The New York City Marathon Should Go On

That's right. I said it.

A couple days ago, as I was settling back into the office after two days of storm-hunkering, and as cities across the Eastern seaboard were evaluating the damage wreaked by Hurricane Sandy, my friend, Anna, called from where she lives down South.

We compared notes on the storm—they just got some rain, she said, and I told her my story from Center City: a couple lightbulb flickers, some spooky wind-sounds, but nothing major. Very lucky, we agreed.

“So, um,” she began, like she didn’t want anyone else to hear. “I’m supposed to run my first marathon in New York this weekend.”

I had completely forgotten. “That’s right! What’s going on with that? Are they still having it?”

The race was still on, she said, and her flight still scheduled to leave on Friday, but she was having doubts.

The New York Road Runners, the city running association that puts on the event every year, was still planning to hold the event, with Mayor Bloomberg’s blessing. Meanwhile, city residents, elected officials and even runners were crying foul. With roads closed, a transportation emergency, a rising death toll (40 in just the city of New York, now), and volunteers needed to recover hard-hit areas like Staten Island (where the race will launch on Sunday), it was lunacy to consider using city resources to thrust Gatorade cups at endorphin-happy joggers high-tailing it through the streets. Logistics aside, many thought it was simply “tacky.” A friend she was thinking about staying with in New York had told Anna she thought “maybe they should give all those free bagels to the people who lost their homes.”

As Jezebel wrote, “Why are we not using every last resource we have to get people back in their homes, turn the electricity back on, clean up the rubble? Pick up the fucking bodies?”

“[The marathon] is all about the triumph of the human spirit,” Mary Wittenberg, the Road Runner’s chief executive, told Matt Lauer in an interview yesterday, noting that the event could be used as a platform to raise money for victims, and rally support for the city.

Bloomberg, of course, noted the economic benefits of the race to small businesses, and said controversially, but earnestly, “The city is a city where we must go on.”

To be be honest, I hadn’t even thought to be offended by the event. When Anna first posed her dilemma, my reaction was that if the show could go on, then that was great news, right? But Facebook petitions and op-eds calling the city’s decision “selfish” continue to rack up, and more and more of the runners I know with New York aspirations are anxious about the weekend ahead.

“I almost don’t know how to feel,” wrote my friend Jane, a die-hard South Jersey runner, in an email. “I’ve wanted to run the NYC marathon for years, but the current circumstances are so drastically different from how I imagined it would be. Even though I really want to run it, I don’t know that I agree with NYRR’s decision to go ahead with it this weekend. Right now I don’t know how I’m going to get to the city (since I was going to take NJ Transit), if my hotel even has power (it’s down near Wall Street), or how I’m going to get to the start (the Staten Island Ferry isn’t currently running)—but because NYRR isn’t refunding entry fees for runners who cancel and defer until next year, I’m trying to do whatever I can to run on Sunday.”

The more the hellstorm pounds, though, the more I find myself digging in my one-time-marathoner heels that continuing with the race feels like the right decision. That may be in part because I, like the rest of the country, am ready to move past this undeniably tragic and devastating moment, but it’s also because I simply have trouble believing that the race would deny victims the help they need during recovery.

While critics fret over misappropriated personnel and bagel rations, race and city officials have been more than explicit that emergency responders and recovery services won’t be used to oversee the marathon. The volunteers and city workers helping New York residents get back on their feet won’t be pulled away from victims to line orange cones along the course, and despite some seemingly baseless rumors that homeless victims would be forced out of the hotels they’re staying in, a Forbes op-ed pointed out that many of the hotels hosting runners this weekend are setting up cots in ballrooms to make room for everyone. The Road Runners are arranging for private transportation to the start line, clearing up subways and ferries that will surely take a few more days to get back on track.

The tendency, I think, during times of desperation and scarce resources is to assume that civic energy and sympathy are sum-zero games, and that any focus shifted from the tragedy at hand is a slight to those suffering. The first step out of grief usually seems unnatural and offensive. But New York simply will have to take that step at some point, and while “too soon!” is reverberating across the blogosphere, it seems to me that the most opportune time to start shaking a trauma is when it’s possible—physically and psychologically—to do so. (Lest we forget, the nation will also have to divert its attention two days later, for Election Day.)

And when Wittenberg said the race could be used as a way to rally spirits and money for Sandy’s victims, I’m also inclined to think she’s not entirely full of PR b.s. The race will still bring tens of thousands of people to the city, perking up businesses who’ve taken a hit in the last few days. And when the marathon ran just a few weeks after 9/11, the same issues of safety and tastefulness came up, but for those who finished the race and saw the city pull together in solidarity, it was a sign that the mourning could—would—someday end.

So for a few hours on Sunday, maybe it isn’t the end of the world for New York to set up some timers and water tables, and clear a path for the runners. It won’t prevent its citizens from returning to normalcy, and it may even help everyone see the finish line.

>> What do you think? Should the powers-that-be cancel the New York City Marathon in light of recent events? Or should the show go on? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments.

Photo: Marianne Campolongo /