A time for endurance
Above: the TCS NYC Marathon Expo at the J. Javits Center, NYC, photo F. Moehn, 2 Nov. 2018
Imagine a music festival that spans twenty-six miles of city streets. Some 130 ensembles are located along the roads about every four blocks. They perform for hours. Yet most listeners don’t linger; hurrying by, they catch only fleeting moments of each song. It’s the World’s Biggest Block Party.
That’s how the Events and Entertainment staff of the New York Road Runners organization (NYRR) like to refer to the NYC Marathon, which they organize. Race Director Peter Ciaccia has said that he thinks of his job as like that of a choreographer, or the leader of an orchestra. On November 4th I will be traversing the length of this party for the first time in my nearly three decades of being based in NYC. Acquaintances have told me with animated enthusiasm that this marathon in particular offers an unforgettable experience. “Just you wait,” one said. “There will be gospel, Irish music, high school bands … You will pass through every demographic this city has to offer.”
That’s just what I wanted to hear: I am a musicologist currently working on a project called “Marathon Music: Research in the Soundscapes of Running.” Winnie Lok, who organized the music for the 2017 marathon, described how she is sensitive to the character of each borough. For example, at mile 20 in the Bronx, when some marathoners hit the metaphorical “wall” that makes them feel they can’t go on, Lok and sponsor New Balance featured music from legendary hip hop DJ and Bronx native Grandmaster Flash. They turned the dreaded marathon “bonk,” as it is also known, into a celebration of New York City streets and culture.
As Alex Hutchinson has shown in his book Endure, “the distinction between physical and psychological endurance” is “less clear-cut than it appears.” We must train both our bodies and our minds to go the distance. And because of the psychological component, it is not surprising that research has indicated that music can augment endurance during exercise. Many runners have their favorite playlists or “power songs.” The SpringMoves app will even select music that accommodates to your steps per minute (your cadence), or you can adjust your steps to match a specific beat (aiming for the often-cited 180 steps per minute, for example) and thereby improve your speed.
But for The World’s Biggest Block Party, no one needs headphones; they’re a bad idea for a crowded race but more importantly, this is an eminently public celebration. Our marathon, with its abundant bands in five diverse boroughs, over 50,000 finishers from about 125 countries, and the most generous crowd support of any race, is a great spectacle of civic culture and cooperation. “It will welcome you,” is one of the slogans NYRR is using in the media leading up to the event. This spirit of welcoming all who have the moxie to get into the race, and of challenging us to feats of endurance is what New York City can do when it’s at its best; it’s what has kept me here for most of my adult life.
We have been subject to a daily onslaught of disturbing news, most recently of bombs sent to noted political adversaries of the right—including two former presidents, and the hateful murders at the Tree of Life synagogue. A short while ago a journalist was brutally and brazenly murdered in his own consulate. We are nervously asking ourselves, Can democracy survive such divisiveness? Can it withstand the attacks on checks and balances, on facts, among other pressures?
The marathon takes place two days before our midterm elections. We will all need endurance over the coming days, weeks, months, years. To endure something paradoxically suggests a passive putting up with, but the noun endurance implies a more active and wilful form of participation, just as pushing through the wall at mile 20 to power through the last 10K of the race and finish strong requires mental and physical fortitude. It is this active, healthy, inclusive, and positive kind of endurance that we must cultivate, and I am counting on the live music of this city and our crowds to help me reach the finish line.
At a time when “nationalism” is a barely disguised slogan for rallying a sector of the population who want those who don’t look like them to “go back where they came from,” the buzz about the marathon—coming from friends at my local run club (Harlem Run) or at the nearby NYRR Open Run in Morningside Park, or at the Run Hub on W. 57thStreet, or from watching the construction of the finish line in Central Park during final training runs, or through social media such as Strava and Twitter—has me so excited and animated about being here now, about having the opportunity to test my training and grit together with my fellow New Yorkers and thousands of visiting athletes.
Inspiring competitors like Des Linden, winner of Boston this year, or defending NYC champion Shalane Flanagan, or Tatyana McFadden in the wheelchair competition, among others, are in town. Linden (a self-professed “music junkie”) has tweeted: “Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better.”
We must keep showing up and trying to be better. Let’s listen to each other this weekend. And you can wear headphones as you head to the voting booth if you want!
Postscript: Coincidentally, Bob Eckstein's cartoon in the New Yorker today speaks to the same theme.
Acknowledgment: I thank Winnie Lok for discussing her work at NYRR with me for this research.
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