After the reality of hearing that the 2012 NYC Marathon had been cancelled set in, I was eager to do something that would end the banal finger pointing and do something more than support the city through the expenditure of tourist dollars. My stomach turned when NYC Marathon organizers suggested that we show support by shopping the Expo. I understood the sentiment, but it rang as solidly with me as when President George W. Bush suggested that the best way to support your country was to go shopping. As I looked at the Twitter feed for #nycmarathon it looked like the dials spinning on a Las Vegas slot machine. Barbs were tossed at runners, the vitriol showed the worst side of social media, and I felt despondent. Did I sign up for this? I wondered what good would come from the cancellation. Runners had already been demonized, no amount of monetary or product donation from the NYC marathon organizers for the recovery effort would be seen as legitimate or authentic as the act would forever be secondary, and the outraged would remain outraged. Then I saw a hopeful link to a group of New York runners that were organizing support for Staten Island, one of the hardest hit boroughs by Hurricane Sandy. I went to their Facebook page, read the plan and the posts by participants that were genuine, non-controversial, and focused on implementation and deployment. I signed up and mapped my subway route to the Staten Island Ferry (and yes, despite popular belief, most subways were running).
The request was simple: Fill a backpack with supplies (they even gave a list of needed items), make sure you can run with your load, wear orange (either because that was the NYC Marathon shirt color or the color of the Staten Island Ferry) and meet at the ferry by 8:30am in the morning, basically the same time many of us would have been corralling for the marathon. I took my daughter to a corner market and selected items that the displaced would need. I took my items that I had originally bought at the Goodwill to keep me warm at the starting line and folded them into my promotional Amazon Athlete string backpack that I had been given at the Expo along with my non-perishable food items, wet naps, and a Home Depot gift card. My only orange running gear was my NYC Marathon shirt and it was easy for me to break with my running protocol of not wearing the “official” participant wear until I had completed the race. There would never be a 2012 NYC Marathon to complete, so I wore my orange with no reservation.
My daughter and my friends didn’t have running wear, but the next morning they accompanied me to the subway and through a series of transfers we made it as far south as we could: Bowling Green. It was easy to spot all the runners participating as they were wearing their orange marathon shirts or any other orange they had in their closet. We walked as a large entourage to the Staten Island Ferry and entered the facility. It was heartwarming to see that over a thousand people had gathered.
Most of the participants were local, but there were a handful of us from out of state or out of country that participated as well. I have to give big kudos to the organizers who in 24 hours had found route leaders armed with running maps, came up with several different distances for runners to choose from beginning with 6 miles and ending with 16 miles, and were orderly and focused. They distributed extra food bars, heavy duty trash bags and Home Depot gift cards that had been donated to be packed amongst our various backpacks and started to load the ferries. My cheering section joined me for the ferry ride over to the island, equally impressed and touched by the resiliency of these marathoners and volunteers. As the ferry pulled away from the shore and we could see both Manhattan in the distance and Lady Liberty holding her torch, I could not get out of my head the scene from the movie “Funny Girl” where Barbra Streisand sings Don’t Rain on My Parade. Although Fanny Brice did not ride the Staten Island Ferry, she did catch a tugboat desperate to reach the cruise ship of Nicky Arnstein. She refused to believe that she would be deterred and she belts out this signature song that defines an indefatigable spirit. By the way, she was also wearing orange. It seemed an apropos anthem for how I felt and from what I could gather I was not alone. As Manhattan became smaller and smaller, the crystal blue sky and the crisp, yet sunny temperatures promised perfect running weather, be it for Sandy relief or for running a marathon.
As we docked, team leaders held signs designating the running distance and we broke ourselves into groups, self-selecting. Some people wore their bib numbers, but everyone held a sense of purpose. Camera crews showed up to cover our arrival and a few people stepped out as spokespeople. I said my farewells to my cheerleaders and found a group with both a map and a short to medium distance. Since I was from out of state, I was afraid of being too ambitious and not being able to find my way back. Staten Island is the hilliest borough of New York City’s five boroughs. Its extreme elevation climbs are very much like Seattle’s geography. For once, I was glad that I had trained in Seattle with its unforgiving hills.
