Even before the wrath of Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York with wind and water, I knew there was going to be trouble.
I heard through the grapevine from a friend of a friend in New York that discussions were under way about canceling the New York City Marathon. I thought it was crazy — Sandy was still churning in the Atlantic, days away from landfall anywhere near New York.
Others likely thought the same thing. The marathon would go on as planned, reported the media. Even after Sandy ravaged the boroughs of New York City — flooding streets, leveling homes and other buildings — organizers planned to go forward with the 26.2 mile race that was to begin on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and continue through Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx before ending in Central Park.
On Friday afternoon, Nov. 2 — less than two days before the race was to take place, two days after the race expo had opened, and, according to the New York Times, after about 40,000 of the 47,500 registered runners had already arrived in New York — the race was canceled.
Marathon training is an enormous commitment of time and energy. You can't just hop off the couch and run (or even walk) 26.2 miles. Although you may not drop dead like Phidippides did when he ran the distance from Marathon to Athens, it's not unimaginable.
Even the elite runners have to specially train to run a marathon, and for the rest of us amateurs, it's at least a four or five month regimen.
I've said that I think nearly anyone can run a marathon, but you need to put in the time — increasingly longer runs combined with speed work, nutrition, etc. If you can't run the race, for whatever reason, it's an enormous disappointment.
Many critics of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's ultimate decision said it was the lateness of the decision that was the problem, and I agree completely. If Bloomberg and New York Road Runners President and CEO Mary Wittenberg, who was the race director, had made the decision earlier in the week, many of the international and other out-of-town athletes would have been disappointed but grateful to have avoided the trip.
However, no matter what happened, it was a no-win situation. This wasn't a community 5K race. The New York marathon is one of the largest races in the world and it's been held every year since 1970, even after the events of Sept. 11 left the city traumatized.
"What was happening now is that people were criticizing runners and there was really a dynamic that was really getting to be a really unhealthy dynamic and a perception about runners and marathoners and people coming here that was not healthy," Wittenberg was quoted as saying in an interview with NY1.
In the end, I think it was the runners themselves who turned it into a win-win situation. Not the "Race to Recover" — as the marathon, if it had taken place, was being informally called — but with their efforts to make a difference, to show their compassion for the victims, and to give whatever they could.
On what would have been marathon weekend, hordes of runners volunteered time, energy, and money providing relief to victims.
Sally Cohen Stilwell, of Staten Island, had trained for months and raised $2,500 for the charity "Stupid Cancer." Stilwell said she sobbed with emotion at the expo on Friday afternoon, feeling like she needed to do something after hearing the announcement about the race's cancellation.
"That's when I decided I wanted to get supplies to my former high school which was an evacuation shelter and I mapped out three loops from my home to the school to donate items for the displaced kids. I managed to deliver crayons and coloring books and teddy bears and hats and socks, all while covering 26.2 miles. It left me feeling fulfilled finally," Stilwell wrote in an email.
Other runners delivered food, cleaned basements, moved furniture.
And many also banded together and ran in Central Park on Sunday morning.
Elvia Negron-Perez of the Bronx was planning to run her 50th marathon in New York that Sunday. Instead, the veteran marathoner, who is on a quest to run in all 50 states, channeled much of her energy into helping with relief efforts.
"I donated on Saturday, food, shoes, clothes to the American Red cross, and of course money ... and I ran Sunday. I feel it was the right thing to cancel, but they should have done it sooner. When they said the marathon would go on, I thought, well okay ... and I embraced the 'Race to Recover' that it was being called. Since I run and raise money all the time anyway, this seemed okay ... and I would run and help my city," Negron-Perez said.
On Sunday morning she rode the train from the Bronx to Manhattan and ran. "Running in Central Park... all of NYC and the World is here," she wrote on Facebook when she arrived at the informal starting line.
The immediately organized "Run Anyway NYC Marathon," promoted through a Facebook page, attracted thousands. The run basically followed the original route of the New York City Marathon — multiple loops of Central Park. It gave those who were running for a cause the chance to publicly support that cause, as well as to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
The organizers printed T-shirts, arranged for donations to be made to Sandy victims, and set out to do what they do best.
The final instructions from the "Run Anyway NYC Marathon" Facebook page read as follows:
"We are not running for ourselves, we are running for our causes. Should you come across vocal people who do not support what we’re doing, please DO NOT respond to them. Be a class act and if necessary explain that you’re running for those who are hurting from this disaster or for your own cause. Continually point the attention to where it needs to be — back to those in need.
Do not go for a personal best time. Our goal is to run the miles. The course is tighter than we all planned now so be wary of the people running along side and with you. And please run in the running lanes whenever possible. Be kind and helpful to all those running.
Thanks for being a part of it and running along side us! Remember to have fun and run with a smile because you are not running for yourselves. You are running for a cause. When we run for a cause, we need to RunAnyway."
They made it clear that it was not a race, and in the end, even before they reached the finish line, all of the runners were the winners.