I was scheduled to run the 2012 NYC Marathon which was cancelled in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Here is my first post on my thoughts after spending six days in the city that started with the first flights into Newark Liberty airport and ended on election night watching the returns via satellite TV mid-flight.
If you haven’t trained for a marathon or run a marathon you have no perspective on how it takes hold of you and becomes a part of you. It weaves in and out of your daily life; it punctuates life’s losses and disappointments; and if you are lucky, in the end it turns up the volume on life’s victories. It’s hard to separate the experience from the person because in simplest terms we are what we experience. I had to wait several days to write about the cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon because at the center of the act was conflict and I needed to understand not only my own personal conflict but the controversy that whirled around me. The feeling of disappointment was certainly there, but the internalization of the cancellation, at least for me, was more than that. It seemed as if optimism was replaced by manipulation, and that felt very familiar. I’ve spent the last four months trying to make sense of that same type of power play in my own personal and professional life. With the cancellation of the marathon, I became an observer of the kind, giving side of humanity and also of the vindictive and malicious side. I saw firsthand how duplicity slaps and stings; and I saw how eager small-minded individuals are to tear down and target those they don’t understand. I also experienced how people can quietly come together without fanfare and politics to do what they can to make a difference. Honestly, I myself sat divided as I became all those people as I tried to make sense of my shattered sense of resilience.
As background, the 2012 New York City Marathon had become my anthem to a difficult year that I was determined to overcome. I have struggled with a year of injury and disappointment. I had to remind myself of what was possible as I rebuilt my physical and emotional self. I used my long runs as time to sort out truth from fiction, curated my playlists to sing even as I lost my own voice, and used the goal of running the largest marathon in the world as proof that I was still alive, vibrant and victorious. The NYC marathon became a symbol of winning my battle with a wavering self-confidence. I envisioned crossing the finish line with every training run, with every deep breath, and with every setback. For me, this has been an eleven month journey that began in December and is now destined to keep me in a runner’s purgatory for another year. It’s not as if I hadn’t finished four other marathons, three as a Boston Marathon qualifier, but for me, this one was different. It was very likely to be my last marathon, the punctuation mark on what has been a remarkable feat for an unremarkable woman. It was meant to be a reminder of the bright spots that exist if you simply take a moment to find them without the glare of the fluorescent and neon imposters that beg shallowly, albeit loudly, for attention. It was a bit like hoping that I could be a Galileo seeing not only the many constellations across the sky but the many other stars hidden from view depending on the time and the place. Instead, I found myself in the aftermath of decisions made by those that clearly lacked imagination, critical thinking and night vision.
As Hurricane Sandy made its way up the eastern Atlantic coastline picking a path from the Jersey shore skirting New York City and traveling northward, marathoners like me looked to those on the ground to make the call: marathon or no marathon. Mayor Bloomberg was stalwart in his message that the marathon would go on. He talked about the marathon being the symbol of resiliency, an emblem of the city. Mary Wittenberg, the head of the New York City Road Runners (NYRR) organization that puts on the marathon, was more measured in her statements, giving a wait and see attitude, dropping a few hopeful kernels as she mentioned the deep contingencies the marathon had in place. Most runners expected the marathon to be cancelled before these statements were strategically placed with the traditional news media. Instead of allowing runners to cancel hotel rooms and get vouchers for future travel, they dangled press statements strung with beads of hope – a lethal combination for driven, focused, endurance athletes. Finally, on Wednesday evening, a joint statement came from both the Mayor and the NYRR association that the marathon would go on. So I, like tens of thousands of others boarded planes destined for the city. We were many of the first to make it to what the media had successfully portrayed as a flooded, non-functional mega-city. I am glad that I have had the long training runs to discern fact from fiction. The truth is that the devastated areas are proof of nature’s fury with homes destroyed and lives lost, while a mile away life goes on as if hurricanes were an everyday thing. I was incredibly blessed that I had both friends and family that had rallied around me. Two friends left on the first redeye from Seattle to JFK airport on Wednesday, acting as my carrier pigeons to New York, to scope out the devastation zone and report back what to expect. The apartment I had rented was on the lower east side of Manhattan and did not have power, but I was blessed with an agency that wanted to make sure I got to New York to run. Imagine complete strangers rallying to your cause! By the time my friends had landed, I had secured an alternate apartment near Lincoln Center and my friends were able to get the keys and check in, just in case I was delayed into the wee hours of the night. I had arranged to fly with my daughter from Seattle to the Newark airport and had also arranged for my mom to take her first big trip to the city traveling from Florida, with a joint rendezvous point being this airport now in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Amazingly, all of our flights were on time and our arrival gates were within a stone’s throw of each other. Getting from Newark to Manhattan was the bigger challenge. The trains were still not running due to the debris that littered the tracks and the flooding of the tunnels under the East River. We relied on shuttle bus transport and four hours later we arrived at our destination. We knew firsthand about the cause of the delays long before it was reported in the news – a gasoline shortage. Our shuttle mates exchanged stories, a father from Berlin with his son who was also there to run his final marathon, a local that had dropped her grandmother off at the airport after the two of them had been stranded on the 9th floor of her apartment building for three days because her grandmother couldn’t do stairs, a very crabby local that didn’t have a reservation and nothing good to say about the shuttle delay or the driver, and a couple of business people who couldn’t get back to their homes and the city until the airports re-opened. You bond with interesting people in these circumstances.
