Last Sunday, more than 6,000 runners showed up in Jersey City for a full or half marathon, the first in the city in decades.
I was there too. Not as a runner — never as a runner! — but as a proud spectator, there to cheer on my daughter and son-in-law. I’ve got a great deal of practice in that role; my sister’s run 13 of them, and my brother has run them too, although he spends more time on his bike.
My husband and I took our 7-year-old grandson on what I told him was an adventure — and it was. A great adventure.
We parked in Union City, walked over bulbs set into the pavement that light up as you step on them (“look at how bright they are!”) to get to the elevator that took us down to Hoboken. The walls of the elevator are glass; never mind that all you see is wall moving by. (“Look how fast it goes!”) Then we took the light rail (“Look! There’s the train! Look at the seats! Look out the window! Look at the buildings!”) to Jersey City.
We went past old buildings and overgrown lots, mainly at street level, until we got to the Newport Center (“Look! Dunkin Donuts!”) and bought the most quickly-disappearing-ever Munchkins. And then we walked over to the race, stood two-tenths of a mile from the end, and watched.
There is something heartstoppingly beautiful about marathoners, just before the end of the race. They are all so different. Some run confidently; they know how close the end is, and they’re able to get there. Some walk. Some stumble. Some are happy; some look like they’ve spend the last 26.2 miles reconsidering every decision they’ve ever made, and particularly this one.
I’m used to watching the end of the New York City Marathon. It’s always extraordinarily packed; even for New York, those are major crowds. The energy level, even at the end, is so high that it seems as if you could pluck it from the air and package it for later. Many people run in groups. They carry signs. Their sweat makes the park humid, even if the day is dry. The spectators shout good wishes and hopes and cheers at them, and they hear and smile and thumbs-up back. It’s thrilling.
Jersey City wasn’t exactly that. There were fewer runners. More of them — most of them — ran alone. There were fewer funny costumes. There also were fewer spectators, and fewer shouts and signs of encouragement. Not as many cow bells.
But there was something about the courage that each runner showed that was powerfully moving. It is absolutely true that no one has to run a marathon. It is an entirely chosen challenge; looked at objectively, it possibly is silly. I cannot imagine ever doing it.
But you look at the runners’ faces as they go by; you look at their legs, which at that point had carried them for 26 miles; you watch them as they respond to cheers and encouragement, and somehow you, as a nonrunner, are given hope. Somehow hope goes back and forth between you, the spectator, and the runners.
And when first your daughter, and then a few minutes later your son-in-law run by, and your grandson lights up even more, and your kids do too, and the joy turns the sunlight into spun gold, it is pure magic.
The world might be in a precarious condition right now, but there still is hope and joy in it. And you don’t have to run a marathon to feel it. You don’t even have to watch a marathon. You just have to spend some time with a 7-year-old.