By Alison Conway
I love everything about riding the subway. I love being part of a public transit system. I love dropping down into the depths of a city in one spot and popping back up in another. I love to people watch. Mostly, I love immersing myself in the great sea of humanity. On the subway, I feel the deep connection that binds humans as we hurtle toward our various destinations, material and existential.
Lately I’ve been reading philosopher Kimberlee Brownlee, who argues that social connection is a fundamental human right. We need to be able to rely on others and to know that we can support them, in turn. Among other social dynamics, Brownlee describes to the “micro-moments” of connection that support our physical and psychological well-being—the kind of connection made by body language, for instance, that signals friendliness or kindness. Brownlee’s work dovetails with the work of psychologists and physicians such as Vivek Murthy, whose recent study, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, documents the costs of loneliness to human health and community. Research shows that we need to sustain a variety of relationships—from intimate partnerships to community bonds—to avoid the deadly effects of social isolation.
Which takes me back to the subway and on to the New York City Marathon, which I ran last Sunday. I arrived in New York a nervous wreck, worried that the 26.2 mile distance would prove too much after a serious injury and three years of aging since my last marathon. The weather forecast predicted a race day far warmer than I like for any kind of distance. What if I didn’t finish? Etc. etc. etc. But the moment I landed on the curb of Newark Airport, an alternative narrative unfolded alongside the story of failure that was running through my head. That other story, not mine, featured the young man who helped me figure out which platform to stand on for the train into the city. It involved the woman who looked up the C schedule for me when it seemed like my subway would never arrive at Penn Station and shouted “Good luck!” as she jumped on her A train. It was about all the folks on the street in Brooklyn where I came up into a beautiful fall evening, heading home or out for their meals at the end of the day. Across the river, the Manhattan skyline shone in all of its beauty. New York, and New Yorkers, were going to get me though this somehow.
How the Big Apple works this magic is what makes the New York City Marathon an experience like no other. The race starts on the majestic Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, which links Staten Island to the south end of Brooklyn. Setting out with the other 10,000 runners in my wave, I felt part of something monumental, like the bridge itself. There was the rhythm of the marathon cadence, footfalls and breathing, and the views on either side stretching into the distance. As we descended from the quiet of the bridge I entered an alternate reality altogether, as the roar of the crowd waiting on the streets below reached up and pulled me into the beating heart of the neighbourhood.
I had been told that New Yorkers would line the streets of the course, that there would be bands and choirs and drummers. But nothing can prepare a runner for what awaits her on that route! It was like riding the subway: the whole world was there, jammed together for the journey. The shouts of encouragement, the signs (“This is For All the Women Runners!”), the bells and the whistles…. It was—how to say it?—something else. The route gave the marathon a rhythm, for me: through a borough, over a quiet bridge, back into the crowd. The long Queensboro bridge marked the beginning of the end, as we paced ourselves down onto First, where thousands lined the avenue leading up to the Bronx. Over another bridge, then over the last and back into Harlem, before the final climb up Fifth Avenue and into Central Park. Along the last stretch, flags from around the world lined the path to the finish line.
I can’t say why the marathon has become an unofficial holiday for New York. I can’t say why thousands and thousands of people, including my daughter, Hannah, from all over the globe, have decided that this is the day they should gather in the streets together. When I scanned the crowd for Hannah’s face, at mile eleven, I only saw one massive, cheerful crew, urging me on. All of those individuals were suddenly transformed into a collective body wanting one thing: movement forward.
We need a steady heart badly in these days of strife and pain. But it can’t be the heart of a solitary runner, striking out on her lonely path. Rather, the steady heart we need—that we have, if we know how to look for it—beats collectively, sustaining us over the miles that we all have to run, together, before we sleep.
Alison Conway lives and works in Kelowna, British Columbia, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan people.