“I'm often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I'm running? I don't have a clue.” ― Haruki Murakami
This reflection was inspired by the contemporary Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, in his 2009 memoir on his obsession with running and writing while training for the New York City Marathon entitled “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.”
I only read two books in my life in one sitting: Quo Vadis by the Polish Novelist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Henryk Sienkiewicz, and now Marakami’s funny and sobering, playful and philosophical personal contemplation. One of the reasons why I enjoyed the story is the fact that Tokyo, New York City and Boston are cities to which I have special sentiment. Tokyo due to its magnificence as the Mega City, The Big Apple is a place where both of my kids were born, and Boston due to my daughter’s Alma Mater, which instilled in her the joy of running along the Charles River banks in Cambridge.
I am a former track cyclist, where speed is the winning factor; as such endurance competition translates to me as boredom and long, self-imposed unnecessary torture. My relationship with sport is love-hate mixed with a lack of interest on a good day, but when I am in, I am into it big time. In my wildest dreams, I would not have dared to envision myself as a marathon runner, but what is so appealing in it: to do something which seems impossible. I was always fascinated with the notion of turning the impossible into the possible, and I was blessed to get a semi-regular taste of these sweet moments in my life.
However, whenever you are involved in such endeavors and you fail, you have to be prepared for many bruises and ironic smiles from the non-risk takers. On top of this all, I do not look like a long distance runner, as one of my colleagues, Royalfu, noticed, “you would be a perfect match with your body build for rugby as a hooker.”
With my encouragement in 1990, my wife, Krystyna, completed the New York City Marathon— just six months after giving birth to our daughter, Agnes. Since then, I almost immediately knew that it was only a matter of time when my high-level adrenaline would start seeking the same challenge.
One day during the spring of 1991, while passing a small village in my native Poland, I noticed a lonely runner who had a slight limp. After passing him, I asked the driver to stop. I introduced myself to this young, fit man and learned that he loves running, although he is a victim of polio since birth. His name was Jarek Niewiada, and he was 20 years old. I invited him for dinner to my mother’s house the next day where we talked about life and running, and we both immediately clicked into one mission: the New York City Marathon.
My wife and I invited him to New York City to join our family, and we started, first of all a great friendship, and secondly, became running buddies. To make a long story short, our running produced phenomenal results for both of us. In 1992 Jarek finished the New York City Marathon with an amazing Personal Record of 2:59:34, and a couple of years later, when it was my turn, I finished my first ever New York City Marathon with Jarek as my running guide. We served as guides for one another. Since then, I have been looking at the word “disabled” from a different prospective: (dis)-ABLED. As for Jarek, he has since finished many more marathons including ones in Boston, San Francisco, Toronto, and Warsaw. His sport successes translated into personal ones: he met a girl, got married, has two beautiful daughters, and he still runs marathons.
… as I am too. Well not quit true. After my 1994 marathon debut in the Big Apple, I devoted my life to the extracurricular sports of my two kids, mostly in tennis, and sometimes road running. More or less I voluntarily put myself into physical hibernation but woke up in the spring of 2014, discovering that I still have the will to be physically active, if not competitive. But to my chagrin, I had no means to back it up.
One day, I suggested to my office colleagues that we should run the 2014 New York City Marathon. After a few days, I learned that I am the only one who was still willing to do it. I knew that there was only one solution to save my face: I would have to do it on my own. Almost, immediately, a thought arrived to my mind: “What were you thinking. Are you out of your mind at 56?” Not having other choices, I started to train along with my wife. The beginning was a disaster, but week-by-week I was getting stronger and more confident as my wife patiently dealt with my personal running drama.
In August, I officially signed up for the race, and since then, I never looked back while getting better and better. They say that the easiest is the first marathon as you deal with something unknown. Again, this year, I was scheduled to run as a guide for a disabled runner.
The day before the race at the Expo at Javits Convention Center, I met my team and our leader Denise Smith of Colorado, who has a mild left-sided cerebral palsy. She was accompanying by her trusted and seasoned buddy Stacy Bolyard, and her old friend Mitchell Strong. I was struck during our initial meeting that Denise unconditionally and immediately entrusted me with her desire to finish the race with me as part of her team. I knew that I could not let her down. In this era of mistrust everywhere, I found this very touching and refreshing.
On November 2, we needed to meet at Denise’s Manhattan hotel at 5:00 AM in order to walk together to the bus; we sat together and were driven to the starting line at the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island. While on the bus, I checked if I still had $60 for a taxi in case I won’t be able to finish. Upon arrival to the starting village, Denise gave me her medication to carry during the race, which was a clear indication that not finishing was not an option anymore for me.
To prevent quitting the race, I applied several sociological measures to my colleagues and my family— basically I told everybody around me about my intention of finishing the marathon. Besides my family, only my boss, Lucia, wished me luck. For the others it was an oblivious episode, but not for me, especially during the sleepless night before the race.
