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Reflections from NYC: Marathon as Apotheosis

Reflections from James Cockayne, one of Team Runwell's TCS New York City Marathon runners. "That's the sense in which I now realize marathoning is a sort of pseudo-religious pastime, aimed at encouraging people to be (everyday) 'heroes', setting themselves above and apart from their past selves."

Marathon as Apotheosis:

Wow. I didn't expect the TCS NYC Marathon to feel like a kind of apotheosis. But that's the only way I can describe it: a strange combination of city-wide status-initiation ritual and a huge, day-long adrenaline rush for the joe-blows turned would-be everyday heroes, like me.

It's a bit like being in the school play. You spend months in rehearsals (aka training), but when the big day comes for the performance you are just swept along on adrenaline and muscle memory. I thought I would be focused on my lines - my running form and my rhythm - but with 25-mile-an-hour headwinds and almost-zero-temperatures and bus-jams trying to get to the start, all of that somehow evaporated at the beginning of the first Act.

Perhaps it got blown out to sea as I gaped at the incredible view from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, high above the angled light bouncing off the morning harbor. Or somewhere along 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. Those first 18 miles are still a blur. A succession of New York neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive musical entertainment and Sunday morning clothing. My wife and friends hollering at me from outside my apartment as I climbed up Clinton Hill along an autumnal Lafayette Avenue. The Williamsburg hipsters trying to outdo each others with ever-more-ironic signs. The quiet grind of the Queensborough Bridge, without crowds, and then the whoops of joy from the procession of runners as we crested and began to roll down to the tunnel of sound from the throngs lining both sides of First Avenue.

Before you know it, you've left Staten Island and Brooklyn and Queens and First Avenue on Manhattan behind and you are headed for the Bronx and winding back into Harlem - but running horribly low on gas. (Petrol, for the Aussie readers.) And then you're left just with your instincts and whatever you can summon from your muscles and gut. And all the build up, all the trappings, all the millions of fans out on the course screaming that 'You can do it!' and demanding 'What are you made of, Jimi C?' have framed this as a kind of character-defining moment. Can you make it over the 'wall'? Can you push through to the end? Do you have what it takes to ascend to the higher status of Marathoner?

I never really thought that would affect me much. It wasn't that I was arrogant about my fitness - I knew from my training that once I hit 18 or 20 miles I'd struggle, just like everyone else. And although I'm a pretty stubborn bastard, I also knew that if it got too painful, I was just as likely as the next guy to pack it in. It was just that I don't respond well to external character tests, and I was never really into that whole 'running as self help' thing. Or so I thought.

So I just didn't expect what actually happened. I didn't expect it to feel like a huge celebration. A wave of joy and pride carried me through those last 8 miles. No little bird in my ear discussing my weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as I used to get when I 'performed', or before a big game or a big exam. Just a huge rush at meeting the test I'd set for myself - and everyone being out there to celebrate with me!

It wasn't always physically pleasurable, to say the least, but I never expected that last 8 miles to make me feel so good. It's partly all the fans and acolytes, it's partly the noise and cheering and music, it's partly being part of a literal movement of 50,000 people - but most of all, it's because you've set yourself this ridiculously hard goal - and are about to achieve it. You're living through a serious upgrade in your perception of your own capabilities - in your self-respect.

That's the sense in which I now realize marathoning is a sort of pseudo-religious pastime, aimed at encouraging people to be (everyday) 'heroes', setting themselves above and apart from their past selves. Setting yourself these goals which force you to discipline your own conduct and make sacrifices for several months; passing your own milestones in changed behavior and feeling faintly self-righteous on Sunday mornings when you've just run 12 miles and others are wrestling with a hangover, as your old self would have been; and then the city holds a giant party to help you celebrate your passage to that higher status - Marathoner!

So - a great day. I hit the finish line in 3 hours, 52 mins, 13 seconds - which was lower than the 4 hours I always said I would be happy with, but perhaps a touch higher than I would have ideally liked. Given the headwind, I have to be happy with that. And I am - as you can see in the attached pix.
I'm hugely grateful to all of the people that donated to Runwell as I trained for the big day. They not only helped me stay disciplined, but contributed a whopping $4,632 to a fabulous cause. I'm also hugely grateful to the RunWell team, and especially Keith Brantly for his excellent coaching advice. Particular thanks have to go to Carl Kalapesi, who tricked me into the whole thing, and was a major, major supporter on the way; Jessica and Jeremy Davis for their very generous contribution to the RunWell cause; Andrew Hudson - my first donor and second coach, after Keith. But most of all my thanks have to go to Rachel, for her bolognese, for putting up with my conversion, and for being my #1 fan.
Signing off. 
James

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