Years ago, I read a blog post in the UK Guardian, in which columnist Jon Henley attempted to consume the same 12,000 calories worth of food that legendary Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps consumed every single day.

That blog post has basically become my all-time favorite article. I’ve told dozens of people about it over the last five years. I bring it up, without fail, every time anyone mentions anything about the Olympics, Michael Phelps, swimming, eating too much, calories, mayonnaise or exercise. I have literally asked the same friend on at least five different occasions, “Did I ever tell you what Michael Phelps eats in a day?”

It’s gotten to the point where, just to humor me, my friend says, “No, what does Michael Phelps eat in a day?” and then I’ll excitedly recount the whole article before I realize that it’s the sixth time I’ve told him about it.

It’s not that I’m particularly fascinated by Michael Phelps or his three-a-day mayo and fried egg sandwiches. It’s just that I love the idea of what a human body is physically and emotionally capable of, such that – though we are all born nearly identical, genetically-speaking – a human being could develop a metabolism as unimaginably furnace-like as Michael Phelps’ or could run hundreds of miles at a time as the Tarahumara Indians do, or could climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen as sherpas have done for decades.

For most of us who don’t make our livings as professional athletes, the equivalent of Michael Phelps’ Olympic gold medals might be a medal for completing a 5K or maybe a marathon. And if you’re someone who didn’t grow up in a culture of fitness and exercise, or if you have a physical disability or limitation, or if you just don’t have enough time in a day to brush your hair let alone make it to a gym, completing a 5K might seem nearly insurmountable.

This year, as a challenge to myself, I signed up to run the half-marathon in the fourth annual Oakland Running Festival with a couple of girlfriends. We started training for it six months before the race. I generally keep physically active, but am rarely good with training schedules, so this was an exercise in consistency for me.

By the time the Oakland Running Festival rolled around this past Sunday, I was ready for the race – but as it turned out, I wasn’t prepared for the experience of the Oakland Running Festival itself.

The Oakland Tribune 5K run was underway when my friends and I arrived at the start/finish line at 8:30 a.m. last Sunday morning. As we arrived, swarms of kids were dashing across the finish line at Snow Park, kids of all shapes and sizes, all of them wearing yellow festival T-shirts of all shapes and sizes. The announcer was in the middle of saying that a 74-year-old runner was crossing the finish.

People were lined up 10-deep along the final stretch on 19th Street, waving signs and ringing cowbells, cheering their hearts out.

I was struck by the certain knowledge that I was going to burst into tears.

The feeling of crowd momentum only grew as it came time to start the ZICO Half-Marathon. Crowded into the starting chute like murmuring cattle, we all stood together in our neon-colored running clothes and listened to a soulful live rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner;” it felt like we were about to kick off for the Super Bowl.

And then, with an explosion of ticker tape, we were off. Down 19th Street, left on Broadway to City Center Plaza and then zigzagging through downtown Oakland to Grand Avenue, making our steady way down MLK back to 11th Street and into miles three and four among the old brick facades of the Jack London Warehouse District, then the Sunday morning bustle of Oakland Chinatown.

I found myself fervently wishing I had a recording device to capture what it sounded like to be surrounded by thousands of runners – just the steady fall of footsteps on all sides, mingling with my own. Collectively, we did very little talking. Just the sheer momentum of moving within a moving crowd was all-enveloping.

I imagine that when you’re one in a herd of zebras, you know you’re a zebra and that is enough. All there is to do is to run.

There were some stretches along the route where one or two lone warriors cheered us on from a street corner, some stretches (like along Mandela Parkway) where whole blocks were lined with crowds waving signs and shrieking encouragement. There were minivans covered with butcher paper banners calling out an aunt or sister or loved one. There were cheerleaders so advanced in age that they had to sit in folding chairs to ring their cowbells.

There were deejays blasting house and hip-hop, both official on-course entertainment and guerrilla deejays with sound systems hooked up to who knows what and where. The Crucible set up their fiery metal arch in the street so that runners got to run through it. We passed a West Oakland church letting out from Sunday service, and all of the ladies dressed in their Sunday best held out their hands to slap us high fives. There were signs saying “Kick assphalt!” and “My dad is my hero!” and “JUST FINISH! (That’s what she said)” and my favorite, “RUN TOTAL STRANGER RUN.”

I could have kept running forever on crowd momentum alone – certainly, at least, until I reached a full marathon, maybe even for the rest of the day into the sunset.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” my friend remarked in amazement. I don’t suppose we had ever considered that running 13 miles on race day would be fun.

As we passed the 12th mile marker, our friend Shawn leaped out suddenly from the crowd with his banjo around his neck and started running along beside us, wildly playing his banjo as he ran. For a good couple of blocks, we were accompanied by live banjo music, the crowd whooping, our breaths coming out in spurts as we laughed helplessly. It was like running in a live cartoon.

Then the finish post appeared in the not-so-far distance and we agreed to “kick it in,” propelling every last breath into a full sprint for the finish line, passing fellow runners as we ran. Half a dozen friends were there on the sidelines and they screamed out our names, though we couldn’t hear them over our own beating hearts. And just like that, I had my Michael Phelps medal in the company of what seemed like half the city of Oakland earning their own.

This is not the Oakland we get to read about in the media very often. The morning had nothing to do with art or hip-hop or cuisine or violence or socioeconomics or even social justice. I have no interest in sugarcoating any aspect of our city, but on this morning, this was our city: Oakland in earnest and unrestrained joy, the Oakland of our peaceful dreams where families spend hours on a beautiful weekend morning bellowing encouragement to strangers at the tops of their lungs, where this city is a destination for a person’s life achievement in health and fitness, where there is no artifice in the idea that everyone runs their own personal marathon regardless of actual distance.

If you were going to run 13.1 miles, this is the way I would recommend you do it: in the arms of your own city, in the company of your fellow town dwellers. And according to an Oakland Running Festival press release, the past three years have generated $8.5 million for the city of Oakland and $750,000 for local charitable organizations.

With my fellow Oaklanders cheering me on, I proudly finished in 1,645th place in the half-marathon. And afterward, I consumed at least 3,000 calories worth of food.

 

Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

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