Monday, November 21, 2011

Life is a Marathon

How many times have you referred to something you’re involved in as a marathon? While I’ve used that metaphor many times, seeing the New York Marathon last week gave me new insight into the real meaning of that phrase.

The race ran right through my neighborhood here in Brooklyn and what a sight it was. 47,000 people all running in the same direction – professional athletes, casual enthusiasts, competitors young and old, people with disabilities, runners with prosthetics, marathoners of all ages, races and creeds. Some were dressed with the latest running attire, others just put on what they had available; some ran with purpose, others with the casual attitude of a stroll in the park; some ran with friends and colleagues, others ran alone; some took this very seriously, others brought the party to party; some were intent on finishing in good time, others with just finishing. Our apartment was at the 8 mile mark, so there was still a lot of life in the runners as they ran by. The professional leaders ran by approximately one hour after the official start, and then 45 minutes later a throng of runners began – it took nearly 3 hours for this mass of people to finally pass. The last of them were walking slowly – but they were no less intent on finishing the 26.2 mile course than were the Kenyans who flew by first.

There’s a lot of history behind these marathons:

• The name Marathon comes from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger. The legend states that he was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon (in which he had just fought), which took place in August or September, 490 BC. In commemoration of this, the marathon became one of the original modern Olympic events in 1896. With 47,000 runners in this year’s event, it was of Olympian proportions.

• The length of the course (officially it’s 26 miles and 384 yards) is also an interesting tale – while it is ostensibly the distance that long ago Greek messenger had to run with that battlefield message, this official distance was modified over the years as Olympic officials modified the start and finish lines to accommodate the British royals

• Today, more than 500 marathons are organized worldwide. Five of the largest and most prestigious races, Boston, New York City, Chicago, London, and Berlin, form the biennial World Marathon Majors series, awarding $500,000 annually to the best overall male and female performers in the series. No wonder the front runners (no pun intended) were so motivated to run so fast.

• Among the more unusual marathons are the Midnight Sun Marathon held in Tromsø, Norway, the Great Wall Marathon on The Great Wall of China, The Big Five Marathon among the safari wildlife of South Africa, The Great Tibetan Marathon run at an altitude of 11,500 ft., and The Polar circle marathon on the permanent ice cap of Greenland. The Intercontinental Istanbul Eurasia Marathon is the only marathon where participants run over two continents, Europe and Asia, during the course of a single event.

• Many marathons feature a wheelchair division. Typically, those in the wheelchair racing division start their races earlier than their running counterparts. The New York City Marathon banned wheelchair entrants in 1977, citing safety concerns, but by 1986 14 wheelchair athletes were competing, and an official wheelchair division was added to the marathon in 2000. This year’s race was highlighted by hundreds of racers, young and old, in wheelchairs of all varieties. It was especially moving to see the dozens of military veterans in this year’s race whose injuries and disabilities did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm and commitment.

The crowd at this year’s event was practicing some other rituals that were equally as amazing:

• In our neighborhood there was a festive atmosphere including an all-rhythm band that played non-stop for three hours, and a disc jockey who called out the names of the interesting and colorful runners. This gave the runners, who were from all over the world, a sense of America’s real diplomacy – regular people cheering on the efforts of other regular people.

• Everyone all along the route cheered for every runner that went by – this gave the runners a needed shot of adrenaline and helped spur them on for the remainder of the race. These anonymous affirmations were offered genuinely and accepted gladly. This warm and festive atmosphere belied the seriousness of the runners’ intentions; but it seemed that other than the front runners, all the rest were thrilled to be able to do something this incredible.

• The runners themselves had many different outfits – clearly there’s a line running gear that most wear. But then there are the exhibitionists that are decked out in outfits most likely intended to amuse – the Brits in Bras (dozens of men and women in colorful and costumed bras), the runners who were wearing those goofy new 5 toed shoes, and the decorations on the wheelchairs. All of these added to the human element of what is otherwise a pretty serious event.

And then there were the countless examples of people to people diplomacy – the crowd and the runners interacting in ways that are not readily found in the conflicts throughout the world. The crowd on my street stayed until the last runner limped by and cheered just as wildly for their courage and spunk as they did for those who passed first. People who don’t know one another, have little in common and would not ordinarily discover the things they each appreciate, were drawn together in this universal event. Why can’t this happen in the many other instances where disparate people are brought together? Why won’t people join together in common purpose and good cheer for non-sporting events? Why won’t people who don’t know anything personal about one another take the time to learn and accept each other? I guess we just get nervous about the unfamiliar things we bump into each day. I would hope that the same level of diplomacy found in the Marathon could be extended to all the other times when and where strangers are brought together. Take time today to look for someone you don’t know who is doing something you’re unfamiliar with, and applaud them, tell them you’re impressed with them, wish them well, and show them some real warmth and kindness. You just might meet them in a race someday and wouldn’t it be grand if you were able to cheer together.

My message this week is about treating others the way we want to be treated:

“Histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends.” Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) was an 18th-century English poet, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He is the third-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson.

Ever been compared to a dog? Lots of times people refer to each other as “a dog”, or we reference what’s happening as “a dog’s life”, or we say someone’s “working like a dog”, or someone asks us to “stop barking”. And even more often we talk about “man’s best friend” as the measure of one’s loyalty. We all know people with dogs, many of us have dogs, we even know people who look like their dogs – and these pets are often treated better than family, friends and neighbors. People talk to their dogs as if they’re human, they ascribe human-like behaviors to their dog’s actions, and they’ll take their dogs to the vet faster than they’ll go to a doctor themselves. And because society puts so much stock in loyalty, it’s not surprising that history is filled with examples of man’s fidelity to their dogs. So please reflect on these dogisms and remember to be loyal to your two-legged companions today.

Stay well!

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