Let them run
The New York City Marathon should be run on Sunday. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard. This is unpopular to say in the hours since New York Road Runners club CEO Mary Wittenberg, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support, announced the marathon would go on. Anger and outrage have been the prevailing emotions on TV call-in shows, on social media and in media reports on the controversial decision.
Staten Island, home of the marathon’s starting line, is a disaster zone. The south shore has been wrecked, and residents are rightfully scared and angry. In many cases, their basic needs for food and shelter, let alone their pleas for security and recovery efforts, have not all been met. Many residents say the city police and fire departments are nowhere to be found or are not penetrating deep enough into neighborhoods that need help. Borough President James Molinaro has called the American Red Cross a “disgrace.”
Many also say the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been absent from the recovery effort. Rumors of armed robbery by criminals dressed as utility company employees have spread like wildfire online. Yet the NYPD says that, with out-of-state help, it has searched Staten Island for victims and survivors since the storm abated, and would likely complete the search Thursday night. The aid situation seems to be rapidly improving.
Even so, Staten Island congressman
James Michael Grimm reminded us, on the day of the marathon announcement, that bodies had been pulled from the water as late as Thursday. Some commenters are suggesting that the marathoners on Sunday simply turn around and run down Father Capodanno Boulevard to provide help to those in need. While that’s a noble sentiment, it’s not one that is likely to help any more than the running of the marathon.
In fact, the marathon generates many millions of dollars for charity and the local economy. According to Wittenberg, the NYRR’s “Race to Recovery” campaign has raised almost $3 million in the day since she affirmed that the race would go on. Wittenberg has also stripped away the marathon’s pomp: The opening ceremony and 5k race are gone. Only the main event will go on.
Rather than insulting those in need, the race will sharpen the focus of the national spotlight on New York. The hidden dangers that Staten Island residents fear in the wake of the storm will not remain hidden, nor will they easily be distorted by rumors or misinformation. The race will hasten the delivery of government services to every corner of the borough. The race will mean that charities engaged in recovery will have to spend money wisely, under the gaze of many more onlookers. The race, always teeming with runners who bear the names of loved ones lost to disease or war, will be a testament to the plight of struggling New Yorkers.
The mayor has staked his reputation on being able to host the marathon in a city that is vastly different city from the one in which he made the announcement on Thursday ‑ one where the lights are on, the subways are running, gas is flowing and the people in devastated areas are cared for and on the way to recovery. And, especially, one where the police officers who help secure the marathon course are not being pulled from emergency duties. Wittenberg said in a TV interview that hotels should take care of displaced storm victims if they still need shelter, in place of honoring marathoners’ reservations. This is the right sentiment and is already what some hotels are doing. The marathoners will get by. By Sunday, the city may start to resemble itself again.
On Thursday morning, I rode my bicycle to my office in Times Square from my home in Brooklyn through a seemingly abandoned Lower Manhattan. I felt only sadness in the traffic-free streets and cold sunshine. On the ride home, having forgotten my flashlight, I was plunged into darkness, relying only on the occasional generator-powered floodlight and the headlights of passing cars to guide me. Cursing my stupidity as I neared the base of Fifth Avenue at Washington Square Park, I saw a dim light point rapidly swishing the sidewalk. It was made by a woman holding a flashlight as she ran through the chilly darkness. More darkness was ahead of her tiny beam. I wondered if she had questioned the somewhat dangerous choice of going for a run in the darkened neighborhood.
There is no question that it would have been easy and perhaps even sensible for Bloomberg and Wittenberg to call off the race. But that would have done little to ease the tragedy or speed the recovery. It would have done nothing for those who are suffering, and it would have punished runners, who have been assured the city will be safe on Sunday. What calling off the race might have done is assuage the guilt of those of us who have our homes, with power or without, who live on high ground, who were spared loss, devastation or death. A better way to relieve that guilt would be for those of us who live here to grab a bucket, a case of water, a blanket and to donate our time, our talents, our money, our help of any kind, to our fellow neighbors. Not to tell 40,000 runners who surely recognize our shared plight that they are no longer welcome in our city.
A city of 8 million has all the volunteers it needs to provide aid to the neighborhoods that need it. A city of 304 square miles, many of those mercifully undamaged, can surely give 26.2 linear miles to runners who had chosen, nearly a year ago, to test themselves in it. By the end of my training for my marathon run, my first, a year ago, I was little more than a simple engine: eat, sleep, run. I had also, finally, a discipline and temerity that had escaped me in daily life, keeping off 60 pounds I had lost the year before I started training. Much to my surprise, after nearly eight months of training, I was ready to race.
The 40,000 runners and their cheering supporters can and must be called upon to send their dollars to the charities supporting New York’s recovery effort. A moment of pause, even doubt, when confronted by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, is allowed from all of us. But we can’t punish those whose personal journeys have collided with this tragedy, nor can we blame officials for allowing them to run for the finish line if they attest it is safe to do so. The truth is, when you train for a race like the marathon, especially when it’s your first, you don’t really know if you’ll be able to finish, since the training never takes you the full distance. It’s an act of faith to line up on race day and try to pull it off, much like the act of faith the city has made in deciding to hold the marathon itself. And right now, we need some faith.
We should take the mayor at his word when he says this race can be run safely and without compromising the recovery effort. He may be a cold technocrat, but that doesn’t mean he wants blood on his hands. Right now, it feels as if running a race should be the last thing on anyone’s mind. For New Yorkers, it may well be. But for thousands of runners, I know, this race has been the only thing on their minds for the last year. Until Sandy.
New York’s hopeful visitors are acutely aware of what the city and state have endured. That does not make them culpable for our plight, nor does it make them responsible for the city’s salvation. Let them run, and see the city for itself, and let those of them who are inspired and able to help before or after the race to do so. And let the rest of New York stand up for our fellow citizens in need, and give those who come visit us the very best treatment we can muster, rather than a cold shoulder. And let the world see, as it has too many times, that nothing can keep us off our feet.
IMAGE: Runners cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge after the start of the 2011 New York City Marathon in New York, November 6, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid