The New York Marathon is one of the sports iconic majors. Boston had been around for many years before, but New York was the place where running 26.2 miles became open to the masses during the running boom of the 1970s. Since then, the first mass-participation marathon has become the largest mass-participation marathon. Who knows just how less of a wide wide world of endurance sports would exist today without this event.
Just as the New York City Marathon has become an integral part of the history of running and endurance sports, it has become an integral part of the city that hosts it. It is partly because of that why the Marathon, scheduled in the wake of the destruction from Hurricane Sandy, has been a focus of intense local and national scrutiny and debate.
My story is one small voice from one perspective among those of fellow runners, local residents, marathon staff, city administration, and the public at large. It isn’t much, but perhaps it’s worth sharing.
Mace knows that I am very particular about planning, especially when it comes to things like weather and logistics. I planned, months before, to fly into JFK airport on Thursday afternoon and rely on public transportation to get me around the city…to packet pickup, lodging, and sightseeing across New York’s many attractions. I reserved accommodations on Staten Island, within walking steps of the marathon’s start line. My subway, train, and bus connections were also preplanned weeks before. And, indeed, I was aware of the impending storm called Sandy half a week before her landfall.
At midday Tuesday, after Sandy had landed a full day before, I fully expected that I would be on a plane to New York in less than 48 hours. My flight had not been cancelled. Mass transit had been shut down as one of the precautionary measures, and I awaited confirmation that it would be back up and running.
But, the more I checked websites and news reports, the more I discovered that the transit closures would be more than incidental or brief. The Staten Island Ferry was out of service, as were all of the subways…not just the flooded subway tunnels, but the entire system was shut down. The AirTrain connecting JFK to the subway stations was also closed. Busses did not run on Tuesday until very late in the day, on limited routes. At midnight on Tuesday, I saw the transit situation to be very bad. I anticipated, correctly, that roads would be crammed with cars, so I didn’t even consider trying to rent one. If I couldn’t move around the city, it would be a miserable trip, and I wouldn’t be alone. I left Mace a text, asking to confide with him over the phone in the morning, but I went to sleep that night thinking that my marathon was over.
Mace and I talked on Wednesday morning and, indeed, supported my decision to cancel my marathon entry and my travel to New York. I tried to call the lodging house, but the line was busy, so I cancelled the reservation via the internet. Later, an agent from the lodging called me to let me know that the power was still out and there was no running water. I confirmed my cancellation and everyone was happy. A fellow runner that I know who was to stay at the same place cancelled the following day, and was told by the agent that this would help open up space for locals on Staten Island who had been displaced from their homes.
I had to wait on hold for 30 minutes to speak to an airline representative, who gladly cancelled my non-refundable tickets without a cancellation fee, and with the full fare credited to my next flight on the airline. My original flight, less than 24 hours before scheduled takeoff, had not been cancelled, but two of the five flights the airline had scheduled that same day to JFK had been cancelled the day before. So, not only did I give someone who needed shelter a place to stay, I gave someone who really needed to get back to New York the chance to get there quickly.
In short, the Big Apple wasn’t big enough for me, at this time. I’m happy that I didn’t make the trip. But I still had hope that the marathon would continue in my absence. I have plenty of critical things to say about Mary Wittenberg, the race director, but none of them were related to her attempts to salvage the race as scheduled. Her response on Monday when questioned about whether the marathon would continue was non-committal, which I think was the best response to give at the time. But after the mayor gave a committed yes answer on Tuesday, it appears Wittenberg and the New York Road Runners were determined to do whatever was necessary to have a marathon on Sunday, and had the mayor not pulled the plug on the race today, I believe that Wittenberg would’ve tried everything imaginable up to Sunday morning to stage a race. But as it became more and more clear that transit was nearly paralyzed and water, food, gasoline and electricity were in desperate need, it was more obvious that the logistical hurdles for staging the race were not going to be feasible.
Sometimes, the best way to help is to stay out of the way.