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.
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 When David Rakoff read, weeks before his death at 43, an excerpt from his final, unpublished manuscript, I retreated under the shade of an elm to cry quietly.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.

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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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