HONOLULU SNARES WILSON KIPSANG FROM SANDY WRECKAGE

OLYMPIC BRONZE KIPSANG SAYS ALOHA HONOLULU

Hurricane Sandy’s vast power has been such that it has now tossed elite marathoners to the far ends of the globe in hopes of redeeming their 2012 fall marathon campaigns following cancellation of the ING New York City Marathon.

Today, Honolulu Marathon Association President Jim Barahal revealed that New York fave and Olympic bronze medalist Wilson Kipsang of Kenya will be taking his talents to the 40th Honolulu Marathon on December 9th.

“We are disappointed he was not able to compete in New York,” texted Barahal, “but we’re pleased to be able to offer another opportunity for him to run, and we’re excited to have such a phenomenal athlete go after the course record in Honolulu.”

Wilson Kipsang was one of the New York elites who publicly acknowledged the difficulty faced by the New York Road Runners in cancelling the marathon, saying “This is terrible, but it’s part of life. I’m not angry. People suffered misfortune.”

With the New York Road Runners and the city of New York deciding to cancel the 42nd ING New York City Marathon just 40 hours before last Sunday’s scheduled start, there has been very little time to consider options.

Now the 2012 London champion, and second fastest “official” marathoner in history from his 2:03:42 win from Frankfurt in September 2011, will test himself on one of the legendary courses in the world, although one which doesn’t often draw the world’s super-elite to its starting line due to heat, humidity and budgetary constraints.

While stars like Ibrahim Hussein, Benson Masya and Cosmas Ndeti were discovered in Honolulu, and 1993 champion Lee Bong-ju of Korea and 1995 winner Josiah Thungwane of South Africa went on to win Olympic silver and gold medals in Atlanta 1996, this will be the first time a reigning Olympic medalist will compete in Honolulu in his Olympic year.

According to Honolulu race director Jon Cross 2011 L.A. Marathon champ (debut, 2:06:35) and 2012 Dubai Marathon third-placer (2:04:54) Markos Geneti of Ethiopia will also join the festivities with more names to follow.  Stay tuned. Given the weather, always the key in Honolulu, we could be in for a record year.

The current Honolulu Marathon event record, 2:11:12, was set by Kenya’s Jimmy Muindi in 2004, in the fourth of his six Honolulu wins.

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RESURRECTING A DAMAGED IMAGE

RUNNERS OFFER  ARM AND LEG

      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. Continue reading

MARATHON EASY TARGET FOR HURRICANE IRE

TIPPING POINT

What had always been a unifying force in America’s melting pot city, the one thing that drew every New Yorker and visitor together, has now been blown apart by Hurricane Sandy.  So count the ING New York City Marathon as another victim of last Monday’s vicious storm, except this is a constituent that even FEMA can’t help put back together.

Last night’s decision to cancel the 42nd NYC Marathon by city officials and race organizers has left behind a nasty split.  A city already in tatters and tears is that much more divided than the day before.  Opposing sides in the marathon cancellation debate stare in shocked disbelief at the insensitivity of the other side, leading to arguments and recriminations posted on chat rooms, e-mails and text boxes world-wide.

From “it was the only thing to do”, to “what a wasted opportunity to rally the city”, the reaction has come as swiftly as the miles up First Avenue on race day, but as opposite as one curbside to the other. Needless to say, the overwhelming, though not 100%, view from the marathoner’s side is that the decision to call off the race was wrong-headed.

“I met a girl who flew 20 hours from Australia,” texted my friend Rich Jayne from the Haile Gebrselassie Marathon expo booth at Javitz Center which continued unabated today till 5 p.m.  “There was another guy with only a year to live and this was to be his last marathon.  When the announcement was made we had three foreign runners in our booth.  NYC is not making friends.”

While runners from the top professionals to the 40,000th placer are disappointed and upset for time and money spent and paydays lost, NYRR President and CEO Mary Wittenberg hinted at a graver concern at last night’s press conference in Central Park.

“We became concerned that runners would not receive the welcome they were used to,” she said, adding, “it’s been tough on the volunteers and staff, too, anyone associated with the marathon.”

The city’s mood had turned toxic.

