Sandy was one of those freak storms (we hope) formed by separate weather systems merging into a sum-bitch beyond measure of its parts. As a category 1 Atlantic hurricane came barreling up the eastern seaboard, a fast moving cold front whipped east from the northern plains just as an occluding front to the northeast blocked and turned Hurricane Sandy inland along the New Jersey-New York coastline. Together those three systems combined into the super-cell which left untold destruction in its path.
Well, the response to the storm by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Road Runners President and CEO Mary Wittenberg – “marathon on”, “marathon off”, all within 48 hours of the start - also created its own super-storm of criticism and anger which blew hard against the ING New York City Marathon, leaving the grand institution battered, shaken, and eventually cancelled for 2012. And now, like those parts of the metro area still digging out of the ruins, the long term effect on the marathon will take time to assess.
A billionaire entrepreneur with an engineer’s mind wired for detail and fact, Mayor Bloomberg surveyed the situation in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and saw ‘back to normal’ as his guiding principle, not a Clinton-esque, ‘I feel your pain’. NYRR chief Mary Wittenberg faced the crisis with all her Catholic school-girl earnestness, driven by her faith in the transformative power of running, a faith which has guided her own life and her stewardship of the NYRR. She had witnessed the nurturing power of the marathon in the aftermath of 9/11, and been schooled on how the inaugural five-borough marathon had been born in response to the city’s deep fiscal crisis of 1976. The marathon as a redemptive force was not just a personal metaphor, it carried societal implications.
Thus, the drive to make the great marathon the healing tool for a stricken city was, to her, a compelling charge for action not retreat. Unfortunately, that very willfulness which had served her so well in her own marathon career – the willfulness that makes all who run awaken on chilly pre-dawn mornings to train, and then sustains us in the closing miles of the race when the body is wracked with pain and depleted of energy – had become a liability.
She so wanted the marathon to be a suture binding the wounded city that she became deaf to the pleas of New Yorkers still caught in the immediacy of their pain, and were in no mood for a metaphoric expression of overcoming odds when they were experiencing it first-hand for themselves.
In trying to make the marathon more than it is, Wittenberg inadvertently jeopardized all that it had become. When she said at Friday’s cancellation press conference that she had hoped that the new live ESPN television coverage might become a telethon raising millions for hurricane relief, I flashed back several years when, during the broadcast of the Boston Marathon, I half-jokingly said as another charity story interrupted the racing action in the heat of battle, “When did the Boston Marathon turn into the Jerry Lewis Telethon?”
So when marathoners questioned why the NBA and NFL went forward with their schedules this weekend in New York and New Jersey while the marathon was cancelled, think of this. The NFL may raise huge sums of money for the United Way, but that isn’t their prime directive, winning football games and lifting the Lombardy Trophy is. When running became more of a fund-raising participation event than a sporting one, it fundamentally changed its character and image. Last week we saw the limits of that image.
When I initially wrote MAYOR BLOOMBERG DOING HIS JOB last Thursday in support of the decision to go forward with the marathon, I assumed the mayor had taken the pulse of the city, weighed the pluses and minuses of city resources, and only then concluded that the marathon would prove more of a positive than a negative for his city. Well, I was wrong.
Mayor Bloomberg, for all his third-term utilitarian strengths, had a track record of misreading the public mood outside Manhattan. In fact, in the end, it fell to Wittenberg to be the one to convince the mayor on Friday that the mood of the city had turned so toxic against the marathon that cancellation was the only proper route ahead – if only to ensure the safety of her runners. But by then the damage had already been done.
Yesterday thousands of marathoners took to Staten Island, not to begin their five-borough journey toward Central Park as they have since 1976, but to independently assist New Yorkers whose lives had been destroyed by Sandy. Others ran their own private, unsanctioned marathons around Central Park, coming together, as runners do, to commune in a time of difficulty, and to burn off the tapered strength they’d spent months developing. Together they went a long way toward resurrecting the damaged image of their sport.
As reported in the New York Times, citizens of Staten Island cheered and wept upon seeing the runners arrive to assist with food, water, clothing, and an abundance of energy and goodwill.
“My God, the marathoners,” said one person to the Times who was a relative of a father and son who died. “What they’ve done here is overwhelming. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Actions speak louder than words, and it won’t be an easy pull-back for the NYRR to regain the good graces of the non-runners in its host city, not after becoming the lightning rod for insensitivity in a time of crisis. But just as the last song we hear on the radio before turning it off lingers in our minds in silent refrain, yesterday’s actions by thousands of runners offering assistance to those most in need will hopefully be the lasting image not only of the 2012 marathon, but of the NYRR and its president, whose error was that of a tragic miscalculation born of an evangelical fervor that only wanted the best at a time when very little turned out that way.