Runners crossing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn at the start of last year’s New York City Marathon.
On Friday afternoon, I walked into the New York City Marathon Expo at the Jacob Javits Center on the far western edge of Manhattan to pick up my race number. Hundreds of runners and their families, many speaking foreign languages, were milling around the massive convention center floor, trying on T-shirts, sampling PowerBars, signing up for a lottery to win a free trip to the Milan Marathon. Every so often a voice came on the PA system to announce that the NYRR was collecting donations to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, but I couldn’t really tell if anyone was paying attention.
I bought some energy gels — little packets of caffeinated chocolate-flavored sludge that give you a boost while you’re running — and wandered out, feeling slightly dazed, but also angry. I’ve been planning on running this year’s marathon, which would have been my first, for almost two years. I’ve put myself through a strict training schedule, building up to a long run of 20 miles a few weeks ago. I stopped drinking, which has meant I’ve stopped going out except to see my closest friends, who remain enjoyable even without a glass or two of wine. But, I told myself, it would all be worth it to experience what for me (and I think for many others) is their favorite day of the year. I live along the marathon route in Brooklyn, and watching the runners — some fast as hell, some already walking barely a third of their way through the course — has always been inspiring and exciting.
It wasn’t going to be like that this year. All week, as Mayor Bloomberg kept insisting that the marathon was going to go on as scheduled, I grew increasingly uneasy. It was becoming clear that the damage to our area, particularly in Staten Island, where the race was supposed to start, was brutal. I emailed my group of friends who had been planning on celebrating afterwards with me to say that the race was still on, but that I was feeling horrible about it — and asked that they consider donating to relief efforts, as I had. I made plans to volunteer on Saturday, and encouraged other runners to do the same. I was going to put information about how to donate to the Red Cross via text on the back of my shirt, so that people watching along the way would know how they too could help.
Thursday night, I was at home — where I never lost power — watching NY1, a local news station in New York City, when a woman who lives on Staten Island called in to the show. She was desperate. People in the beach communities of Staten Island were afraid to leave their homes, she said, because of looting. There was no sign of the Red Cross or FEMA or even the NYPD. There was no food, no gas, no heat. They were in total darkness — literally and figuratively. And, she said, her voice rising, it was unconscionable that the city would even consider holding the marathon when so many were still suffering, and being ignored.
I knew she was right, but as long as the Mayor refused to cancel the race, I struggled with what to do. The most morally righteous thing, it seemed, was to take the lead of this woman, who said she was going to ride the marathon’s official buses to Staten Island wearing her race number — but then volunteer all day in the devastated borough. I wanted to be that person but I also didn’t feel strong enough to do it.
But it was starting to feel like nothing I could do besides dropping out of the race and helping on Staten Island all day would be enough. I resented Bloomberg and New York Road Runners for continuing to insist that the race would be a symbol of New York’s strength and resilience, and that the money that the race brought to New York was why it had to go on; it was tough to swallow with the backdrop of massive corporate sponsorship from ING and others. The symbolism of shutting down the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn, and the number of emergency personnel who would be on hand for the race instead of helping people in need seemed more profound. My survivor’s guilt about emerging from the storm itself unscathed was compounded by marathon runner’s guilt about running in a race that was growing increasingly controversial by the second. Thursday night, Brian Williams said on NBC that the race should be canceled. On Friday, the cover of the New York Post showed the massive generators that the NYRR had set up in Central Park for end of the race, with the headline: ABUSE OF POWER. The chorus on social media grew louder and louder. BuzzFeed published a post called “21 Photos Taken Near Where the NYC Marathon Starts” that showed the devastation in Staten Island (the headline has since been changed to “21 Images That Show Why The NYC Marathon Has Been Canceled”). The amount of food and water that was going to be handed out to runners seemed disgusting when so many people were still without both. I felt sick.
So when I walked out of the Javits Center yesterday and checked my phone and saw that rumors were starting to circulate that the marathon had been canceled, I was more relieved than upset. Sure, I’ve been training for a long time — but I can run another marathon. People who lost their lives certainly can’t. And I want that marathon I run to be a celebration of the city I love, not a condemnation of the people running it. If the marathon had gone on, it would have been forever tainted — and the runners, and the city, don’t deserve that.
I know I am one of the very lucky ones. Today I’ll be making lunches for people in the Rockaways, where residents still don’t have power, and later this afternoon I’m bringing supplies over to Red Hook, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that was also devastated by the storm. I hope that my fellow runners — including those who, unfortunately, spent thousands of dollars to travel here — will also find ways to help out those who are still in need. I also hope that everyone on Twitter and Facebook who was so insistent that the marathon be canceled will also find a way to help. After all, we’re all lucky ones.