“I heard organized violence was being planned,” wrote a friend in the city, “and runner’s safety was the main concern.”  Continue reading

DEVASTATING CHOICE FOR A DEVASTATED CITY

FINISHED

A visibly emotional NYRR President and CEO Mary Wittenberg stood alongside New York City Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson in the New York City Marathon media center tonight in Central Park to explain the cancellation of this year’s ING New York City Marathon.  In the end it came down to the mounting, and near universal, criticism of the city and NYRR’s decision yesterday to move forward with the marathon just six days after the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy.

“It became clear throughout the week that the marathon, one of the best days in the life of the city, had become divisive and controversial,” said Wolfson to the collected media.  “It grew over the course of the week, and those of us who love this city, and those of us who love this race recognize it wasn’t the marathon if it wasn’t a unifying event.”

With the “highest of hopes” and best of intentions, Ms. Wittenberg and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg thought that by staging the marathon as planned in the wake of the devastating storm that they could help heal the city, as the marathon had previously done after 9-11.

But the 2001 marathon was seven weeks removed from the grim day the Twin Towers fell in lower Manhattan, one of the sections of the city which took a heavy blow on Monday.  The difference in time made all the difference.  The seven-week time frame in 2001 gave the city a needed grieving period which then allowed the marathon to serve as a mechanism of healing, resurrection and defiance.  The six-day window between Sandy and Sunday’s marathon was simply too small to accommodate the same arc of emotions, especially when so many people were still dealing with shattered lives rather than merely disappointed racing dreams.

New Yorkers were in heavy opposition to holding the marathon, many runners, too. Even the New York Police Union asked for the race to be postponed.

“Everything was discussed,” said Wittenberg when asked if there had been any discussion of moving the marathon to another date.  “We began with what could we run?  We talked about postponing it, but runners from around the world and nation were here now.”

“We talked about having a ten-mile race,” added Wolfson, “but it didn’t make sense.  It’s the five-borough race that unifies the city.”

Even an elites-only option around 2007’s Olympic Trials Marathon course in Central Park was considered before it, too, was set aside as inappropriate for the times. Continue reading

DAMNED IF YOU DO, DAMNED IF YOU DON’T

DEVASTATION

There was no right answer in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  Instead organizers of the New York City Marathon were faced with a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t proposition.

What a conundrum for New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYRR president Mary Wittenberg after Superstorm Sandy whipsawed into the eastern seaboard this past Monday just six days before the 42nd ING New York City Marathon was scheduled to run through New York’s five boroughs.

After short, but (what I assume to be) careful consideration, the mayor decided on Thursday that the marathon should go forward.  His rationale centered on both the economic power of the event (last year it generated $340 million in economic impact), and the metaphoric resilience it would represent to his stricken city.  He bolstered his decision by explaining how electrical power should be returned to most of the city by this weekend, and, given that the race is held on Sunday, a light traffic day, there would be less call for city police on the streets to monitor the marathon’s safety.

For her part Wittenberg explained how the marathon course, itself, had been spared by the savage storm, how NYRR would use private security and transportation to release the strain on city services which would be needed for storm relief, and announced the institution of a marathon Race to Recovery Fund with an initial contribution by the NYRR, the Rudin Family, and sponsor ING to the tune of $2.6 million.

Nevertheless, the tide of criticism has been mounting steadily, coming not just from affected citizens of the five boroughs – especially from hard-hit Staten Island, staging ground for the marathon start – but from runners alike. A typical response went like this:  “now is not the time to divert resources away from critical recovery efforts, close more roads just so some people can run a race, and invite thousands of people into a city that is only partially functioning with electricity, mass transit, and other basic utilities impaired.”

This is the fine line that Bloomberg and Wittenberg had to tread. Continue reading

MAYOR BLOOMBERG DOING HIS JOB

Putting Partisanship Aside

Just as democratic U.S. President Barack Obama and republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were able to put their political differences aside yesterday in the face of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy – because that’s the job they were elected to do, and to hell with the political consequences five days before the presidential election – so, too, is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg simply doing his job when he declared that the ING New York City Marathon would go ahead as scheduled this Sunday morning.

“It’s a great event for New York, and I think for those who were lost, you know, you’ve got to believe they would want us to have an economy and have a city go on for those that they left behind,” Bloomberg said as quoted in the New York Times.

Notwithstanding, there has been a surge of criticism rising up to challenge his decision.  Everyone from 1993 World Marathon champion Mark Plaatjes of Boulder, Colorado, whose wife Shirley had planned to run, but has now chosen not to, to Staten Island borough president James Molinaro has argued that now is not the time to be conducting a marathon when so many others are suffering and precious resources are needed for hurricane relief.

