Jonathan VanAntwerpen | Missing the Marathon

When I first moved to New York City almost two decades ago, I would not have expected the annual New York City Marathon to become one of my favorite things about living in the city. But it is, in retrospect, among the most moving civic rituals I have ever witnessed.

The very first New York City Marathon was run the year that I was born. This coming fall — as New York Road Runners confirmed earlier in the week — the marathon’s 50th running will take place (last year’s race was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

“The marathon is a charismatic event,” as New York City Marathon founder Fred Lebow once put it. “It has everything. It has drama. It has competition. It has camaraderie. It has heroism.”

I first started to really tune into the music of the marathon not long after moving to Brooklyn. As the runners came down Bedford Avenue, just around the corner from my little apartment, they were nearing the marathon’s midpoint — front-of-the-pack professionals flying by first, followed by more runners, and more, and more, and more. The day got longer, the struggles more evident. Some of these folks were not going to finish. We clapped and whistled and yelled our encouragement even louder then, picking out first names scribbled on the fronts of running jerseys, and calling out to runner after runner as they came trotting by, our throats scratchy and sore.

“C’mon, keep going. Don’t get tired. They’re not tired. Keep going.”

The little video clip above, with the voice of my beloved partner and the exhortations of a sweet band man in the background, is from 2010. But the marathon that will probably always hold most vividly in my memory is one I missed, the year prior. November 1, 2009. Día de los Muertos. All Saints Day.

I’d gone the day before to visit one of my oldest and dearest friends. She was pregnant, and had been having light contractions. Come on over, she said. We’ll hang out. A few hours after I arrived, the contractions got stronger and more frequent. I stayed for dinner, and then decided to stay the night, sleeping fitfully on the couch as my friend began the increasingly painful early stages of labor. In the middle of the night, she and her husband decided it was time to leave for the hospital. Less than a couple hours later, they were back, having been turned away. She’s not far enough along, the intake nurses told them. Go home and try to get some rest.

Not long after first light, it was time to try the hospital again. This time, I drove, dropping the two of them at the hospital door. The baby was coming earlier than expected, and the doula — another old friend, now out-of-state — was just flying in. I headed out to the airport to pick her up, getting her to the hospital too, and then returning to search out street parking near my friend’s apartment building, just off the corner of Prospect Park.

It was mid-morning on a beautiful fall Sunday, and I could think of nothing better than the park. Deciding sometime after noon that I would walk home to Williamsburg, I passed through empty streets full of discarded paper cups — the marathon runners were already out ahead of me now— and stopped for food and drink in Fort Greene.

The woman sitting next to me, her voice hoarse from cheering on runners, asked if I was a poet. Maybe I looked the part, shabby and bedraggled, still wearing my wrinkled clothes from the previous day. I explained that the book I was reading wasn’t poetry, exactly, but something else. Urged upon me by a confidant— “we have worlds to change,” she’d written, “and no time for half-measures and half-loves” — it was a text about the language of love and the discourse of lovers.

I told the stranger next to me that I’d missed the marathoners this year, because a good friend was right then giving birth to her first child. She asked if the child was mine. I said that if it had been I would be there now, in the hospital, holding the mother’s hand, not letting go. As I left the restaurant to make my way back home, she reached over and kissed me on the cheek.

Photo: Jonathan VanAntwerpen | New York City Marathon

It would be several years before I’d miss another marathon. Moving north from Williamsburg to Greenpoint, I was joined most years by new friends from the neighborhood, and we developed a preferred spot to station ourselves, right near the corner of Bedford and Manhattan Avenue. That’s where we were, my archive of photos reminds me, in 2016. My partner was 36 weeks pregnant, and we scored a table inside a restaurant, with a large open window facing the street, so that she could sit while watching the race. Except, the photos also remind me, I was the one who ended up sitting inside, as she stood along the sidewalk’s edge, waving an orange pom-pom and calling out the names of runners coming by. C’mon. Keep going.

Four weeks later, I was making another early morning drive to the hospital. It was snowing ever so slightly, and just getting light as we pulled into the parking lot. Rushing excitedly to grab the last of our bags as I shut the car door, I gashed my head. With blood pouring out, I was told at the hospital entrance to go to emergency for treatment. No f***ing way.

Later that afternoon, my wife was taken into surgery for an unplanned C-section. With a small band-aid on my forehead, I scrubbed up and followed her in. I held her hand tightly, softly singing all the lines I could remember from “Mother and Child Reunion,” as we listened together to our daughter’s first cries.