Just Do It Again

Running a marathon in a year like no other

Joanna Cohen
Oct 30 · 4 min read
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In June, New York Road Runners announced that this year’s New York City Marathon, scheduled for November 1st, had been canceled due to coronavirus concerns.

If the event had gone on as usual, it would have been my fifth consecutive NYC Marathon and my eighth overall. And this was going to be a big one — the 50th running of the race.

Before the NYC Marathon expanded in 1976 to the city-wide extravaganza it is today, the course was four-plus loops of Central Park. There were 127 registered runners and just 55 crossed the finish line.

I love looking at photos of those early races. Shaggy dudes in short shorts. A bicyclist who pauses, curious, to watch the pack of runners streak by. A winner making peace signs with his hands as he approaches the finish line — a piece of tape pulled taut by two little kids. It was all so unobtrusive and eccentric and no-frills.

Not anymore. Last year’s race attracted 53,627 runners from 141 countries, decked out and teched out in sweat-wicking gear and GPS watches. More than a million spectators lined the course along with thousands of volunteers, dozens of live bands, and 400 portable toilets.

It’s a sprawling day-long party that pours through the streets and over the bridges and into the parks of all five boroughs. Talk about a mass gathering. This year, there was just no way.

Well, not exactly.

On Sunday, I will run the 2020 Virtual TCS New York City Marathon. It invites runners from around the globe to complete the full 26.2-mile distance on one calendar day anytime between October 17th and November 1st.

This marathon will be very different. There will be no glorious start in Staten Island. No live bands in Brooklyn pounding out the theme to “Rocky.” No quiet anticipation on the Queensboro Bridge. No brief dash through the boogie down Bronx. No digging deep down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

There will be no high-fiving cops. No sea of handmade signs. No airhorns, cowbells, or thundersticks. No water tables. No mile markers. No fellow runners.

What kind of lunatic runs a marathon alone?

If I’ve learned anything over the past 16 weeks of training, it is that I am not alone.

The running community has been with me since the early days of the pandemic. Those bleak, grey mornings in March when no one knew anything and it felt as if the earth had been knocked off its axis. I’d head to Central Park, edgy and tense, and find relief each time I’d pass a fellow runner. Even as we’d swing way out, giving each other a wide berth, there was comfort in knowing we were still out there together on the same road.

The running community was with me through the summer, when I was away from the city on roads I didn’t know. In the form of an app with a map, and Siri-esque directions in my ear keeping me from getting lost.

It’s been with me during what has been a mercifully gorgeous autumn in New York. I run solo, but feel connected to the woman wearing the same dorky water belt as me. To the guy who also just tore the top off a tube of energy gel. To the dozens upon dozens of runners listening to their watches beep as they put in their miles. We are doing more than training. We are persevering. Rising. Building collective strength.

In addition to community, marathon training offers a chance to improve. Not just speed or endurance. That’s really the least of it. It gives you an opportunity to develop a more enlightened outlook, a broader perspective, a deeper sense of gratitude.

Marathons teach. They speak. And for obvious reasons, this marathon has a different voice from those in years past. Or maybe it’s my voice. Rather than wondering how many alarms I’ll set to wake me on race morning, it asks, “This isn’t a real marathon, so why are you doing it?”

I’m doing it because I refuse to be defeated.

This pandemic has slammed us all with a new and uniquely cruel brand of grief, frustration, anger, loss, and fear. It’s taken our loved ones, our celebrations, our jobs. It’s ruined our plans, stolen our stability, upended our routines.

We’ve had to watch in helpless disbelief as the graduation ceremonies and school plays and proms we’d anticipated for years were called off. As the chance to make memories vanished. As our shining moments went dark. As our rites of passage passed. There and then gone — for good.

It has been heartbreaking.

Yet here we are. Still putting one foot in front of the other. Somehow we’ve kept moving forward. For the past eight months, my husband and our 10-year-old daughter have masked up, locked down, logged on, fought, cried, laughed, baked, hunted for hand sanitizer, cheered for essential workers, gone to work and gone to school without going anywhere at all.

We’ve tried our best to take what is most meaningful to us and reimagine it. Knowing it won’t be ideal. Knowing it won’t be the same. But believing it can still be — if delayed, modified, adapted, imperfect.

If we’re lucky, we discover beauty in that imperfection, maybe even joy. It’s this smattering of small victories, this collection of tiny triumphs, this series of small steps that over time, in this dreadful time, accumulate into the assurance that we can indeed go on.

That is the meaning and the metaphor of this marathon.

And I’d argue that this one will be as real as any I’ve ever done and that I’ll feel my community with me as much as I ever have, if not more.

On Sunday, I’ll be kicking it old school — running my 26.2 in Central Park. No frills. No crowds. But an abundance of hope.

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Joanna Cohen

Written by

Writer, athlete, mom, sports fan. New York City native. Probably the only person on earth who has interviewed Derek Jeter and written dialogue for Susan Lucci.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds

Joanna Cohen

Written by

Writer, athlete, mom, sports fan. New York City native. Probably the only person on earth who has interviewed Derek Jeter and written dialogue for Susan Lucci.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds

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