How the New York City Marathon bonds us all

BY Martin Rogers u2014 @MrogersFOX • November 1, 2019

It has been a long, long time since Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall entered a race she has no chance to win — long enough that she’s forgotten what it’s like. In a similar situation is Ryan Briscoe, who took the checkered flag eight times during his IndyCar career.

“No, I definitely won’t be winning this race,” Briscoe told me in a telephone conversation ahead of Sunday’s TCS New York City Marathon. “Not in the traditional sense, anyway.”

The clichéd response is that everyone who turns out to force their bodies and will their minds around 26.2 miles of the five boroughs is a winner. This magical race is an awe-inspiring mass of humanity, one that says much about the human spirit and perhaps even more about the way in which the Big Apple cherishes triumph in the face of adversity ... because after everything, why wouldn’t it?

But what is the marathon experience like for athletes who have attained greatness in other sports? You can’t simply turn off the competitive spirit — not when it has been at the very core of your existence and formed the basis of your livelihood. What exactly are they competing against?

“So many things,” Randall — who won the Olympic cross-country skiing team sprint with Jessica Diggins in Pyeongchang last year — told me. “You’re pushing yourself, your limitations, any restrictions on what you want your life to be. I got to be in New York last November and watched a couple of friends do their first marathon. You couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement. Then, when you start training over the summer, you realize: this is pretty daunting.”

If it is daunting for Randall, a veteran of five Olympics and with a natural core of endurance fitness from her skiing career, you can imagine the challenge facing the estimated 38,000 who will brave the course stretching from Staten Island to Central Park this weekend.

People come to the marathon in different ways. Randall has long harbored a dream to run the race but was further inspired to do so as she underwent treatment for breast cancer. Briscoe happened to be in New York two years ago and felt pangs of jealousy and admiration for the runners he saw trudging to their homes or hotels, huddled in heat-retention blankets but flushed with the glow of ultimate achievement.

“That’s what I’m looking for,” Briscoe added. “That sense of pride of having finished it, of knowing it’s the culmination of all these months of preparation, of having reached something you didn’t know you could do, while having all these incredible strangers cheering you on. When I got a taste of it, that was it. I had to do it ... or at least try.”

Briscoe raced in IndyCar for a decade and has spent the last four seasons on the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship circuit, for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing. Like Randall, he has won at every level of his sport. On Sunday, however, each will be just another runner among thousands of them. No head starts, no favors.

Athletes who reach the top have something special about them, but the marathon is the ultimate leveler ... even to the point of what drives them to the race in the first place.

When former world No. 1 tennis player Caroline Wozniacki experienced a difficult breakup with her then-fiance Rory McIlroy in 2014, moving on meant, literally, moving on.

“She had a very typical reaction, which was ‘(Expletive) this, I’m going to run the marathon,’” Matthew Futterman, deputy sports editor of The New York Times and the acclaimed author of the recently released Running to the Edge, told me. “In any marathon there are probably hundreds of people who are out there coming off a bad breakup. It’s a very cleansing, cathartic thing. They feel like (maybe) they were in a relationship that was codependent and ended badly and wanted to do something for themselves — and that is totally what Wozniacki did.”

Futterman’s book explores the fascinating tale of revolutionary running coach Bob Larsen and an irreverent band of “hippie jocks” he rounded up in the 1970s and turned into champions. Futterman is a fine runner himself, with a best marathon time of 3 hours, 15 minutes and 58 seconds, but remembers Wozniacki breezing past him at the 19-mile mark and finishing three minutes ahead.

The Danish tennis star’s longest “long” run in training was 12 miles. Most running coaches will tell you 18 is the bare minimum you need to be race ready.

“I guess it turns out being a world-class athlete might actually help you run a marathon,” Futterman joked. “Who would have thought?”

Marathon running has been in the spotlight recently, largely due to the extraordinary sub-two-hour performance of Eliud Kipchoge in Vienna three weeks ago. As mind-blowing as Kipchoge’s effort was, he was paced by both a car and a team of world-class runners, and accompanied by a huge support team.

Those are luxuries unknown to everyone running in New York on Sunday. Randall, once recovered from her bouts of chemotherapy, had to balance training around travel and work. Briscoe sandwiched his long runs between racing and family commitments and had to take some time off from training in the final month because his body started grumbling at the workload.

Both know that the mental battle will be crucial come race day. Runners must draw upon whatever is in their mind’s arsenal to get through the toughest stretches.

“I’ve experienced what it feels like to feel awful and to be low,” Randall said. “When I’m out there on the course and it gets really tough, I’m going to remind myself that, unlike chemo, this kind of discomfort is a happy pain.”

Briscoe will be buoyed by the thought of his wife Nicole, an ESPN SportsCenter host, and their children waiting for him at the finish.

The running life means different things to different people. For me in New York last year, it was about proving that the age of 40 wasn’t my physical finish line, while remembering lost life and celebrating a new one.

Each of Sunday’s runners has their own reasons, their own story. It is their own struggle, but one that is somehow shared with thousands over all those footfalls. If there is ever a time to forgive a cliché, it’s at the end of 26.2 miles. So while only one person crosses the line first … yeah, you get the picture.

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