Marathon Watching

This morning in the rain, a pounding torrential rain that punished the streets and those upon them, I walked a couple of blocks from my warm dry house to Sunset Boulevard, where I found thousands (tens-of-thousands?) of people in shorts and sleeveless shirts, splashing toward Santa Monica, more than twelve miles to the west. Most of these folks, soaked and somewhat short-of-breath, seemed unaccountably happy to be out in the elements on their own two feet. (Literally. Several participants were barefoot.) Whenever the rainfall intensified, voices rose from the throng as if urging on a rock band in concert: “Whoooooo!” But it was they who were the rock stars.

At the Los Angeles Marathon, this thing we call “human spirit” was on glorious display. And not just among the runners.

Volunteers, a crew of Sikh men, their turbans and frocks covered by plastic ponchos, distributed freshly cut oranges and words of encouragement. For the two hours or so that I observed the scene near my corner, the 12.5-mile mark, one of these gentlemen shouted “very good!” and only “very good!” almost without pause. Another’s koan was “awesome!” But it was they who were very good and awesome in the eyes of the herd trampling past. “Thank you for doing this!” people gasped as they plucked a juicy section from one man’s steel bowl.

Other civilians, a group of 5 young women, periodically (and unpredictably) screamed huzzahs in unison, although I couldn’t discern what criteria they were employing to select targets. There was a surfeit of enthusiasm here, a marked departure from the ennui and apathy that permeates our culture.

If you arrived early enough, when the equine beauties from Kenya and Ethiopia glided past at a pace that seemed impossible to maintain, you could see how a marathon is arranged very much like a so-called free-market society. There are elites, a handful of Olympians and professionals, who get to the 12.5-mile mark far before regular runners. The next clump of runners, those who can’t win but who still run amazingly fast, is slightly larger. The serious men and women on a 3-hour pace formed a slightly larger group, and so on, until the wide avenue became almost clogged with great armies of joggers, chugging shoulder to shoulder. The slower and more average the athlete, the bigger the crowd – all chasing a slightly smaller group, a group of accelerated status just ahead of them.

Watching the grand procession, you realize how few of these people you actually know –three, in my case – and that you’re probably never going to meet 99.9% of them. And still, somehow, in ways that can’t be fully explained yet are fully felt, you realize that you’re connected to all these people. They are your neighbors and your brothers and your sisters. And so you cheer for them, and reposition a table with cups of water, and accept their blown kisses and slapped hands

And when you return to your warm dry home you’re in no hurry to get anywhere at all.

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