A Marathon Happens in the Middle

Instead of running the New York marathon last year, I volunteered with Hurricane Sandy victims. It wasn't all that different.
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Brian Hajeski, 41, of Brick, N.J., reacts as he looks at debris of a home that washed up on to the Mantoloking Bridge the morning after superstorm Sandy rolled through. (Julio Cortez/AP)

On my 30th birthday I decided to run the New York marathon because I was leaving a decade in which I planned to accomplish more than I had.

The unwritten novel and exes I didn’t marry felt cliché but still like failures. The big 3-0 sounded like the microphone dying mid-note: a thud, followed by a disappointingly human sound that can’t fill the space. Here I was, still in the middle, somewhere between the person I knew I didn’t want to be and the person I did want to be but was still defining, and all I saw ahead was more middle. There was one item on my 23-year-old self’s whimsical list of “Goals By 30” that I could still squeeze in, though. Never mind that my runs had only ever exceeded two miles a handful of times, and that I’d had knee problems on occasion over the years.

I was going to run the damn thing.

Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was my training ground. As the miles added up to hours, I abandoned music for podcasts, and my running days began to take shape around the stories of others’ lives. When David Rakoff read, weeks before his death at 43, an excerpt from his final, unpublished manuscript, I retreated under the shade of an elm to cry quietly. When a black home health aide described noticing a white hooded gown hanging on the door of her dying client, I realized I’ve slowed down to gasp. (She stayed by his side until the end.) When a reporter, interviewing an evangelist politician, asked the state legislator if Jesus would have voted for the bill the legislator had introduced and he answered, after a long pause, “Probably not,” I yelled “Holy shit!” at a kid on a bike.

I logged nearly 600 miles running through the park’s many trees and teenagers skipping school, sullen nannies and summer camps full of kids, the lanky, grey-haired man with thick bottlecap glasses who floated around the perimeter of the park every day in a trance. At 14 miles, my old sports bra rubbed blisters in a semicircle around my neck. I dotted it with Neosporin and felt proud. At 16 miles my knees buckled. I hobbled home, learned about ice baths from Google, and took my first one. After my 21-miler, the longest run I tackled before the race, I took another. Ice baths are boring. Once the sharp chill and shivers pass, the bulk is just a numb quietness. I sat in the silence, studied my pink, goose-pimpled thighs beneath the water, and thought about the things we’re capable of.

Then Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast and the marathon was canceled.

I was embarrassed to be crushed, so I pretended not to be. “It was the right decision,” I soberly nodded. But then, drunk at a bar in my official ING Marathon shirt which I put on over my sweater to make it all mean less, I confessed to my best friend how disappointed I was.

“Let’s volunteer this weekend,” Christine suggested. I agreed and was still sad. 

The next morning was grey and chilly. We convened at a church in Brooklyn where teams of volunteers were being dispatched to different boroughs. Our mission—mine, Christine’s, and Arijit’s, another volunteer whom we’d just met and who had a car—was to go to Staten Island, where we were to make a “map of the need” to text back to the hub, which would then distribute resources accordingly.

We packed up the car with food, blankets, and diapers—just guesses of what might be useful—and headed over the Verrazano. As we capped the bridge, I turned and imagined running over it instead.

Everywhere, there were piles of everything: piles of houses, piles of jackets, piles of water bottles. At nearly every corner, women frantically replenished food behind tables, the long kind you’d find in a high school cafeteria. Unmoving lines of people curved around and down blocks, all holding bright red empty gas canisters.

Teams of would-be marathoners came to volunteer in groups, sporting their construction-cone orange ING Marathoner shirts, the same one I wore the night before. They seemed so chipper, so excited to be carrying jagged beams of wood and industrial brooms. I was annoyed by them and couldn’t tell why.

We arrived on a street made impassable by a utility truck blocking the way. Next to it, an angry Verizon worker fumed, literally and figuratively, behind his parked van. He gestured with his cigarette, “Stop sightseeing!” he yelled. “You can’t get by! Turn around!” I wanted to explain that we weren’t sightseeing, but so far we’d done nothing but hold our iPhones up to the windows and snap shots to post on Instagram and Twitter.

***

The cafeteria at New Dorp High School buzzed with teachers and students folding and packing bags. The walls were labeled: BLANKETS, HOT FOOD, SANDWICHES, GIRLS, MEN. Shoes were in a U-shape in the middle of the room for easy access, sorted by size. Outside New Dorp, the Red Cross and National Guard set up tents in the soccer field—like some kind of disaster fair that no one showed up for—a bit dystopian, all well-lit but eerily empty. Inside the school was like the most efficient TSA line ever on the busiest day of the year.

The principal was Deirdre DeAngelis. She had spiky blonde hair and wore a grey sweatsuit—matching top and bottoms—and shiny earrings. She was summoned to talk to us and arrived with the dean, a woman dressed nearly identically, minus the earrings.

