The loneliness of 20,000 long distance runners

(Crowds line marathon route, somewhere else.)

Though you may not have noticed, today was the day of Toronto’s second fall marathon, the Toronto Marathon.

As one might expect, Yonge Street and University Avenue were lined with spectators, and residents of neighbourhoods the marathon went through, such as Forest Hill and Rosedale, were outside with handmade signs handing out orange slices to the thousands of runners raising money for Princess Margaret Hospital and other causes.

Yeah, right.

That describes the support of citizens of New York and Chicago. It’s also true in Hamilton and Burlington. (There are some crowds, too, for the National Capital Marathon in Ottawa, but Ottawans turn out for anything sponsored by the National Capital Commission because, well, what else is there to do?)

Both the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon and this weekend’s Toronto Marathon are largely devoid of spectators. Even in spots where a few people gather to cheer on a friend, they will generally conserve any energy and enthusiasm until the person they’re waiting for actually appears, not wanting to extend even the smallest sign of goodwill (clapping? cheering? smiling?) toward the many strangers who straggle by.

In Toronto, crowds of spectators are replaced by impatient drivers, who in spite of the good work of the city, the police force,, all weekend newspapers, radio, TV, and probably some blogs on gas prices, are always surprised to learn that the annual marathon is on and honk in pointless frustration before turning and heading to the suggested alternate route.

So why doesn’t Toronto embrace either of the marathons the way so many other cities do?

It can’t be the street closures, because every city has street closures for marathons — there is nothing extraordinarily inconvenient about this.

It can’t be the weather, which was mild and fall-like today, and quite lovely three weeks ago. The hardy folk of Hamilton and Burlington gather alongside the route of the Around the Bay race in late March, not known to be one of the finest times to be lakeside in southern Ontario.

It can’t be entirely the location, since although both races spend some time on deserted and inconvenient roads, most of the runs are through neighbourhoods. With the intensification of downtown, for example, there are many thousands of people directly on the Waterfront marathon route for whom cheering would require nothing more than opening the window to the balcony, or stumbling downstairs to the Starbucks. The Toronto marathon runs partially down Yonge Street through North York and North Toronto, eventually wending its way up University, directly on a subway line.

One obvious problem is the fact that Toronto has two marathons three weeks apart. There is understandable confusion about when the marathon takes place. As well, instead of having one huge marathon, whose numbers can justify shutting the city down, we have two large, but not major marathons, attracting fewer visiting runners (marathons are significant draws for tourism dollars) and, perhaps, not as many elite runners as might otherwise come. Some streets are only partially closed down, with traffic in half the lanes, leaving only one side for spectators.

If you’ve come out to support a friend, and seen what a difference the crowd energy made to him or her, or especially if you’ve run in a race yourself, and appreciated the encouragement of some screaming strangers, you can appreciate why spectators are important participants in races. With more and more Torontonians running half- and full-marathons and joining running clinics, I’m optimistic that the culture may change.