Sometimes, the best New Yorkers don’t even come from here. Take Philadelphia-born Stephanie Pennington, the creator of Project Finish, whose mission is cheering on the late finishers of the New York City Marathon. Pennington spent time in the Big Apple after college before moving back to Pennsylvania, in 2015, yet every November since then she returns to run the 26.2-mile race through the five boroughs.
“I’m not currently there, but I’m there for work often, and I still consider New York City home,” Pennington tells the Voice in a phone interview. “My heart is there.”
Heart is the key to what Pennington decided to do for her fellow runners after her first NYC Marathon finish of 4:48:17, in 2015. “I’m totally obsessed with everything, so I was so sad once I crossed the finish line,” she says. “I thought, Well, I guess it’s over. But I just couldn’t shake it. So my husband and I went out to dinner, and I was like, ‘Let’s just go back and be in the vibe again.’ I just had to experience it, and I realized that the finish line was empty and there really wasn’t anybody there except for a handful of volunteers from New York Road Runners, who were helping to congratulate those who came in pretty late. So I thought, This needs to change. I think we stayed until the final finisher. But before her, there were a lot of people that were still coming in, and I thought, There’s no one here for them. There’s no party, there’s no one except for maybe a family member or a friend that came to meet them.”
Through a Facebook post a year later, Pennington made sure there would be cheers and a party for those finishing after the sun went down. Initially inviting friends and various running groups through her personal account, she launched a Project Finish page in 2017 to get the word out about this epitome of a passion project, inviting runners, non-runners, and everyone in between to show up to Central Park at 7:45 p.m. and cheer. (The race kicks off in Staten Island at 8:00 a.m. with the professional wheelchair participants; the professional women runners start at 8:40, the pro men at 9:05, and everyone else in waves from 9:10 to 11:30.)
“It got really big very quick,” Pennington says of her baby, which is expected to attract more than 100 participants to the finish line on November 6. “It’s all credit to everyone who decides to go and be a part of this, because it’s really rocked the running world. Somebody just contacted me about starting one in London, and then Chicago. And that’s fine. The more people that get involved in this way the better, because you really do see such a bright light in humanity when you’re there, either cheering someone on or you’re spectating or you’re running. It’s kind of grounding in a way because you’re just out there cheering for a stranger and that stranger is making eye contact with you, like, ‘Thank you so much for being here.’ It really means everything.”
Running 26.2 miles is not easy, not for the elite, who clock in at less than two and a half hours, and especially not for those who compete in the “back of the pack.” There are no 5-, 6-, 7-, or even 10-minute miles in this crowd, and when it’s anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes per mile, those who do make it to the finish line in Central Park have been running, walking, and even bear-crawling for anywhere from 7 to 10 hours—or more. That means the streets have been reopened to traffic, the skies have gone dark, and there’s no cheering crowd as there was just a few hours earlier.
Which makes things even tougher.
“You’re running it for the first time and you hear on the speaker by the police that ‘The race is over, get on the sidewalk,’ and you don’t know that you can still continue to go,” Martinus Evans, a social media running influencer and multi-time marathon finisher with two NYC Marathon medals to his name, tells the Voice in a Zoom interview, describing the moment when the “sweep bus” arrives on the course and its police escort announces that the streets are being reopened to traffic—this is when runners are expected to move onto the sidewalks. Scheduled to begin its route approximately 15 minutes after the last runner crosses the start line, the bus is the worst sight in the world for a participant. If you choose to get on, it will take you to the finish line as you watch others complete the race. If you stay on the course, you will have to largely navigate it without aid stations and mile markers, as those get taken down when streets are reopened. “So you go through all that, and in spite of all that you get to the finish line and there’s nothing there, it’s the most defeating thing you can ever experience.”
According to New York Road Runners, the organization that stages the NYC Marathon, finish-line scoring stays in place until 7:30 p.m., but the group unofficially allows runners to get official times by keeping the finish and timing mats open.
Evans, founder of the Slow AF Run Club and author of a book of the same name to be released in 2023, has celebrated and advocated for back-of-the-pack runners, those who aren’t looking to win or set a world record on race day but just want to compete and finish for their own, sometimes very personal, reasons.
