Monday, October 21, 2013

Running the Race

I sat down in the subway a few weeks ago, looked up, and I saw it. An advertisement on the subway wall reading "26.2 MILES MAKE IT A RACE. YOU MAKE IT THE MARATHON." Oh man, I thought. It's getting close now. The advertisement spoke to me because for five months I've been training to become one of the "you"s who transform a winding 26.2 mile path through urban streets into The New York City Marathon.

Talk about non human agency. A marathon isn't even a thing, really, it's an idea, a concept. And yet it has profound agency in the lives of people identifying themselves as marathoners. It forces me out of bed at 5am. It influences my day-to-day footwear. It is a rock in the current of my social life. Since June, the marathon-- as a concept, as a future event, as an idea-- has influenced nearly every type of choice I make. And the subway advertisement has the right of it: it's not just a race, it's a marathon. It's a specific marathon: the New York City marathon! It is, in and of itself, a dynamic and (slowly) moving symbol of the city's spirit. Beyond that, though, the marathon is interpreted by every runner as a sign of something very individual to each person. For Peirce and his semiotics, the marathon is an excellent example of how fluid and interconnected signs are.

When I ran 20 miles last week by myself, it was a long run. My mom said good job, I ate a sandwich, and I took a nap. When I run a mere 6 miles more than that in 13 days, hundreds of thousands of people will say good job, I will get a medal, I will run past TV cameras, people will say "man, let's go celebrate with some sandwiches!" and I will take a nap. It will be the marathon.For me (and the friends with whom I huff and puff through training runs), the marathon is motivational for us precisely because of its symbolic power, because of its semiosis.

The marathon is openly discussed in this way. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York right before the marathon and there was a great deal of debate about whether the marathon should go on. Mayor Bloomberg, for one, directly appealed to the marathon as a symbol of the city's strength, character, and perseverance. To cancel, he said, would cause an enormous loss of morale within the city. It's not just the runners who are in relation to the marathon, but also city citizens. On the other side, many people claimed that the marathon would be a symbol to the city: of excess, of waste, of misplaced priorities, of capitalistic interests. There were many angry grumbles about there being several high-capacity generators at the marathon's finish line while, at the same time, most of Staten Island was without power. It was a disagreement of sign interpretations.

One thing is for sure: on November 3rd, I will run 26.2 miles through New York City and it will be a marathon. It will not just be my tired feet chasing down miles, it will be a trek through meaning. And after it's done and I've eaten my sandwich and taken my nap, my memories of the marathon and training for it will shift its agency and its sign relation. Semiosis will move on!

(photo credit: first and third, second)

No comments: