Dancing in the Street

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Mile 21 of the New York City Marathon

Most runners of the TCS New York City Marathon remember the dead quiet of the Queensboro Bridge from miles 15-16. The two-level bridge crosses the East River at one of its widest points and spectators aren’t permitted on the structure. But, underneath the echoing, militaristic footfalls and strained breathing, just-audible eruptions of noise emanate from crowds at the base of the bridge, along First Avenue. It’s an auditory light at the end of the tunnel, drawing runners forward, toward it and pushing them ahead.

The cheering thins out again as participants battle upwards, into the Bronx. But then, mile 21 comes, and instead of a figurative light after darkness, there’s a literal flash of rainbow: a jumble of color and screaming and music and glitter and waving arms.

This year’s most confetti-and-spray-paint-filled cheer zone, just a few blocks south of the 21 mile mark, was organized by the We Run Uptown crew, a group that meets weekly for runs around Harlem, the Bronx, and Inwood. A throng of people filled the entire sidewalk and spilled uncontainably into the street. The watchers consisted of family members of the racers, friends, runners themselves, coaches, and teammates. The unmistakable beat of Sheck Wes’s Mo Bamba vibrated out, along the concrete for a block in each direction and Sean Baez, who would later jump in to join a friend for some supportive steps, led a group of those closest to the speakers in dancing along.

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As the elites passed, the group shouted and clapped at them to lay everything they had down for the last five miles and finish stronger, faster, harder. Silk flags and colorful signs shimmered in the unusually strong-for-November sunlight. Then, a trickle of sub-elite, local runners started to arrive and the cheer zone exploded with life, shifting into high gear. This was what they were here for. Balloon sticks slapped together and a rumble of shouts overpowered all but the earthquake-esque bassline of music.

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Each time a familiar face floated toward the mass of people congregated at the cheer zone, a man known to most there as Power Malu wearing a gray hoodie and sweating just as much, if not more than the runners, was waiting. He spotted the hometown runners from at least a block out and shepherded them toward the zone, with a light hand on their back, or clapping alongside them. “We lit, we lit, we lit, we lit,” he chanted in their ear as he kept pace next to them, to prepare the runners for just how much energy and encouragement they were about to experience.

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Hands reached out from the middle of the crowd and pompoms shook above runners’ heads. Confetti clouds hung in the air for what seemed like an unnatural amount of time as racers stormed through. Screamers on the front line embraced their job with veins popping out from their foreheads, and hydration and fuel in their hands. Power knelt down with a roller stick to help massage out sore muscles or knots when necessary. Arms shot upwards at each jersey bearing a New York City club logo across its chest and bull horns cut through the noise to deliver messages like, “let the devil know, not today” to anyone whose inner dialogue was urging them to stop and walk.

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"For anyone in the NYC running community, mile 21 is a beacon. It's so hard to pick faces out because it's just a mass of emotion.

I entered mile 21 digging. It was getting tough, I was going to the well, but that energy from the crowd brought me back.

You think you are feeling like shit but that crowd gives you life."

Tim Rossi, 2:31:19

Every few minutes, police or volunteers ordered the cheer squad back onto the curb, off the road, and away from the course. But, that meant they’d be further from the people running, the people they needed to push mentally and sometimes (lightly) physically toward the finish. So the squad would reluctantly take a half of a step backwards, away from the runners for thirty seconds, until the next athlete they recognized popped up in the stream of racers. Then, they’d be right back on the pavement, next to their runner, showing their support and doing everything they could to lift that racer up and carry them for the last five miles.

Because, as co-founder of We Run Uptown, Hector Espinal has said, “They have been running for hours at this point. They need a pick me up and that’s where we come in. We had over 200 confetti cannons. By the time we were done the streets were lined with confetti.”

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"Our main objective is to ensure that the runners have everything they need once they reach us.

This year we made sure we had Maurten, water, Gatorade, towels, Vaseline...you name it, we had it."

Hector Espinal

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So, even as the last of the athletes continued to stream by, in varying levels of pain and fatigue, the squad at mile 21 stayed put, sustaining a level of cheering that would be loud enough to ring in each runners’ ears for the eternity ahead of them.

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