DeAngelis was opinionated on the state of disaster relief in the borough. The people who needed help weren’t coming out of their homes, she told us, they were afraid to leave. The people who came out for aid were poor, she said, but they weren’t the real hurricane victims. (I’m still not sure what to make of this—is need more real if it has the gloss of urgency?) She went on to explain the DeAngelis Recovery Method: send students door to door to get orders, fill those orders, and dispatch deliveries—the right size clothes for the children, the right size batteries for the flashlights.

“It’s survival take-out,” the dean chimed in.

DeAngelis asked if we minded taking general care packages door-to-door. As for how to find the homes where the real need was, we were instructed to drive around sniffing out desperation.

“Look down a street and if it’s a disaster, go there.”

A short, friendly, high school senior advised me on the best approach: just thrust a bag at them and say, “This is for you.” Asking if they need it means they’ll say no, she said.

“Is it a pride thing?” I asked. She shrugged. “I think they just think other people probably need it more.”

It was just past 4:30 and already dark in the powerless section of the borough. The temperature was dropping fast, and not the healing, ice bath kind of cold. Harsh and getting harsher.

All we could see was what was illuminated by the headlights as we wound around trash, furniture, and mystery objects. It was hard to distinguish between what was dismantled during clean up and what the storm destroyed, and I didn’t try for long, because I was squinting for upward facing nails.

When we detected human-size movement, we hopped out. Christine mastered the art of getting people to accept the care packages: Beg them.

“We have a ton of food and supplies, will you please take some, for our sake?”

It wasn’t true. Garbage bags, diapers in the right sizes, and flashlights were scarce. But the residents kept claiming they weren’t the worst off. “Give it to those people over there. They need it more,” we heard from men and women standing in front of frames that used to hold up walls.

The exceptions were gloves and socks—no one turned those down. One woman shook her head at me, saying, “I’m fine,” but as I put the socks in her hand, it closed around them.

At one house where men were working below ground level, a tiny cloud of light from a lantern glowed up from the basement. I yelled, “Does anyone in there need socks?” They cheered.

Back at the car, I found a woman nodding as Christine listed what we had left. The woman didn’t say anything, she was just nodding. Christine handed me items and once my arms were full, she finally spoke. “I don’t know if I need it—I will need it—I just don’t need it now—I can’t think.” I asked if I could take the stuff inside and she nodded again. I walked in and set it in a corner of a dimly lit kitchen. Then I looked up to see four people at a table, a candle flickering between them, all watching me silently.

As we drove home, I thought about their faces. I thought about the marathon, and all my training over the past six months. Working toward the race, I learned that I couldn’t hold points A and B in my mind at the same time. I couldn’t think about mile 26 when I was at mile 2, or the gap would have overwhelmed me. At mile 2 I had to think about mile 5; at mile 12, I had to think about mile 16; and so on. This 2-to-5-mile strategy guided me through each long run.

In some ways the day had been like that. When your frame is wide enough, need is constant. But that’s a paralyzing perspective, and so, completely useless, I tell myself: you can’t think about saving a neighborhood when talking to a guy who needs gloves. You just find the gloves.

The next week, I go to the Red Hook neighborhood, where high rises had been, at that point, powerless and cold for 10 days. Residents ascended and descended the internal, windowless stairwells in groups for safety—the route was treacherous, uneven, and slippery even when there was light to see by, which there wasn’t. Other residents were homebound because they couldn’t climb. I was there with Dr. Mark to check on them.

A man named Ephraim beckoned us to follow him. The fourth floor was covered in caca, he explained. He had put cardboard on top of the layer of feces so his daughter could leave for school.

In 9C, Dr. Mark asked a Mrs. Moseley, a 70-something, homebound woman, if he could check her heartbeat. Holding his stethoscope against her chest he asked, "Did you know your heart has an irregular rhythm, Mrs. Moseley?"

"Of course it does right now!” She grabbed my hand, howling, “Do you know how long it’s been since a man touched me this much?”

***

In late November last year, on a Saturday morning, I ran a marathon alone in Prospect Park. I hadn’t been able to shake the itch to finish the thing, and so I packed up a small bag of energy goos, grabbed my water bottle, and set my stopwatch.

After birth, all of life is only middle, middle forever until we die. What does it take to keep moving, every day, toward filling all the little wells of need that are two blocks or a thousand miles or zero inches away? If you look at the landscape of a life, it will never be done until it’s done. I will keep working toward what I can hold in my head, anyway, because gloves are something I can handle today, and tomorrow is another today.

With less than a mile left in my 26.2, I spotted Dr. Mark arriving in the park with his son. “Dr. Mark!” I jogged over and told him I was running “the” marathon, and he asked how much farther I had left. “Well, go!” he shooed me onward, and I finished at the park’s entrance, where Christine waited with flowers and Gatorade.

Seeing Dr. Mark reminded me of something. Once I was showered and fed, I called Ms. Mosley. She needed help figuring out some insurance papers and I had said I’d check in with her. She didn’t pick up. 

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Mary Adkins is a writer based in New York City. She edits the blog at The Life of the Law

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