“Go, Random Stranger, Go!,” the sign said

Thank you shouts left and right. Thumbs up, high-fives, and waves. I smiled for 26.2 miles. I ran the NYC marathon today. I have yet to formulate in my mind how this relates to art, and teaching, and young children, but I'm pretty sure that it must in some way. So today's post is about running.

I ran the NYC marathon today. And I just couldn’t help but to smile, thank, and wave my way through the course. There’s something deeply moving about random strangers cheering you on and shouting out your name, to look you in the eye and say “you look great, Marta, you got this!” From the very beginning of the race, and all the way through. “All right, Marta, all right!,” I was greeted as soon as I stepped off the first bridge. I felt so grateful. Running the NYC marathon as your first marathon is quite an experience, particularly when you’re running at home. The city you know so well transforms itself to cheer every single runner in every single inch of the course. As I ran through my Brooklyn neighborhood, a block from home, I felt like random-stranger-support would keep me unstoppable for the following 18 miles. And it did.

In my running group, they called me ”the quiet pace keeper.” I’m a pretty steady runner, and I like long solitary runs that give my regular daydreaming free range and a good excuse to linger on. I like to run in silence and to be left alone. I thought cheering on was not for me. I could not have been more wrong. It’s just wonderful to have friends on the course rooting for you, even if you miss them when you speed by; it makes a difference to know they’re there, and that they’re there for you. But feeling the warmth of a crowd of strangers reminds you that humanity can be beautiful. People come together often, but maybe most times for pretty sad, difficult, and tragic causes. For this occasion though, a good part of the city stands out in the cold for hours to support others in a challenging but joyful (even if physically painful) event. Just because, as one (random stranger) NPR listener put it, “they’re out there running and pushing through and they can’t do it without our support.” She’s spot on.

Running is a funny sport. Pros and recreational runners run the same race, the same course, the same day. With the same cheering crowd. I have no idea what it feels like to be a pro, and I’m sure they appreciate the cheering as much as we do. But I also guess pros have responsibilities towards their jobs, their coaches, their times, and even the juicy cash prize at stake. Running is what they do for a living, and what they devote their lives to. As for me, I run as a side thing. I run because it makes me feel good. I have no responsibilities towards it. But during this race, I did feel a responsibility.  I felt it towards that crowd of random strangers who stood out there for all us runners (“Hurry up, we’re cold!,” a funny and honest sign read). There was no way I was gonna let them down. There was no way I was gonna stop, even to get a scenic photo over the bridge or to hug my friends whose presence I cherished so much. I had to keep on running as fast as I could. Running, thanking, and smiling.

But running with the pros (and I say with them, even though they were finished long before I crossed the half-marathon marker!) also made me think about my role as an educator. It’s what I do for a living, and what I devote my life to. I have responsibilities towards a number of people and things, namely the children with whom I share my days. I’m a pro. And I do my job side by side with so many capable, responsible, and committed people who even though are not professionals are still there for the job when rubber hits the road. And they do a good job, alright. And they make my job possible as well.

Prepping for the race, my coach and I worked on a plan that in an ideal world, with ideal conditions, would get me to the finish line in my time goal. I knew my minute/mile pace, I studied the course, I knew when I would need nutrition and where I’d probably be crashing a bit. Turns out the world was not ideal, and the extreme wind made conditions challenging and far from perfect, but I still had a plan. From the start line, I heard my coach’s voice in my head saying “stick to the plan.” But also from the start line, I heard my whole body crying out loud “forget the plan” (okay, maybe in other words it cried, but this was the general idea of what to do with the plan). And so I did. Aside from holding myself back from going way too fast in the first few miles, I let the plan go. I ran as I felt. And as it turns out, I still stuck to the plan. Like it happens when good lesson plans get pushed aside yielding to better on-the-spot ideas, I still hit what I had to.

I often tell my grad-students that those are often the best lesson plans – the ones you end up tossing for the sake of following the moment. But you only get to do that when you crafted your plans so carefully, and you know your objectives so well, that you can think on your feet and get to your goals through different routes. I didn’t fully stick to my race plan and didn’t quite hit my goal time. I hit a better one. I ran steady but faster the entire way. I was on my feet (pun intended?) and responded to the moment. I did better than the plan. Because I planned.

When I wrote my first Masters thesis, the acknowledgments section could very well have been the longest. Not literally, of course, but it might have been the most heartfelt one. I did feel like a team of people worked on that think that I ultimately turned into words. And in this marathon, in a way, I feel the same way.

It’s not just my friends who supported me – my uncle bringing “emergency chocolate,” my family cheering me on from an ocean away, and my baby niece arriving to this world to greet me; my cousins who I race every day in our online challenge, and Pedro, our “Great Coach-cousin” who keeps us all going. It’s not just Harrigan who drove all the way from Virginia to chase me with her camera; Jeff who kept me together for this race and more; Cathy and Lulu with their humongous pink sign; Matt who tweet-cheered my every step from the other side of the world; Hiwa who refused to give away her last banana cause she was saving it for Auntie Marta; Sean who wrote the sweetest funniest most amazing race run-through for me; and Nick, and Leah, and Irene, and Malc, and Karina, and Lynda, and Stan, and all other friends who saw (or missed) me by. It was also the NYRR volunteers, the cops, the firefighters; my fellow runners, and Lisa, my coach. And, very much so, it was the random strangers who shouted out my name, pushed me through, and made me smile. “Go, Random Stranger, Go!,” I say now.