The Escalade race is said to represent “the best of the Spirit of Geneva…,” “Geneva at its highest,” according to Pierre Ruetschi in the Tribune of December 4. He wrote that 40,000 people running in numerous categories and a thousand volunteers all contributed to “a remarkable collective effort.”
The accolades are well deserved. But what makes this event, like other road races around the world, so special? Having never run in a similar event, but having once observed the New York Marathon, I am intrigued by how a simple running event can generate so much enthusiasm among the runners, spectators and city.
For the runners, there is obviously the thrill of competing if not simply preparing physically. Training before, as a Tribune journalist noted, is more than just anticipation. There are also those, like my son, who take the yearly event as a family effort to construct costumes around a specific theme not necessarily related to Escalade. While the Escalade has historical significance for Geneva, the buildup to the race is much more than just a reenactment of the past.
For the tens of thousands of spectators, there is the joy of watching family and friends, but also the feeling of belonging. As Ruetschi observed, there is “a remarkable collective effort” in the preparation and organization, but even more so in the totality of everyone involved.
Late into the evening, people walked the streets of Geneva with their medals, proud of their achievement but also confirming that they were part of something larger than just themselves, just as people walk the streets of New York the day after the marathon with their medals conspicuously dangling from their necks. People are proud of what they have accomplished individually, but also proud of having been part of a collectivity formed around a joyful event.
Escalade is not a rock concert; it is radically different from the Montreux Jazz Festival or Paleo. In the Old Town there were 40,000 active participants. Walking or running requires little elaboration. They are among the simplest of human activities. No high priced tickets are required; no cavernous stadium needed; no special effects constructed. Forty thousand people did something simple together and with thousands of spectators present, everyone felt that they were part of a celebration.
The uniqueness of Escalade and the road races around the world is their simplicity and sense of communal identity. At the same time we are deeply involved with technology and prone to sit behind our computers or play games on our phones or iPads, there remains a human need to be part of something larger, to be physically involved in collective activities.
Given that need and the growing popularity of Escalade, what other similar activities might be envisioned? How to conceptualize other forms of collective effort and joy which combine the simplicity of walking and running? How to be able to be positively united with others while forgetting those differences that all-too-often tear us apart? How different the positive vibes from Escalade are from the stories of drunken brawls and aggressions that fill the Geneva headlines after every August 1 celebration. (Even attending sporting events like hockey games has taken on security risks.)
So while praises are appropriate for those involved in the Escalade event, can’t we have events like Escalade more often?