Around 9:00 AM we were asked to join the herd of runners of the 9:40 wave. Surrounded by the thousands of colorful outfits of my fellow runners from all walks of life from around the world, I again was moved by this amazing view. The weather was brutal, as the temperature was only 43°F and winds from 40-50 miles per hour were blowing, but we were wearing running gear and were fully ready to go. I put my sunglasses on to keep my mind in the zone. As soon as we started, I took the two-mile long lead on the bridge to shield Denise from the wind, so she could draft. Stacy kept her excitement at bay, knowing that a long journey was ahead of us. It was very difficult to maintain our footing and balance due to the very aggressive gales coming from the Atlantic Ocean. As soon as we crossed the bridge, we started to interact with something very unique: the loyal and fair spectators congregated in millions on the streets of New York City. They did not abandon us until the finish line— almost 24 miles of non-stop cheering, music, humor and sympathy for those who put their bodies through this inhumane test.
As soon as we entered Brooklyn, Stacy took the lead to set the pace. My responsibility was to provide water or Gatorade at each station for our leader, Denise; to carry the backpack with her medication and nutritious drinks; and protect her from behind so other runners would not bump into our team. We were cheered by millions, but were also part of a 50,000-strong herd of fellow runners who always had time to cheer Denise. She wasn’t alone for even a fraction of a second. The New Yorkers know how to boo, but they also know how to hail the heroes.
After passing the half point at the Greenpoint Bridge, we took a short break. Since this moment, I knew that there was only one destination for me: the finish line. As soon as we entered the Queensboro Bridge, we recalibrated the pace with me as the lead on this two-mile stretch. The immediate reward was Manhattan’s First Avenue where the scream and noise from very enthusiastic spectators was beyond our imaginations. The day before, Mitchell warned us that this could be a very deceiving moment since the spectators would act like a painkiller to our “past half point struggle” so we paced ourselves wisely without wasting any energy. While “windsurfing” First Avenue, we approached the 21-mile mark in the Bronx, where I “hit the wall”, but one food station with bananas saved me. I still think back fondly on these Bronx Bananas! Meanwhile Denise and Stacy took on the final 5 miles. It was funny to see Stacy being the pace whip and Denise making sure that we were all ok. The last five miles in Manhattan was a mixture of struggle, pride, and dealing with pain, while making sure nothing was going to happen to our exhausted bodies.
As I approached the finish line, I was fully able to comprehend the tragedy of the 2012 Boston Marathon Bombing. Those runners were so tired, and the spectators so eager to cheer, and they suffered such a heinous and unjust destiny. We should never forget it.
When Stacy and Denise received their medals they were genuinely happy. After all, Denise finished the race with her Personal Record of 6:30:38. I saw a slight disappointment in Denise’s eyes as I knew that she wanted to break the 6 hour mark to qualify for the 2015 Boston Marathon, but in this weather it was simply impossible— even for elite runners. She will definitely run the marathon in sub-six hours in 2015! Denise, Stacy, Mitch and I became BFFs. That is the value added to being a marathon runner.
I have to be honest— the Monday after the race was a very challenging day in the department of walking, but on Tuesday, I was back in business.
On Wednesday, I came to the office and while being surrounded by my colleagues, I mischievously stated, “I must confess to you…” One of them jumped the gun and said, “You did not finish it,” but I replied thinking of Marakami’s reflections, “ I have never been passed by so many beautiful female athletes in my life. I wish my son was here to experience it with me.”
Later that night on Wednesday, I came to the conclusion that my colleague’s doubt about me not finishing the race was the best recognition of my achievement. Again, I accomplished the seemingly impossible.
For me, as a sociologist, the phenomenon of a marathon is a perfect example of an agent of socialization and social change. The process of getting ready for global sporting festivals, like the New York City Marathon, deserves to be put on par with such agents of socialization as family, schools, peer groups, the media, religion, and employment as they teach us what we need to know in order to function properly in society.
From the time of the revival of the Olympic Games near the end of the 19th century, the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was an educator, believed that the Olympics should be a strong advocate of international cooperation and should emphasize the social and human values of sport. Sporting events, athletes and spectators as a whole can become a model to communities in conflict by demonstrating their commitment to the values of human rights. Through establishment of self-governing entities that respect the rights of all individuals and groups and the tradition of sport, participants on both sides of sporting arenas can learn firsthand how to exist in a more peaceful environment. Sport can contribute to development and social change by rebuilding traumatized populations, rebuilding economies, serving as a model for democratic functions and influence, encouraging free communication, providing a safe haven for young generations, and serving as a peacemaker.
Undoubtedly, on November 2, 2014, when 50,000 runners from all over the world met a few million spectators on the streets of the Big Apple, they all met in peace.
In terms of Sienkiewicz’s question: “Quo Vadis” which is in Latin for “Where are you going?” I would like to follow my favorite song by the British punk rock group, The Clash: “London Calling,” as I must go for a run as the 2015 London Marathon is on my radar.
Photograph of runners crossing the finish line at the New York City Marathon, Nov. 2, 2014 by Petty Officer 3rd Class Frank Iannazzo-Simmons, courtesy of U.S Coast Guard
Photograph of runners on the Queensboro Bridge by Jimmy Baikovicius, via his Flickr album
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