Mile 20 — the wall, as marathoners call it — is the loneliest part of New York City’s marathon course.
It’s a desolate stretch of pavement under the looming Major Deegan Expressway, passing vacant storefronts and fenced-in dirt lots strewn with trash.
Here, 6 miles from Manhattan’s inspiring skyline and the cheering fans in Central Park, is where some 50,000 runners in the New York City marathon will feel like they can't take another step.
But then, the music can be heard in the distance.
“We are known as the party zone,” said Jose Bravo, a member of the Boogie Down Bronx Runners, a running group that promotes health in the state's least healthy community, according to University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
“Our main goal is to get the community out and about, to take ownership of their own health,” Bravo said from the sidelines of a recent training run. “A group of people that is going to provide not only the support, but also the energy and the vibes to ensure that it's a safe running space.”
To realize its goal, Boogie Down organizes what is probably the marathon’s most enthusiastic cheer zone, equipped with a DJ booth, a table spread with snacks, and 60 members taking shifts to motivate runners with cowbells, pom-poms, booming and soon-to-be-hoarse voices, and confetti cannons that are popped over each of their runners that pass.
Even for non-runners, the group is infectious. And that's the point.
“If you just want to start off walking, we have that for you,” said Matt Moody, who’s been running with Boogie Down for the last six years. “We're basically trying to get people to move.”
Wendy Portillo is one of those new runners. She just finished her first 5K.
“It's amazing to see the growth,” she said. “Everyone is so supportive, it's like you join from day one and you feel like you just inherited a family.”
Boogie Down is notorious for waiting until the last marathon runner passes by.
“We show up at 5:30, 6 o'clock in the morning,” Bravo said. “We'll run shifts so there's a setup shift, then someone will show up midday, and then there's a cleanup shift. But what ends up happening is that we all end up showing up at 5:30 and then we just rock out till 7:30.”
There’s also a healthy dose of Bronx pride at stake. Just a mile-and-a-half of the marathon’s 26-mile course passes through what some feel is the forgotten borough.
“It's really the only section of the Bronx they come through,” Bravo said. “We want to make sure that anybody that does come through that section of the Bronx remembers that this is what the Bronx is about.”