“It’s those stories of, I ran this race because somebody had an ailment, or they’re running it for a charity, or because it’s something they wanted to do their whole life and they overcame something very hard to get here,” Evans says. “And to cross that finish line, those stories are definitely more compelling than ‘Oh, such and such has run their 1,000th marathon in two hours.’ Not to say that’s not an amazing feat in itself—yeah, you ran 26 miles, and you didn’t die, and you did it fast. [Laughs] But I think a lot of people forget about people who are coming in seven, eight, nine hours in. It’s the people who really need the cheering the most.”
Not every marathon race director agrees. Horror stories stream in from around the globe from runners who were left stranded without proper course direction or with no water or aid stations midway through a race because they didn’t maintain a specified pace (for NYC, that pace is 13:45 per mile). Some directors, as in the Tokyo Marathon, will remove runners from the course who don’t hit specific times at certain points in the race, meaning a trip to Japan could be over by Mile Six if competitors are not fast enough.
New York Road Runners is an exception, with race director Ted Metellus, born and raised in the Bronx and the first Black NYC Marathon director, determined to have his race open to all runners. “New York Road Runners believes in the transformative power of movement, health, wellness through running and walking,” Metellus tells the Voice in an email. “We value participants of all backgrounds and abilities the same, from the first finisher to the final finisher. It is important to include all participants because they are who make up our community on a day-to-day basis. The marathon means something different to everyone, and everyone has a different goal, but together through running we are able to build community and find common ground.”
That common ground is never more evident than on Marathon Sunday, which this year falls on November 6. Throughout the course, it’s the one day when everyone is on the same side. An exaggeration? From this 2018 and ’19 finisher, 7:16:39 and 7:23, respectively, it’s not. Deli owners come out of their stores with cases of water for the runners, kids line the course to give out high fives and fist bumps to their new favorite athletes, and the number of bananas, cookies, and orange slices (along with offers of pizza, donuts, and alcohol) can’t be counted. And if you have your name printed on your shirt, you will get personalized cheers that really do help move you along.
It’s a beautiful day, regardless of the weather.
“I think a lot of it has to do with people just all coming together, and it’s hard to see that and find that sometimes, after the last couple years especially,” says Project Finish’s Pennington. “Everyone’s kind of been kept up in their homes, and when you’re in a city like New York and you’re getting people from all over the world, there’s a celebration that happens. New York City, to me, is the greatest city in the world. It made me a runner, it taught me who I am and who I should be as a person and I just think that’s so special. But to see and experience the nonstop chaos that happens on the streets because they’re cheering is really amazing. Brooklyn is just a party, and you forget about the miles that you’re running.”
“I would say New York is one of my favorite races because of how they celebrate the back of the pack,” says Evans, who has also finished the Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of marathons. “In comparison to the eight marathons that I have run, New York is definitely up there just on the amount of support I’ve gotten, and just the people. New Yorkers are crazy, they’re funny, they’re entertaining. I was running one time, and a dude was like, ‘Here’s a can of Coca-Cola. You want something? You want some beer or a banana?’ And being able to experience that, it’s like no other.”
Evans once got a slice of carrot cake from a supporter, at Mile 20, when he first ran New York, in 2018. At that point, the streets were dark and open to traffic, and he had to gut out the final 6.2 miles. But when he got to the finish, viewers of the YouTube video he took can hear the crowd roar for him. That crowd was Pennington’s doing, her initial desire to re-live the final moments of her first marathon having led to her giving those feelings back to her fellow runners who wouldn’t normally get that experience.
Pennington will be running the NYC Marathon for the eighth time this year; then, at 7:45 p.m., she will return to Central Park with the rest of the Project Finish crew. It’s a long day turning into a long night, but she wouldn’t miss it for the world. Why? Because it’s important.
“I think the cool thing is that it provides brightness and shows some humanity in the world during a time when we’re going through a lot,” says Evans. “It’s a happy distraction to really have that and go through that, and really know, you know what, in spite of everything that’s going on, I’m gonna be okay today.”
“I’m a little biased because I’ve run the most races in my life in New York City, and I’ve only run one other marathon,” says Pennington. “But this one is so special because every single runner that steps up to that start has a story, and Project Finish is really just about showing up for other people.” ❖
Thomas Gerbasi is an award-winning boxing writer who has still found time to write about less violent pursuits, such as roller derby and music, for publications such as The Daily Beast, KO63 Music on Medium, and Rolling Stone Australia.
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