“I just assumed it was canceled,” Molinaro told The Staten Island Advance. “My God. What we have here is terrible, a disaster. If they want to race, let them race with themselves. This is no time for a parade. A marathon is a parade.”

First of all, if you want to know one consequence of allowing foot racing over the last decade+ to be submerged beneath the weight of fund-running, this is one example.  What used to be looked upon as a sporting event has now been publicly transformed into a parade, little different than the Puerto Rican Day Parade, or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But putting that aside for the moment, does anyone really believe that Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t have the Big Picture in mind?  You don’t think that he, of all people (moderate, three-term, once republican, now independent billionaire) hasn’t weighed the needs of hurricane relief with the need to get his city back on its economic feet as quickly as possible?  Is it even conceivable that this is a frivolous decision on his part, that he doesn’t have his priorities in order, or understand the allocation of city resources and manpower?

Forget the marathon as a reflection of the city’s resilience argument.  Forget the marathon as a spiritual communion argument or as a remembrance and memorial – aspects of foot racing that wholly differentiate it from a parade.  This decision by Mayor Bloomberg, who is already being touted for higher political office based on his performance to date, comes after assessing the best interests of his city as a whole and an understanding of the assets in hand and the cost-benefit analysis in mind. We are not talking about Ray Nagin, the overwhelmed former New Orleans mayor during Hurricane Katrina.

Emotions are just another of the pent up forces released by a tragedy like Hurricane Sandy.  But that’s why we as a society elect certain types of people to lead us and to make the tough calls.  Those people – generally – have the capacity to see not only the emotion of the moment but the quotidian flow ahead, and to understand the relationship of one to the other.  It’s their job to take emotion out of the equation as much as possible, and make the very difficult decisions that lead us where we need to go.  It’s a quality often referred to as vision. Well, it’s time to let the mayor do his job.  Supporters and naysayers alike can vote on the appropriateness of his vision soon enough. That’s the rhythm and beauty of our democratic system.

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THE WILL TO OVERCOME

I more than suspect that New York City is deeply conscious of being challenged – that it feels the millibars of pressure exerted by Hurricane Sandy not only in the visible destruction left behind by the rampaging natural turbine, but in the strain on its famously elastic psyche, what Robert Greenhut, Woody Allen’s producer, called “a certain kind of vibrancy and tone that you can’t get elsewhere.”

It is that vibrancy that attracts people by the millions to the teeming metropolis, especially during NYC Marathon week when the entire panoply of culture, energy and diversity is laid out in mile and kilometer-marked precision.

While there is never a good time for a catastrophe like Sandy to occur – city services and personnel will be exhausted and stretched to the breaking point, and priorities like clearing debris, returning people to their homes, and opening the city’s vital transportation links will be manifest – in its own paradoxical way, given that city power and transportation can be resurrected in time, Sunday’s marathon would be the ideal test to show what this city represents.

Recall that when the five-borough marathon was first conceived in 1976, New York was both riddled with crime and in the midst of a fiscal meltdown. The federal government had told them to go fly a kite, not to look for help out of Washington.  So as the five-borough course founders considered the possibilities before them, there was real fear of how runners might be treated in the less affluent neighborhoods along the route.

“You can do it!”

Instead, what the city-wide marathon revealed in that Bicentennial year was that when the outer garb of privilege was stripped away, and pure effort and struggle were put on display, everyone related,  everyone got it.  Neither the city, nor the sport of marathoning has ever been the same since.

In the aftermath of 9-11 when the city’s psychic wound was much deeper than it is today, though its overall infrastructure less compromised, the marathon arrived in proud defiance of the terrorists’ desires, knitting the city together in a muscular display of remembrance and resurrection.

Yes, there are challenges aplenty in the purgatoried lee of Sandy’s passing.  But while New Yorkers are infamous for their no-eye-contact, “you talkin’ to me?” insularity, so, too, are they renowned for their willingness to pull relentlessly together in times of crisis.

Well, here’s a crisis for you.   This Sunday in New York City remnants of Sandy’s destruction will still be apparent, both at street level and on television screens around the world.  But given half a chance, the sheer humanity of New York City and its marathon will once again serve as a moving metaphor to the power of community and to the will of man to overcome.

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