We had heard that the subways weren’t running and the city was on its knees. That was not our experience. For six days, we took the subway everywhere we needed to go (we did not venture to Queens or Brooklyn because crossing the East River was the issue). We took subways uptown, downtown, to the eastside and to the Westside. We saw two Broadway shows (yes, it is true that as soon as possible, the show must go on), we ate at cafes, restaurants, and brought home food from delis. On Friday morning, we went to the New York City Marathon Expo to pick up my bib number. I was not alone, thousands of runners had made their way from around the world to this same destination and we spent 45 minutes winding around turnstiles to pick up our official entry materials. The vendors were set up in an exposition space that had been transformed into a runner’s city – storm or no storm. The Javits Center is along the Hudson River and we could see the lower level of the complex had been flooded and they were still pumping out water, but the rest of the building was functional. Vendors were selling everything imaginable that might appeal to a marathon runner, promoters of marathons around the word were talking up the virtues of your “next” marathon, and trainers were there to solve every injury or training obstacle. There was nary a sign that just a few hours later the marathon organizers would announce the cancellation of the marathon. I was in the Grand Central Station market buying food for a quick dinner when I received word via a text from a friend in Seattle who had heard it on CNN. NYC Marathon organizers didn’t bother to officially inform me of the cancellation until noon the next day. I found that pretty astounding since they religiously sent marathon entrants a weekly email telling us how to shop, train, and prepare for the marathon over the past 8 months. I am still incredulous that they couldn’t bother to put the runners at the top of their list when communicating about the cancellation. The way it played out, we were the last informed. Many of us heard it from friends, secondary sources, and the media. It was a little like hearing that the person that has been courting you for months had a change of heart and thought they would let you figure it out on your own. What has happened to honest, to your face communication?
I’ve spent the last few days contemplating the change of heart from marathon organizers and city officials. Just like almost everything in our world these days, it was a political move that was ill-timed and reactive to a flurry of sentiment that took over the social media circuit. The unfettered social media environment is kind of like the Wild West: it's hard to discern what is real and what to expect. The social media flurry was at times cruel and as the cancellation played out, runners were put in the middle of the controversy, supposedly the same controversy that the NYRR said they were trying to avoid. Runners were demonized and portrayed as ego-centric and self-absorbed athletes out of touch with the rest of the world. NYRR couldn't become our voice because they had no idea what we would say and didn’t bother to ask what we thought. Involuntarily, both Mayor Bloomberg and Mary Wittenberg aided and abetted the dialogue that missed a giant opportunity to mobilize tens of thousands of runners. Instead they made decisions that minimized the economic impact to NYRR and the city (we were urged to shop at the expo despite the cancellation and help the city's businesses by frequenting them for food, entertainment, and culture) and allowed both money and politics to guide their hand.
