Thinker’s Notebook: What does special feel like?

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Marlon Rice, center, makes a family pit stop approaching the 9 mile marker of the NYC marathon.

On Sunday, more than 50,000 runners will take part in the TCS New York City Marathon. The marathon is a 26.2-mile race that stretches across all of the five boroughs. It is a premier event, like an unofficial holiday for the city, with hundreds of thousands of people lining the city streets to slap hands and cheer the runners on. No parade or gathering can quite compare to the energy of the city on Marathon Sunday.

Marlon and his sister Kyam watching the NYC Marathon in 1985.

Every year my mom would walk my sisters and I up the block, from our house on Greene Avenue, up one block to Lafayette Avenue, to watch the marathon runners go past. When we were younger, my sisters and I would climb under the tape and stick our hands out, smiling and winking at each other every time a runner slapped hands with us. We’d stand out there for hours, watching and cheering for everybody from the elite runners down to those who the mileage had reduced to a brisk walk. I used to watch those runners with a keen eye, the perfect blend of agony and happiness across their faces, the determination in their stride and I’d wonder how? 26.2 miles seemed like an impossible journey when I was a kid. You mean to tell me that they start in Staten Island and run all the way to Central Park? In one day?? Without stopping??? The idea was unfathomable. Surely, feats such as this were reserved for those designed by God for greatness. I didn’t know any regular folk running around my neighborhood in 40-degree weather wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Everyone isn’t doing this. No, to do this marathon thing you had to be special. At least that was my perception of the race at 11 years old.

I started running in my late 20’s. I used to run on the treadmill for ten minutes before starting my workout, one mile a couple of times of week as a warm-up. I can remember being on the treadmill at the West Side YMCA, running that obligatory mile, imagining that I was running down Lafayette Avenue on Marathon Sunday. Even then, even before I understood running, how to run, how to prepare yourself to run, even when one measly treadmill mile felt like the most difficult thing to finish, my mind was already computing how to add another 25.2 to the equation.

I did my first organized race in 2009. It was the Bed-Stuy 10K, a race put together by Restoration right here in my neighborhood. I remember going to get my number and T-shirt and realizing that other people I knew were running the race, too. That realization changed my perspective. These runners, the ones that invade our streets every November, wearing bibs and panting along the race route, they were regular people when they weren’t running. My friend Pat has run at least a dozen marathons. He works in education. My friend Rudy ran his first marathon last year. He’s a bartender. Marathoners aren’t some elite group of humans ordained by God to run. They are regular folk who enjoy challenging themselves, setting lofty goals and smashing them. You aren’t special because you can finish a race. You’re special because you’ve made the decision to be better than you were, to utilize discipline and commitment in the pursuit of better. That is what is so special about running. That’s what I was seeing as an 11-year-old standing on Lafayette Avenue.

I am running in the TCS New York Marathon this Sunday. It is my first marathon, and the fruition of the dreams of that little boy watching greatness from the curb. The idea that I have become one of the runners that I used to watch still amazes me. I’m excited about the day. I can’t wait to experience this moment from the perspective of a participant. Our city is unlike any other on the planet. We have among us humans from 190 different countries, cultures that have meshed seamlessly with other cultures to form nuances that you can’t find anywhere else. We are a melting pot, and this Sunday I get to run through every neighborhood, to hear the cheers of every New Yorker, no matter what language they are cheering in. I’m going to be part of an experience that will motivate another young boy or girl to find their greatness, to challenge themselves to complete enormous tasks in their lives, only to realize that it wasn’t some guy running the marathon that was special, but it was they who were special the whole time. I’ll see you Sunday.