At 10 am this morning, the starting gun went off on the West side of Central Park, by Tavern on the Green. Almost 8000 racers surged ahead along the park roads, heading clockwise towards the Great Hill.
But at 10am this morning, I was standing 4.5 miles away on the East drive, chitchatting, enjoying the sun, watching recreational runners and bikers stream by. I was volunteering for the race, as part of my 9+1 for guaranteed entry into the NY marathon (this was the +1, the 9 are races). My start gun came about 20 minutes later, when a car with flashing hazards slowly made its way along the racing lane. This was our cue to direct the runners from where they were running, to a narrow section of the outer lane. We yelled, waved our arms, gestured to the left, and hoped for the best.
The best came in the form of bike marshals who, plowing through the runners and yelling, were way more effective than a smallish girl and a man draped in a Scottish flag (despite our reflective vests). Right behind the bike, two racers came whipping by, skimming the inside of the curve (where we were standing). They were so fast, so fluid, and so thin that it was almost as if nothing has occurred at all. If I had looked away, or blinked, I would have completely missed the amazing display of athleticism that had just occurred right in front of me. After a pause another cluster of racers arrived, then another, and eventually these clusters filled out until the running lane was packed.
The problem was now pedestrians. Me and one other volunteer (and an awesome team-mate who came out to help support) were manning a very heavily frequented cross-walk that led from the Met museum into the park. Most people were mindful and considerate, asking me for the best way to cross, which was not an easily answered question. I spent most of the race standing next to rows of strollers (at one point there were 4), with the parents patiently waiting for their opportunity. My advice usually went something like: “I think there may be a gap, see over there, in front of the red shirt guy, ok, RUN!!”. One father explained to his poor toddler, “wait, and when I say, you need to run very fast!!” — the poor child nodded mutely, a look of fear in his eyes.
There were a few notable violators, but without any actual authority there was little I could do other than yell pointlessly. One older woman with her dog wandered into the thick of the race and held her hand out to stop the racers; a woman with a stroller crossed at a diagonal, slowly, with a pack of the lead racers rapidly approaching (and then seemed horrified that I shouted at her to hurry); and a women in a pink bra and pink booty shorts ran, right within the racing lane, against the flow of the race.
The best part of the day, however, was being able to cheer on my team-mates and the other racers. For the first time I was able see full cohort of runners along the course, from the very fastest to the very slowest. Despite their clear level of exhaustion, the slower runners were by far the happiest. They responded to our cheers with whoops and thanks, several of them even thanked us for being out there, and this joy at just being able to run at all fueled our enthusiasm: we clapped and shouted louder than we had for the lead runners. My hands were sore and my throat was hoarse; I longed for a cow-bell.
Slowly, 45 minutes after the lead racers had whipped by, the runners thinned out to just an occasional smattering of walkers. The recreational runners filed back into the inner lane, the bikers resumed their rightful domination of the road, and the park was a park again. There has been some speculation as to whether NYRR instituted the +1 rule because they needed more volunteers, or because they wanted runners to experience the other side of organizing a race. Since you can get a substitute to do your +1 it is very likely the former, but there is no question that being on the other side gave me a glimpse into the magic that occurs every few weekends in Central Park, when it is temporarily changed from a place of recreation to a race course. What was most amazing to me was how easily and fluidly this happened: a seemingly full park suddenly accommodating 8000 racers and then, with minimal fuss, resuming its previous business. I suppose, if I needed one, this is just one more reason to love New York and Central Park.
My top picture is of my team-mate, looking fantastic and fast (as usual). The picture below is the one I officially used for my 365.