At the crux of the controversy was the argument that precious city resources would be diverted to enable the marathon to go on. Generators, water, food, and security could be better deployed into the devastated areas. There was not a runner that I met that didn’t agree with that sentiment. Instead race organizers tried to argue that those resources would not take-away from the relief and recovery efforts as they were privately secured. True or untrue it was a perception issue. The impact of the devastation was apparent beginning the day after the storm. The mayor and NYRR should have made the tough call then and then organized the 47,000 runners to give to the effort in whatever way they could. If you believe the argument that the decision makers didn’t know the impact of the storm, then you forget that we are talking about New York City, a city that has rebounded from much more than a superstorm. I can't believe that they don't know what both their city and their people are capable of. Being in the city for six days, I experienced huge leaps of recovery allowing the focus to go on to the 10% of the city still suffering from devastating losses. Be that as a fact, the decision makers aren’t perfect, so even with encouraging us to show up and come to the city and then cancelling they had a focused, driven resource that they had no idea how to employ or put to work, so they did what they thought was best: they ignored us. Twitter, facebook and other online forums continued to buzz, now runners organizing themselves amidst cries of us to "go home and get a life." NYRR remained consistent in their approach that economics would be their primary driver. They communicated to the runners in this order which to me indicates priority. First, there will be no refund of entrance fees, and if runners want to run next year NYRR will hold your spot, but in no uncertainty you WILL have to pay again. Second, if you want to make a difference, dig deep into your piggybank and give a donation to relief efforts by giving to the Mayor’s Fund (his marathon rhetoric gives me a lot of confidence that he knows what’s best). Third, consider supporting the city by going to a list of internet websites and figure out what is what for yourself because of course that is the NYRR way – for example donate your hotel room to those that have lost their homes (forgetting that most of us were in the city due to their previous announcement that the marathon was on) and contacting the Red Cross. I discovered that many New York local runners either running the marathon or volunteering decided to stage a volunteer effort to run supplies to one of the hardest hit boroughs: Staten Island. They set up a facebook page called New York Runners in support of Staten Island, encouraged us to fill a backpack with supplies, contacted relief coordinators and distributed a list of most needed items, and set a meeting time at the Staten Island Ferry with local runners leading routes to different parts of the island. Runners wanted to help, they could go on foot where transportation could not, and they could look face to face with the people in need and let them see the real people behind the marathon. Runners were eager to make a small difference, regardless of whatever media machine had told it differently. Runners organized themselves by talking to each other, utilizing social media for results versus vitriol, and avoided contacting the media outlets and making righteous statements. I signed up. We would run on marathon morning and try to do something useful. This felt right.
The morning after the cancellation announcement, I woke up early. I had a deep sadness that I knew best tackled by putting on my running shoes and heading to Central Park. I wasn’t the only one with that idea. The park had opened for the first time since Hurricane Sandy at 8am. I found teams of international runners running in their colors, runners donning their 2012 NYC marathon shirts, and countless onlookers. I entered the park around W. 66th street and starting running the loop counterclockwise starting at mile 26. Runners ran silently, not the usual chatter and smiles that I see. The loop was still closed to vehicle traffic because they would have been putting the final touches for the marathon if this had been a normal marathon-eve morning. I passed the markers for the 25th, 24th, and 23rd miles. Running part of the course in reverse seemed appropriate. I continued the almost 7 mile loop until I reached the official finish line that was still set up and flanked by the orange VIP grandstands now destined to be empty. As I passed that mark, I noticed that my playlist was playing a song from the film “Once” recently turned into a successful currently running Broadway musical. The name of the song was “Lies” and it seemed hauntingly poignant. I stopped, wiped an errant tear away, one mixed with disappointment, but more intensely one brought on from the immense loss of opportunity that this city had to use the stamina, availability, and focus of thousands of people like me. Somehow it is hard to believe that this was about concern over deployment of resources. I approached a Korean couple that had just finished a run and were snapping photos at the finish line. I motioned to my iphone and they accommodated a stranger by taking my photo. I suppose we were united in our need for seeing what would never be. I now could say that I passed the finish line of the 2012 NYC Marathon, but I certainly never crossed it. At least I was not alone; thousands of others joined me in that once-in-a-lifetime need for closure. The next day, I joined thousands of other runners who went to Staten Island and tried to do the right thing, and that is what Mayor Bloomberg and Mary Wittenberg didn’t quite understand was missing: talk directly to us, tell us the truth, let us make a difference, and leave the economic equation to the economists. At times like these people need people and leaders with the courage to discern fact from fiction.
© Kelly Tweeddale 2012