I blended in and introduced myself to my fellow runners. They were all New Yorkers and they seemed a little incredulous that word had gotten out beyond the inner circle of local runners. For the first half mile everyone walked. I thought perhaps it was just a warm up, but it became clear that the group I was with were happy to walk the mileage rather than run. I came to help and I came to run, so I ventured ahead, just about the time that the elevation continued to climb. I finally found a group of runners that were focused on running the route and I fell in. We stopped every so often to make sure our map holder was still with us. We saw downed debris, some power lines that had been tied off, but on this end of the island, part of the power grid had been restored. Cars and residents looked at us with curiosity and we smiled and waved. Occasionally someone would call out a “thank you” from an open window and we soldiered on. I ran with a couple that had come to run the marathon from Australia. They were relieved that they could do something after the arduous journey to New York. The hills were a bit out of their training regimen, so as they slowed to a walk, I continued on. I finally found someone who was keeping head to the ground, yet keeping pace and I joined him.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
I laughed at the coincidence of it all and we talked about the serendipity of our Seattle hill training. We never knew it would be for this type of an event. He was 18 years my junior, but I kept up until we reached our destination – Wagner School. This was a staging and shelter area for Staten Island supplies, food, and clothing. As we arrived, the security personnel and volunteers were overwhelmed by our numbers. Not many on this part of the island were using the school as shelter as power had been restored to many and the storm had passed. A small group of volunteers had been holding down the fort and they were noticeably under resourced. They were finally convinced to let us do more than drop off supplies and we began sorting, organizing, loading trucks destined for the other end of the island. We opened the many bags of donated clothing and sorted them into gender groups and sizes. We did what we could. Others who went further into the island brought supplies directly to those in need. One of the volunteers said that the challenge was that many refused to leave their homes to get what they needed, so they were starting to truck the supplies to them. There was a part of me that wondered where were all the outraged people calling for the cancellation of the marathon? Why weren’t they here helping their own community? I worked diligently and when I looked up I no longer saw the group that I had run up with. I decided to head back to the ferry, but with no map I relied on spotting orange shirts to pick my way back on the descent. I finally caught up with a walking group and they told me to run until I reached a street called “Victory,” take a right and continue on until I reached the ferry terminal. Yes, to end my day’s run on a street named Victory felt right.
I could have opted to join other endeavors that day. There were groups of runners that decided to run the NYC marathon course, carrying their own hydration and relying on gas stations along the route for facilities. There was the Run Anyway marathon held at Central Park where runners ran around the Central Park loop three to four times until they reached the 26.2 mile mark. I loved this article I read in The New York Times by Joe Nocera as he discusses Mayor Bloomberg’s call to cancel and his own experience as a New Yorker. Thank you, Joe, for taking a moment to honor what wasn’t and for putting your hands together and telling the story of all the unsung athletes. After all, the NYC Marathon was the only major sporting event in New York that was cancelled. Precious resources were used to provide free shuttles to the Brooklyn Nets game, the Nicks continued to play, and not a single eyebrow was raised. I haven’t heard a single player donate their mega-salary to the cause. I guess elitism has many different faces.
As I ran down Victory Street, I finally spotted another orange shirt. A runner was running with a backpack. As I neared, I noticed his pack had come open and even though it was now empty, it was flopping around unzipped. I offered to help zip up the backpack and ran with my new friend, Pablo. Pablo was a New Yorker of ten or so years, originally from Argentina, a child psychiatrist, and would have been running his sixth NYC Marathon. As we ran, we talked about the politics of the cancellation, compared running playlists, and he described what the start on Staten Island would have looked like if I would have run. He tried to encourage me to come back as my wave and color grouping would put me on the upper decks of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge where the view is spectacular. We talked about opera, his failing knees that were already supported by two knee bandages. He was resolved to try and make it to next year’s marathon. On the ferry, we met a journalist named Danna from Israel who had been stranded in New York while on an impromptu holiday. Being a runner, she decided to check out this relief event and had run to some of the more destructive areas of the island. She said an entourage including Mary Wittenberg, head of the New York Road Runners that organize the NYC marathon, joined them. She said Wittenberg looked like hell. I quipped that probably many of the people that had been dealing with loss of homes looked equally bad. She said oddly enough they didn’t see much devastation where they went, but perhaps she was jaded as her background included being a foreign war correspondent. That changes one’s perspective on what is considered devastating.
Upon arrival to Manhattan, the three of us, united by wearing the color orange, Hurricane Sandy, and a desire to run shared a cab to our various destinations. Pablo was going to run around Central Park. Danna had to ready for her trip back to Israel, and I had friends and family to fall in with. Regardless of background, origin, or motivation we had one thing in common with thousands of others. We would not let anyone rain on our parade, be it impromptu or redirected. I’ve always had a soft spot for a good parade.
©Kelly Tweeddale 2012