The 2007 New York City Marathon is finished, except for a few thousand stragglers; after four hours of pounding the pavement, I am now hiking exhaustedly back to my hotel, my feet covered in huge blisters. To keep my mind off the late afternoon chill, I think about the celebration dinner I’ll enjoy in a few hours with friends, including the woman now limping tiredly beside me. My feet throb and spasms shoot up my legs, but nothing hurts more than my hands, which have deep gouges pressed into them by the overflowing shopping bags I’m carrying.
Oh, wait — you thought I was taking part in THAT marathon? No way! What my friend Charlotte and I have endured was much harder, and took a good deal more preparation: figuring out how to hit most of New York’s boutiques before meeting our husbands Brent and Andy (who ran the official New York City Marathon) and their running buddy Gary at a steak house at 6:30 p.m.
We don’t get to New York often, so Charlotte and I carefully choose a hotel close to the shopping starting line: Saks Fifth Avenue. When we arrive on Saturday afternoon, it’s immediately clear the hotel is jammed with runners. Everyone has that sleek, not-one-ounce-of-fat-on-this-body look, like a pack of hungry greyhounds. Looking down resentfully at my own overfed-basset hound body, I think, less charitably, that my fellow guests appear to have just emerged from a POW camp — one that forces inmates to wear tacky-looking Spandex.
This is our fifth big-city marathon, so Charlotte and I know the routine: After doing a couple of easy warm-up shopping-miles on Saturday afternoon to stretch our legs and scope out the best sales, we hit a pasta restaurant where all five of us carbo-load for the following day. Brent, Andy, and Gary retire early–they have to leave at 5 a.m. — but the stores don’t open until 10 a.m., so Charlotte and I stay up late watching The Devil Wears Prada on Pay Per View for inspiration.
The next morning, we put on our shopping shoes, smear our lips with Vaseline, and hit the streets. “Remember the marathon slogan,” I remind Charlotte. “’Pain is just weakness leaving the body.’”
“Amen!” she agrees.
We’ve planned our racing strategy as thoroughly as the men. The guys are wearing pace bands — bracelets that tell them what the elapsed time needs to be at the end of each mile. Charlotte and I are carrying shopping guides in which our favorite stores are circled in red, the routes plotted out in such a way as to allow us to hit the maximum number of stores in the least amount of time.
While the guys are obsessed with speed, we girls are fixated on style. For the men, the New York marathon is about “One race, 37,000 different stories,” as the brochure puts it. For us, it’s about “One shopping day, 37,000 stores,” most of which we plan to hit before day’s end. To someone who lives in a rural area, as I do, their very names are poetry: Fendi. Cartier. Prada. Faconnable.
Talk of that other marathon is everywhere. “You ought to get your husbands to take you to the Medoc Marathon in the Bordeaux region of France,” suggests the young man who is sliding a sleek Ferragamo pump onto my foot. “There’s so much for spouses to do there. You can tour dozens of wineries and sample the wines. And of course,” he adds, handing me the matching lizard handbag, “There’s the shopping in Paris.”
Charlotte flips open her Blackberry. “When is that?” she asks. “I already have Andy signed up for the Bermuda Marathon on January 20.”
“And Brent’s already registered for next year’s Dublin Marathon,” I add, handing the clerk my credit card. “That’s in October, and we can’t cancel it because I really need some new crystal. But I definitely think we could squeeze in one more, don’t you, Charlotte?”
Three hours later, we have hit The Wall — the point at which one finds it nearly impossible to keep going (typically at about mile 20), and must push on through sheer willpower. This is when runners rely most on the shouts of encouragement from fans lining the sidewalks, and on volunteers who hand them cups of Gator-aide. Charlotte and I don’t have anyone shouting encouragement to us (a shocking omission that ought to be rectified before next year’s run), but fortunately, we do have those nice men who hold open the doors to the stores, and sympathetic store employees who offer us bottles of Perrier lest dehydration slow the pace of our spending.
By 2 p.m., we are loaded down with shoes, bangles, sparkly tee shirts for our kids, gifts for babysitters from the MOMA gift store, perfume and cosmetics from Saks, and boxes of chocolate truffles. We can’t possibly go another step — which is why a merciful God invented Broadway. We spend the next two hours watching Wicked and resting our feet.
And at 6:30 p.m., we’re hearing all the details of the guys’ marathon at a noisy steak house — one of those places that serve hunks of beef the size of small dogs, buckets of mashed potatoes and slabs-o-cheesecake for dessert. The restaurant is jammed with runners ostentatiously wearing the medals given to all who finish. “Newbees,” our guys refer to them knowledgably, “It’s their first marathon.”
Andy notes that the New York marathon boasted runners with a far greater variety of accents than in Boston, Chicago, and Washington marathons; Ditto the spectators, who cheered them on in English, Spanish, Italian, and Yiddish as the guys loped through Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. As usual, Gary had attracted the most interest from gay men, who shouted post-race invitations as he jogged past them.
As they toss back their beers, our normally buttoned-down husbands gleefully note they had been among the hundred or so men who had peed in unison off the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
“That’s disgusting!” Charlotte exclaims.
They shrug. “In a marathon, you do what you have to do.”
Brent, who leaps up repeatedly from our dinner table when leg spasms attack, tells us proudly of having sped passed a much younger man at mile 21. We’re impressed until he mentioned that the man was wearing a “heart transplant survivor” tee shirt.
I phone my sons from the table to describe our day, thinking that, for once, they’ll think Mom and Dad lead interesting lives. They respond politely, but make it clear that they have some exciting homework to get back to.
By Monday, the times are posted on the Marathon’s website, and as we start the four-hour drive back to Maryland, the back of the van jammed with shopping bags, the guys’ cell phones ring continuously with friends calling to either congratulate them or mock their times. Charlotte and I are fielding congratulatory calls, too, from friends who share our joy over the bargains we found.
As we shoot down I-95, most of us fall asleep in the back of the van. Admiring my new pumps, I muse on the first marathon some 2,500 years ago, when a soldier named Phidippides ran nearly 25 miles to Athens from a battlefield near Marathon to bring news of the Greek victory over the Persians — and then dropped dead.
This only goes to show he should have gone shopping instead.
– Anne Morse is a writer living in Unity, Maryland. She blogs at The Point.