The Literary Mind

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Why We Should (and Should Have) Run the Marathon

We should have run the NYC Marathon.

The New York City Marathon was cancelled based on logic that I don’t associate with the best of New York. This city, when doing what it does best, can hold more than one scene and emotion at its core. In the buildup to its cancellation, the marathon became a symbol for frivolity, but that sacrifice was a loss for the city.

The dominating public argument for cancelling the marathon was that it would divert resources from where they were needed most. In the public protest that mounted until Friday’s cancellation, people routinely resorted to this one turn of phrase: “We need all the resources we can get.”

The sentiment certainly sounds convincing, but it blurs distinctions. Policemen doing their duty are not in charge of much of the work that still needs to be done in the coming weeks. Immediate rescue efforts from fire and flood are largely conducted by the fire department, which does not have a prominent role in the marathon. Other dire needs, like pumping water out of basements, clearing trees, and restoring power lines, are largely the responsibility of the Department of Buildings, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), local residents, and power, sanitation, and fire companies. The problem is that with the overwhelming feeling of all that’s left to be done, we have been clumping “resources” as one concept, but the resources that the race asks of the city would not have impeded the search-and-rescue operations or intense, long-term clean-up efforts still to come.
 
Mayor Bloomberg attested that the policemen who would be needed for the day of the race would not be a meaningful diversion of people power. According to Mary Wittenberg, chief executive of New York Road Runners, which orchestrates the race, runner transportation and clean-up would largely be handled by private companies.  That said, some strong arguments against asking police to monitor the race were that many members of the police force asked to work the race would come from homes that are still without power; they are exhausted from working overtime already; and they will need to be ready for Election Day on Tuesday.

Those are good reasons not to have asked the force to work the extra duty. That said, the flip side might have been more convincing: Namely, the marathon would have provided a massive economic boon to the city and to other charities when they need it most. The numbers are clear: From its one day of activity, the marathon organizers promised an extra $2.5 million in donations directly to the city, $1 million from the race itself and another $1.5 from donors, many of whom only pledged to give if the race actually took place. The event also typically brings over $300 million in business revenue, largely to businesses like restaurants and hotels, some of which lost significant business as a result of the storm. (This revenue is approximately double what a Superbowl brings to a city.)

Additionally, the marathon usually raises about $21 million for various other charities because it offers running slots to those who raise money for any charities they choose. Because the 40,000 runners who could not compete this year are guaranteed entry next year, the fundraising potential will be markedly decreased next year. (Imagine that you pledged to your coworker’s charity this year, and you move forward and donate your money, even though she can’t run. Do you give the same amount next year, when she enters again)?

To return to the Superbowl analogy for one moment: It’s important to recognize that the Giants will host the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight (on marathon night) at MetLife Stadium, in New Jersey, which arguably was the hardest hit state by the storm, and that the New York Knicks filled Madison Square Garden with 19,033 fans this past Friday. Neither event was met with the kind of protests with forced the cancellation of the marathon.

That fact makes you wonder how the city would have rallied if it had, indeed, been the Superbowl and not the marathon being conducted today.Knicks center Tyson Chandler even justified the Knicks’ kickoff game by calling it a needed boost of spirit and community: “Before the game, it was difficult. Everyone had the hurricane on their mind. [But] as we were going out, we said, ‘Look, we’re here; our friends are here. The thing we can do is put a smile on their face by going out there, playing hard and representing the city in the right way.’”

In one more money-raising boost, this would have been the first year since 1993 that the New York City Marathon was nationally televised, and since the organizing New York City Road Runners Club had recently named the race the “Race to Recover,” the televised broadcast could have been a highly effective platform for relief effort fundraising.

But a twisted symbolism seemed to take over in the days running up to the cancellation. Bloomberg had it right when he said that he wanted to emulate the spirit Giuliani showed when he held the marathon two months after 9/11: “You keep going,” Bloomberg said, “You can grieve, you can cry, you can laugh, all at the same time. That’s what human beings are good at.”

Ambivalence with emotion might truly be a human strength, but holding images of joy together with tragedy has been hard for the city this week; in turn, runners seemed to be the targets for much misplaced frustration. In The L Magazine, Kristin Iversen wrote that runners faced some exceptional moral obligation to abandon their goal on Sunday and become volunteers for the cleanup effort: “Rather than invest the hours that they planned to spend running through a federally declared disaster area, it would be amazing if they would devote that time to volunteering and helping people that need it the most right now.” 

Really? Question that vision. Iverson was asking 40,000 runners, about 30,000 of whom came from out of town, athletes who have worked for years for a certain, intense goal, to abandon that goal and get immediately get to work. If she applied this hyperactive moralism in a universal way, she would be asking every person with recourses to abandon their goals immediately and become a volunteer for those in need.

