Friday, November 2, 2012

Cancelling the ING New York City Marathon

When the New York Road Runners and the city first announced immediately after hurricane Sandy that the ING New York City Marathon would take place as scheduled, I was pleased, and my main concern was for the logistics of transporting runners to the start. The marathon is a fantastic event, a great celebration of life, and marathon runners are tough people who can take anything thrown at them and overcome.

But yesterday it suddenly hit me that there's no way that this race should be taking place this weekend. I apologize to those who have signed up (I'm not signed up this year), but it's become clear that the marathon should be canceled. I think it hit me when I saw news reports of residents of Rockaway Beach and Staten Island desperate for food, water and other basic necessities who were only just receiving their first deliveries from the Red Cross. If not that, then it hit me Thursday when they found the bodies of two small boys in a marshy area just a few miles from the start area, after being ripped from their mother's arms during the storm by the rushing waters on Monday night.

There are many in the general public who don't understand the significance of the marathon, those who think it trivial, which of course, I do not. Nevertheless, it's my feeling that the marathon is going forward for the wrong reasons. I believe that the marathon has become, in a way, too big to fail, or at least too big to be canceled. Mary Wittenberg has truly put all her eggs and NYRR's eggs in this basket, cancellation would be too devastating for NYRR, and I believe she's convinced Mayor Bloomberg to go along. And that's the problem - the marathon has gotten too big - way, way too big.

The Mayor and others have stated that the race represents the resiliency and toughness of New Yorkers, but that just doesn't fly. It's true that individually, the runners are extremely tough and resilient and ready to go. I have runner friends who are still without power and are ready at this moment to go out and run a marathon, or a 50-mile or a 100-mile race, which is absolutely awesome!  I ran the marathon in 2001, two months after the terrorist attacks that killed thousands.  People were still grieving, many were still unaccounted for, and I believe "The Pile" was still on fire, but we'd had time to absorb the shock of what happened, the city had recovered basic functions, and we were rebounding. Furthermore, the attitude during the race was not just resiliency, but a victory run, an act of defiance to a corporeal enemy on the other side of the globe. (I might add that there were about 21,000 runners that year, a few thousand less than the average field around that time, and less than half the number of runners signed up this year.)

Currently, we're still in crisis mode.  Much of Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, not to mention New Jersey and Connecticut, will still be out of power for more than a week. People still haven't had a chance to bury their loved ones, or to figure out where they're going to be living for the coming months or how they're going to be able to earn a living, or to pull cars out of their living rooms or boats out of their yards.  Regardless of whether the Staten Island Ferry will be operating on Sunday morning, regardless of whether NYRR will be able to bus tens of thousands of people through darkened, battered neighborhoods to Fort Wadsworth, regardless of whether it's city funds or private funds providing water, Gatorade, security, medical supplies and personnel along a 26-mile stretch of the city, holding the race just six days after the hurricane hit is extremely insensitive to those still in deep suffering. There will be truckloads of bottled water, bagels, coffee, power bars and other supplies brought to Fort Wadsworth, not to mention generators, while just steps away are people who are truly desperate for just those very items, and have been since Monday.  Let us show our resiliency after we've shown our compassion. Let us have our victory run after we have earned the victory.

If cancellation would be too devastating for NYRR or for the ING New York City Marathon, then they only have themselves to blame. No race should be too big to fail. Many of you know I'm a devoted ultrarunner, and the biggest races in ultrarunning have had to be cancelled - Western States a few years back due to forest fires, Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc once cancelled and once shortened due to rough weather - and they've survived, even though runners had spent large amounts of money and traveled from all over the world. The runners understand. The Chicago Marathon was stopped a few years ago due to heat while many were still running, and the race survived. Those who have traveled here or are on their way can still come here and enjoy the city, or at least the parts of the city that are open. They will understand. Those who have pledged money to charity runners would have to be heartless to take back their pledges - I think they will understand. The athletes will understand, anyone with a capacity to understand may be disappointed, but they will understand.

My statements here I suppose are just foolish posturing, since I make no decisions for anyone but myself, I have no power. And I'm not calling for anyone to boycott the marathon, and I don't mean to dampen anyone's enthusiasm. I take that back, I do mean to dampen enthusiasm. The usual enthusiasm, excitement and downright giddyness at the start and along the course of the marathon is simply inappropriate this year. Those of you who are running, please consider the suffering taking place just a short distance from where your race starts. Remember as you pass near the Barclay's Center that just a few days earlier there were lines of thousands of people waiting for a bus to get to work. Above all, remember that the marathon is a great statement of humanity, and that regardless of what the NYRR decides or the city decides, do not, as an individual, lose that humanity.


  1. Phil, I think until people's basic needs following this distastrous storm are addressed, it is wrong to hold the race should be bigger than our humanity. I think it would be much more appropriate if the powers-that-be in the marathon would direct their resources toward those still in need of the basics. Runners will understand, and the marathon entity will gain public respect as a result. Anyway, great post, hope you're well.

  2. Phil, your sentiments resonate with me perfectly. Like you, I don't have disdain for any runners who choose to participate this weekend. But I agree that they should run with solemnity and respect for those who have lost so much. I have seen certain runners express (on Facebook, mainly) that 'giddyness' you mentioned when they heard that the race was not cancelled, and I was disheartened by their insensitivity.

    I agree that the marathon organizers and the city FEEL that they can't cancel. Hoenestly, I think it comes down to a lack of courage. If they had strength, they would have made what I feel is the right choice. And you're right, they would have survived.

  3. Hmm. Thanks Phil. Like you, about 72hrs ago my initial reaction was to downplay the overall cost of the marathon, and to highlight the recovery work done. "they can do this, no sweat," I thought to myself.
    I saw the water coming up the battery, and somewhere in my brain, I did what I do in a 100, which is I to minimize threats and damage for the sake of finishing.
    The only thing I might add to your words here is that in this instance the cost of 'finishing' has too great of a collateral effect. As much as I resent NYRR for all of their recent changes, be they forced, contrived, or necessary, I feel it will all be for naught if they should continue on. The good will they have generated in various communities with programs and etc. will be flushed and then that too will need to be rebuilt.
    I feel a sort of quixotic arrogance is coming into play here at this point by the management. I hope 'Old Ironsides Mary' has the good sense to know when to fight another day, and the ability to present her commercial/buisness/logistical prowess she is lauded for with respect to pulling off a difficult postponement.