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A long-run view

WE ARE standing at First Avenue and 90th Street, waiting for our daughter. She is one of more than 30,000 runners competing in the New York City Marathon today, and this is the 18-mile point, where she knows to look for us.

The weather is sunny and mild. Already, the elite runners have gone by, and so have the wheelchair racers, including young veterans whose legs have been amputated because of wounds suffered in Iraq. Watching the scores of competitors making their way past us, Lexa and I stand close together but focus on the race.

Some runners pound the street with authority. Some are plainly exhausted. Many have combined the marathon with fund-raising for charities, running not just for themselves but for cancer patients, the homeless, and others. We cheer them all. The bond between spectator and athlete is absolute, in part because by now, many runners are depending on the encouragement of strangers to keep going. Is that why this city is so full of emotion today?

The race itself is an answer. I remember when the New York Marathon was established 35 years ago, when the only things that had brought tens of thousands of people into the streets were antiwar protests or urban riots. That this city would institute its version of Boston's venerable contest just then was a tribute to the fresh popularity of running, but it was equally a signal of the will to protect something sacred in America and to establish something new.

A race through all five boroughs, along avenues and across bridges, through neighborhoods and parks, was a knitting together of a recently broken community, a claiming of the very city for the people, an act of political hope. And look who was doing it -- superb athletes, yes, but legions of average runners too, an event of pure democracy.

There was something else. The marathon had its mythic roots in the noble act of a warrior -- that Greek messenger giving his life to bring news from the front -- and so the race could seem to be a liturgical reenactment, a throng of heroes bringing news of victory. But what sort of victory?

In 1969 the American people had just renounced the goal of victory in Vietnam, and even in sports a new question was being asked. This race suggested an answer because, for all but the best few, the point of the contest was in being measured not against the others but against oneself. The phrase "personal best" entered the language now, just in time. The marathon seemed a correction of America's great mistake: a competitiveness that could turn us against each other, as if my victory depended on your defeat. The spirit of competitiveness -- think of that other phrase, "We're number one!" -- threatened to define our relation to the world. The marathon, for all its martial roots, was an act of peace.

And so it is today. Emotions run high in the streets of New York because in addition to winding through the boroughs of this city, the marathon cuts through the fevered byways of the nation's present. Last week's wrenching election is the ground of feeling here, and the war in Iraq is as present as the contingent of wheelchair racers who, until recently, were in rehab at Walter Reed Hospital.

Even as we thousands lean forward from behind barriers to glimpse the runners who are coming, we have ears cocked for news from Fallujah, from the death watch in Paris, from Washington, where "We're number one" still rules. The extremity of the physical challenge undertaken by the racers is a reminder of what long-haul efforts always require. One election is nothing. The antiwar movement has hardly begun. A desperately needed alternative future only dawns. Mutual support matters. The sight of these runners is so moving because -- in courage, in faithfulness, in generosity -- they exemplify exactly what America needs now.

We go up on our toes. The orange shirt. The purple visor. The black shorts. "There she is." Number 47487. Our daughter is running up the slight incline with a proud stride. We call. She sees us, waves, drifts to us.

"How are you?" we cry. "I'm OK," she replies, but with a grin that says she's great. In a flash, she's past. Like all the others, she carries more for us than she could ever know. We hold up our sign after her and call it out; "Go, Lizzy!"

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. His most recent book is "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War."

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