Perhaps this sort of impulsive demand comes from an inability to see long-term goals in the midst of an immediate crisis. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday this week, it was probably difficult to imagine that by Sunday, the hundreds of police officers who were directing traffic during the blackout of downtown Manhattan would no longer be on duty there. It was hard to see that the city would be on its way to health (I say this cautiously but with first-hand feeling, having just returned from a day of working with homeowners in Staten Island) and to also recognize the long-term economic boost the marathon would have brought, not just to the city but to the many charities—for cancer, for poverty, for diabetes—connected to it.

The race seemed to become a scapegoat. It’s hard to be in a situation that has no easy solution: You want to deny the world some excess, and call that moment of restraint your solution. “My God,” Staten Island president James Molinaro said on Wednesday. “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.”  Molinaro is right that the city is facing a tragedy, but he also showed a classic case of inability to contain anger about one event while appreciating the gains of another.

Sometimes, the attacks on the runners felt even more moralistically strange. In The New York TimesGeorge Vecsay cast runners’ conscientiousness as proof of their guilt: “The best barometer of the inappropriateness of a marathon on Sunday was the discomfort expressed by runners themselves. Finely tuned competitors, whether of the championship or the plodder variety, knew in their bones and their nerve endings and their hearts that it would be wrong to prance through a stricken city.”  Yes: runners had their doubts; many of them wondered if pursuing their own goals while others could not would send the wrong message. But to universally call the sport a “prance” seems to drastically overlook the gap between have’s and have-not’s that exists every moment that we are alive.

“Are we now to forgo all activity just because someone is less fortunate?” wrote runner Mike Cassidy, who once placed as the sixth American in the New York City Marathon, in a Sunday post on Letsrun.com. “46,000 New Yorkers are homeless every day – should the rest of us give up our homes? …If a neighbor is unemployed, are we to quit our jobs, too? …The marathon isn’t [just] about singular acts of individual brilliance. It’s about the magic of community.”  He meant: we might think more broadly.

Perhaps it is the runner’s very conscientiousness—their inability to forge ahead with the season without any self-questioning—which made them vulnerable to become the public scapegoat, more than basketball and football players did. The marathoners represent that very type of psyche—self-disciplined, focused on long-term goals—that the public expects to become the basis of our rescue effort.

One more popular argument for why the race should not have been run was hinged on an odd coincidence. The marathon happened to bring a bunch of things to Central Park that the city badly needs right now: energy generators, a slew of porta potties, lots of bottles of water, thousand of very-abled bodies trained at working long hours. Critics thought it would be a tragedy if these recourses were not be put to use for those in need.

But the race was a private event—like any conference or major business event in the city. Perhaps the fact that it was meant to happen on just one day led to a certain blurring of priorities. Think of the other private businesses which have recourses that the city needs—Starbucks, with all of its water and cups; the supermarkets; doctors in their own offices. These private businesses are both free to prosper and free to donate as they see fit. In turn, the city might have allowed the eight hours of running glory and then paid, itself, to reserve the generators, etc., for its own use. Shipping in the generators on its own would have cost them more (The New York Post has been talking about how much it costs to ship generators into the city, and blaming the marathon for its performative excess, without appreciating the fortuitous fact that now we’ve got a bunch of generators shipped into the city at someone else’s cost.)

But again, it would be a fear-based blurring of categories to think that the generators are precisely what is needed. In Manhattan, most of the power outage lasted for four days because a generator was damaged, but in Manhattan, power lines run underground and did not need to be fixed, themselves. In Staten Island and the Rockaways, where damage is intense, the power lines largely run above ground; and it is the many lines themselves which probably need to be fixed, which means more weeks of work, and more money. Three generators shuffled over from Central Park would not be the miracle fix that some people imagine it would be.

Oddly, many articles are now using the “marathon” metaphor to get people inspired in the recovery efforts (“Please remember, this is a marathon NOT a sprint - help will be needed for weeks to come,” came in one recovery email from Lutheran Church in the Lower East Side. “Full restoration [is] a marathon and not a sprint," said Bob Mudge, president of Verizon's consumer division). Metaphors are dangerous. The actual New York City marathon was turned into a symbol itself—for frivolity, solipsism, or inappropriate joy. The relief effort has now appropriated the word “marathon”—and it’s true: It will be a long effort to return the city to order. The one-day race would have simply been one very economically beneficial and spirited moment in that long recovery.

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Ilana Simons, Ph.D., is a literature professor at The New School as well as a practicing therapist.

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