It’s close to two weeks ago now that New York City and the tri-state area was being buffeted by what many have called the worst storm in the region’s history. The consequences and the clean-up have been unparalleled. Entire coastal areas of New York and New Jersey no longer exist. Public transportation came to an entire halt and is still not fully functional. More than half a million area residents remain without power, and this as New York City experienced its coldest days of the season. Thousands are homeless, living in shelters, pondering how to begin to get their lives back together. Many of those residents live on Staten Island, one of New York City’s celebrated five boroughs, in fact the one known around the globe as the starting point of arguably the most celebrated marathon in the world.
When Mayor Bloomberg pronounced, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, that the November 4th ING New York City Marathon would proceed as planned, there were plenty, myself among them, who didn’t quite know how to handle that piece of news. On the one hand, maybe the Mayor had a point: at a time of unprecedented adversity, the Big Apple would bounce back, just as it had after 9/11.
This, the race, with 45,000 runners hammering through the five boroughs, would be an uplifting, soul salving undertaking at a time when New York sorely needed it. The other school of thought asked if this event – a race, fundamentally a frivolous undertaking, and one calling for enormous City resources – was appropriate? New York had not been attacked. Nobody needed to be defied. Mother Nature had simply unleashed an unreasonable wrath and dozens had died, thousands were threatened with homelessness and hunger, power failures affected millions, and the restoration costs were incalculable. A marathon? Really? With all the ancillary elements that it demands – food, water, police, first responders – could it, should it, go on as planned?
Mayor Bloomberg and the New York Road Runners remained adamant that the show would go on; but, even they must have been given pause. At the starting line in Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth, the NYRR would distribute 93,600 bottles of water, 30,000 energy bars and smoothies and 45,000 cups of coffee. Simultaneously, just a few miles away – literally – in Staten Island’s Tottenville area, homes had been washed into the sea and families were desperately seeking food and shelter. One woman had her two children swept from her arms by flood-waters as she pulled them from her stalled automobile. They were found dead, days later, in a swamp.
As this debate grew more heated in the days before the race, the two camps grew more divided. Everybody who was registered to run wanted to run – though some were scared of being harassed by spectators along the route. The general populace grew more and more opposed. Many were incensed. Interviewed by Matt Lauer on NBC’s The Today Show, even the NYRR’s CEO Mary Wittenberg could barely conceal her own qualms. Though she said all of the correct things in support of the Mayor and of the race, the stress of the public conflict was written across her face.
When the final decision to cancel came down on the Friday afternoon before the Sunday event, the reason given was that the race had become a divisive entity rather than the unifying celebration that it was intended to be and always is. One writer in the Wall Street Journal observed that the way to fall in love with New York City is to run the marathon. He said a mouthful; I ran it for the first time in 1979 and have been living here, pretty much, ever since.
The Mayor and the NYRR were correct: the race had become a polarizing, resented undertaking in a city that, right now, needed none of that. So, though it took a while, the decision of the Mayor and the NYRR to cancel this year’s marathon was the right one. There was one heck of a lot of disappointed people in and around Manhattan when the news broke; but here’s where things started to get interesting. If unity and inspiration and celebration and healing were necessary, this was when it all began.
Just as quickly as disappointment struck so, too, did the realization that – WTF –all these people were going to run the marathon, anyway. Any runner knew that. There’s the inherent beauty in running and runners. You don’t need much – just a starting line, a bunch of crazies who won’t take “No” for an answer and somebody to yell “Go.” With that, you’ve got a race, if not a movement, that would make you fall in love with a broken city all over again. That’s what happened.
On the subway on Sunday, race day, I encountered a German couple, from Bremen. “The atmosphere in Central Park is amazing,” they said. What any runner knew would happen, did. The race was cancelled, so they showed up anyway and ran on their own – on their own with 10,000 other people who had exactly the same idea. They ran loops in the Park, they got in each others’ way. They stopped for photos at the Marathon finish line by Tavern on the Green. And spectators stood at roadside and cheered them on, gave them water and, magically, turned what had been a deep bruise on the Big Apple back into what the Marathon properly represents – New York City and the wonderful sport of distance running at its finest.
If this had been choreographed, it could not have been more beautifully done. Mayor Bloomberg and the NYRR responded to the vox populi and, intentionally or not, produced a little magic when it was sorely needed. If you don’t believe in magic, that’s only because you weren’t there. Runners: they do crazy things. We could use a lot more of them right now.
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