's no way, Ric! I'm literally standing outside the expo. I just picked up my bib not even five minutes ago. There's no way. They would have told us" I replied in disbelief.
But, alas, it was true. The marathon had been cancelled. Outside that convention center I started to cry like a child who'd just been told there was no Santa Claus. The marathon that I could only dream of years earlier would remain just that, a dream. Though I no longer had to feel conflicted about my decision to run, I grieved the loss of the marathon in ways I still can't explain.
As time went by I was invited to run other marathons. I respectfully declined.
"New York will be my first. I don't know when, but New York will be the first marathon I run. I know it seems silly and doesn't make any sense, but there's a 25 year old guy who has been struggling a while with life and he doesn't believe I can do it. I'm running for him" was my standard answer.
The year since the canceled marathon has not been easy. By every worldly standard, my life seems pretty bleak. I'm still paying, both emotionally and monetarily, for the wreckage of my past. Work comes and goes, the bank account hovers around nothing, I am not sure where Ric, Weezie and I will be living in two weeks time due to the lies of an ex, and homelessness is a very, very real possibility.
But come Sunday....
come Sunday I will make my way, via the Staten Island Ferry, to the foot of the Verrazano and I will toe the line. Come Sunday, I will run New York.
Come Sunday I will run for that 25 year old who said it couldn't be done and for the 37 year old determined to prove him wrong. But I will also run for the others.
Come Sunday I will run for the hopeless, the still sick and suffering, those that will sit on a barstool just feet from the race and think it an impossible feat. I will run for those who ever had a dream but never had it realized. I will run for my mother and my grandmother, both of whom will be among the over two million spectators. I will run for my other grandmother who has spent most of the past year in a nursing home and for my aunt who visits her nearly every day. I will run for the naysayers, the ones who dismiss my running as nothing more than a phase or way to escape, or worse yet, a foolish endeavor in the grand scheme of things. Come Sunday I will run for my father, a man I haven't spoken to in over 4 years and dearly miss. I will run for my brother, who came to New York a few years after me and who is making his dreams a reality on a daily basis. I will run for both my grandfathers who did not live to see the day. I will run for my friend Jack, who died a year ago in a hospital room as Sandy loomed. I will run for George who has taught me in both word and deed how to live one day at a time. Come Sunday I will run for my beloved Wendy who has taught me what unconditional friendship really is and for Quentin, who has taught me that friendship needn't be long in time to be strong in heart. I will run for Amy who has taught me that friendship is at its core about love . I will run for Charles L, who bought me my first pair of running shoes when I couldn't afford to buy them myself. I will run for Helen and Clarissa, two women who are the very essence of the runner's spirit and for my running crew of Richie and Thomas and Daniel, all of whom have pushed me to be a better runner. Come Sunday I will run for Kim, who loved me when I couldn't love myself, and for Rich who has taught me the definition of endurance and perseverance. And I will run for my boys at "the lodge", the ones who show me every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday how to be a better man. I will run for my kindred spirit Marika who was at my first race, and for Michael who was there too. I will run for Ric, my forever and always, who continues to defy the odds and inspires me with his strength.
Come Sunday I will run for the doctors who told me in no uncertain terms I should long be dead.
I will run for every single living creature who is trudging the road of happy destiny along with me.
I will run for all these things and more.
I will run for you.
I will run for us.
Come Sunday, I will run for life.