It was a stupid idea, my grandfather told me when it came up in conversation during a family dinner in August. He swallowed his bite of grilled duck, washed it down with a gulp of water and proceeded to lecture me. I smiled and nodded, citing generational differences for his lack of understanding.
He was convinced that running every day was ruining my knees and running 26.2 miles at once was foolish. And why the heck would I want to go to New York to do it? There were going to be tens of thousands of other people running – wouldn’t it be crazy and stressful? Besides, I was in school — shouldn’t I be studying?
His “encouragement” only drove me to push my body even harder during training before that autumn day when I would head to the city that never sleeps – to go somewhere I’d never been before to do something I’d never done.
I ran and finished the New York City Marathon, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. It’s one that has shaped the way I see America, the world and the muddled body of citizens that call it home.
It is my last semester at TCU, and what better time to do something I’d talked about doing for years? Choosing to run for Team for Kids, a charity that supported athletic involvement among inner city New York schoolchildren, only made it richer.
The marathon took me through the city’s five boroughs: Staten Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan. Running over four bridges and through countless neighborhoods, I witnessed firsthand diversity’s beauty.
We ran by a group of Scottish bagpipe players. We passed a church where a gospel choir was singing inside with the doors wide open for us to hear, and rock bands belted tunes all along the way.
I couldn’t help but wish our culture didn’t embrace solitude so much. I wish we’d all stop drowning out the noises of the life around us with our iPods hoping not to have to deal with being interrupted or involved more deeply in the lives of people we encounter.
What if I had missed the sounds of Central Park leaves falling and crunching underneath my feet or hearing the disabled man behind me at the start wishing everyone around him good luck?
It was a breathtaking experience, watching the sidelines as people of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures cheered us on, many of them screaming my name, which I had written on my jersey.
I heard, “Anna,” spoken in more dialects and accents than I’d heard in the 22 years I’ve been alive. It was beautiful.
There were more than 2 million spectators. Owners of small delis held fruit out for runners along the way; children offered tootsie pops and other candy; thousands of volunteers had signed up to pass out water and Gatorade.
I was overwhelmed at the ways in which New Yorkers opened up their streets, neighborhoods and hearts to us.
I smiled from start to finish. The soreness in my cheeks hurt more than my tired legs and feet after I crossed the Central Park finish line. But no, grandfather, my knees never felt a twinge of pain.
The other runners encouraged me. I can’t describe the chills I got watching blind and disabled runners brave enough to take on such a feat, many of them thanking me and my running partner for raising money for Team for Kids.
There were people of all ages and abilities around me running, walking, being pushed in wheelchairs – if they were determined to finish, they did. The finish line was even kept up through the afternoon of the next day for weary entrants to finish the race.
The whole experience taught me something about this country that I had never realized before: The American spirit is strong. It could be so much stronger, though, if we all embraced our differences and cheered each other on in the race we all run: life.
Shouldn’t we be lining up to hand out food to the hungry and water to the thirsty? Shouldn’t we be clamoring for ways to encourage each other and inventing new ways to intermingle ourselves with other cultures, rubbing shoulders with those from other backgrounds and abilities?
My grandfather was right about one thing: Marathons are not easy – they test your body in ways it’s never been tested before. But with so much inspiration to finish and so many incredible people pushing me along my merry way, it was so much easier than I could’ve ever dreamed.
My marathon experience was a true testament to the human spirit, not only my own but the spirit of America that lives strong because of the diverse and determined people who live between its borders.
Anna Camp is a news-editorial journalism major from Bakersfield, Calif. She plans on running another marathon soon, despite her grandfather’s advice.