Marathon weekend in New York City is all-consuming. Runners decked out in brightly coloured running gear and their boisterous hangers-on swarm the streets and crowd the hotels. Even in this huge metropolis, the competitors stand out with their rosy glow and eager anticipation. Everyone has a map of the course. The runners plan their strategy; spectators like us consider the best vantage points on the 26-odd-mile course from which we can cheer on our companions.
The New York City Marathon starts on Staten Island, crosses into Brooklyn, goes up into Queens, and then crosses over Roosevelt Island on the Queensboro Bridge to 59th Street in Manhattan. It then goes up 1st Avenue to 138th Street in the Bronx, through Harlem, and then down 5th Avenue into Central Park at about 86th, back down to 59th, and then into the Park near the west side.
For spectators, the first challenge is to figure out the New York subway system. There are numerous lines, identified only by numbers or letters, running north and south and also across the city. Different directions on the same line are sometimes accessible only from different entrances on the street. Some trains are express and do not make local stops. Others make local stops but may not go to the end of the line. The system is complex and requires paying attention all the time.
We were impressed that the subway was cleaner, and generally without the graffiti which marked it years ago. It is a very big system, however, and maintenance seems to be an issue. Several very long escalators at major exchanges were out of order on marathon day. Climbing long lengths of shut-down escalators is an exercise unto itself. And some exits from the system are narrow, with unstable surfaces on the stairs. Anyone with mobility problems or carrying a stroller has difficulties. For all its problems, the New York subway is a vast resource which reaches into all the boroughs. Clearly, it is the way to cover the course of the marathon.
We decided to make our way to about the ten-mile mark on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, then to the 14-mile mark in Queens, and then to the final leg on 5th Avenue. The first two positions gave us great sight lines. Diverted by lunch, we had to rush to get to about 5th Avenue and 86th Street before our runners passed. The finish line itself was accessible only to those who purchased tickets for seats in the stands (a security precaution?), so we met our runners in “the family meeting area” near Columbus Circle. But for the Marathon, I would have had little reason to learn how the subway works beyond the core.
As our friends did not start the marathon until 11:00 am, we had time to sightsee. Our companion, Mark Pedrotti, is a retired opera singer who has sung in the past with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and the New York Philharmonic, among others. He knows the city well, and loves to meander the streets of Lower Manhattan. For brunch, he found a tiny café in Soho that could have been out of Vienna. It served excellent coffee and freshly baked croissants filled with crab, or prosciutto, or bacon and tomato – a totally satisfying start to the day. Then he led us to the National September 11 Memorial, where two square pools stand in the footprint of the twin towers, surrounded by a large tree-filled garden. Waterfalls (the largest manmade falls in the United States) cascade down the sides of the pools and disappear into a void. The names of all the victims of the terrorist attacks are inscribed in bronze on the walls of the pools. We found the simplicity of the pools and the silence of the scene, broken only by the falling of the water, incredibly moving.
Last, but not least, the Marathon gave us an excuse to see “Tannhäuser” at the Saturday matinée of the Metropolitan Opera. I had never been to the Met before, and was thrilled by the grandeur and immensity of the opera house, and the quality of the production. That we were attending live a performance being seen simultaneously by Cineplex viewers around the world was particularly intriguing. The cameras transmitting to Cineplex are totally unobtrusive to the live audience. The world is truly very small, and New York City is at the centre of it.
One day each year, our birthday, is a special day. How to celebrate is always a question. Some burrow in, insist that they are still 29, and absolutely refuse all efforts to recognize the day. Others celebrate over time, with luncheons, dinner or drinks with different family members and friends. Some plan elaborate parties or special trips. Others take the occasion of a birthday as a personal challenge.
Celebrating “all the September birthdays” or “all the spring birthdays” is popular. My parents, their sibs, and their cousins had a tradition of getting together at a restaurant every couple of months to celebrate birthdays. So long as they were able to drive, they met regularly at a family restaurant which was easy, convenient, and served the type of food they loved. Nobody had to cook, nobody brought presents, but everyone brought funny cards and they competed for the most outrageous. In a pre-Facebook era, these regular lunches allowed them to keep in the loop about what the family was doing. As one of the next generation who came to Vancouver regularly from Toronto, these birthday lunches gave me a chance to visit with family members whom I otherwise might not have seen. I thought it a great institution.
Some people gather together their closest friends and host a special dinner or lunch. To celebrate her 70th birthday, one friend and her neighbour threw a joint birthday party with only their women friends. It was a delightful event, intimate and heart-warming, a gaggle of women “of a certain age” sitting around the dining room table, all resplendent in the sparkling candlelight, laughing over poetry ribbing our friend. To celebrate his 60th birthday, another friend and his partner hosted a sit-down dinner for fifty in their stately living room. After cocktails on the patio, the group enjoyed a concert of song and piano music before the lavish buffet. The spouse of another friend, who met him as a student at Massey College, has hosted birthday dinners for him in the private dining room there. The space has special meaning to them.
For our 65th birthdays, my husband and I hiked the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island. It was probably a coincidence that we did it that year. We had wanted to hike the 75-kilometre trail from Bamfield to Port Renfrew for years. We knew that it was a back-country trail which required backpacking all our gear. There would be climbing up and down long ladders, crossing rivers on swinging bridges and trolleys, and climbing rocks to traverse some of the beach. My husband was an experienced backpacker but afraid of heights. It dawned on us, however, that if we didn’t do the WCT soon, we probably wouldn’t do it at all. When my cousin, who is an inveterate backwoodsman, wanted to join us, we knew that it was now or never. We took ten days to cover a distance which our son, hiking alone, did in four. How long it took is irrelevant. That we had the experience is what counted. Was it worth the effort? Absolutely.
To celebrate his 60th birthday, our friend Bob Dann ran the New York City Marathon this past November. He had originally set himself the task of running a half marathon in every province and territory in Canada before his 75th. With numerous half marathons under his belt, well in advance of his long-term objective, he decided to try a marathon. And only New York would do. It is the largest marathon in the world, with 50,000 odd runners and, because of the enthusiastic support of New Yorkers all around the city, is considered the most exciting. He began training in the summer and by the fall was ready. He found the race somewhat harder than he had expected. There are long bridges to cross and, contrary to popular belief, running “down” Fifth Avenue and into Central Park at the end of the race is more uphill than down. But he completed the race in five hours, nine minutes and thirty seconds, placing 36,845th of the entire field. A most satisfying birthday celebration!
Which leads me to consider what we should do for our next milestone birthday. It will come all too quickly.