In a restaurant bordering Central Park West, in a far-back room at Tavern on the Green, a petite Russian woman sat silently at a small rounder, her interpreter and a countrywoman flanking her. It was the final news conference before Sunday's New York City Marathon -- 48 hours before the world's largest footrace -- and not a single camera or tape recorder was put in front of Ludmila Petrova.
Either no one knew or no one wanted to ask.
"My training takes me away from the sadness," she said solemnly, through the interpreter. "There is some reflection. But in running, you put your mind into thinking about what is happening, not what has happened."
Petrova's husband, Sergei, was killed in a car crash this year, leaving Petrova a 37-year-old widow and a single mother of two daughters, Inna, 15, and Sasha, 12.
"She would spend Sergei's birthday of October 30 with him in New York every year," the interpreter said. "Coming back here is very hard. She thinks often about him, waiting for her at the finish line."
Petrova ran for professional pride and prize money then. Five years ago, she won New York, traversing 26 miles 385 yards in 2 hours 25 minutes 45 seconds. A mother of two closing in on her mid-thirties, she was hardly finished competitively; Petrova was suddenly among the best female distance runners in the world.
The day she won New York, she told a sweet tale of how Sergei, a traditional Russian alpha male, had never helped her keep house, how she had to cook and clean for the family. But that year, Sergei finally got religion, realizing it was culturally okay for men to help. He dived into his domestic chores and enabled his wife to train longer and harder. Ludmila, who had won $90,000, a new Pontiac and a motor scooter, said part of her victory belonged to her equality-inspired husband.
"If my husband behaves well, he gets the car," she said, laughing.
Soon, the couple and their two young daughters would split residences between Gainesville, Fla., and Cheboksary, Russia. She had competed in the 10,000 meters at the 1996 Atlanta Games and kept pushing her mileage forward. Last year, she finished eighth in the marathon at the Athens Olympics.
On Sunday, like so many behind her, she does not run to win as much as she runs to cope.
At the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on Sunday morning, even the elite runners speak of a rush they cannot explain, the overwhelming feeling of more than 35,000 people waiting for the gun to go off -- the fleet and the plodders, sandwiched together in a new-millennium melting pot not far from Ellis Island. Of 37,257 starters a year ago in New York, 36,562 finished -- a 98 percent completion rate.
Some run for the competition, to say they could. Some run for psychological and spiritual reasons, away from their past and toward their future. Others, like Petrova, run to mask the grief and loss.
It's not just the elite runners among us. The numbers of novice marathoners keep spiking exponentially. Why? With too much emotional baggage to fit in the overhead compartment, so much introspection and self-analysis taking over Western culture, running has become the perfect antidote for the modern American life.
From personal experience, there are things worked out in your head on a run that cannot be worked out on a couch or in conversation, a clarity only a physical journey can bestow. Something about the solitary beat of your arches hitting the ground, the monotonous beat of bone, lungs and heart, takes you away from whatever was gnawing at you before you made the decision to put on your shoes and walk out the door.
At its apex, training for a marathon dispenses order and control in the mind of the disciplined, the idea that life does not happen to you as much as your choices and decisions happen to you. Luck and happenstance are not why you made it to the starting line; they are both a residue of your own design.
Now, some go overboard, thinking they must run no matter the weather or condition of your body.
There was no reason I should have tried to run 13 miles in mid-August along the towpath on a 95-degree, sticky, humid day. Jumping in the fetid canal four times to cool my body temperature was not my proudest moment. Neither was the poison ivy rash snaking around my legs and groin a week later. I believe this is the part of "Chariots of Fire" that got edited out.
But you learn something about others in this race: They get here any way they can. Members of the New Orleans track club, ready to withdraw after Hurricane Katrina seized their city, have decided to run, to be a visible demonstration of the spirit and strength of their community the way many others ran after the terrorist attacks in 2001.
It's a cliche in sports these days, yet so many use the marathon as a platform to show that life does go on despite illness, heartbreak and tragedy. For some, it becomes a closure of a different kind.
"It helps you in your regular life to be more patient, to look forward, past the daily goals and on to bigger ones," Petrova said, when I asked why she began running and how it helped her.
"It balances me. My training takes me away from everything."
She was so poised. The close-cropped hair, serious, piercing brown eyes. Leather boots and a nice skirt and blouse to match. So put together. You wonder how someone who lost the love of her life could go on and run Sunday morning.
"I'm sorry for your loss," I said. "You are very courageous to run."
"Thank you," Ludmila Petrova said.
"I know what you see," she said. "Outside of my body, I look so strong. But this is only outside. Inside I feel so much pain."