by: Mike Cassidy
November 4, 2012
Faced with a once-in-a-generation crisis, New Yorkers came through. They saw the problem, responded, and prevailed.
They did it. They cancelled the New York City Marathon.
Oh, Sandy’s victims? They’re still hurting. The powerless remain without power, the homeless are still without homes, and those who lost loved ones still have hearts that need healing.
But we sure feel a lot better, don’t we?
That the marathon became the focal point of worst natural disaster in New York City history is a disgrace. As a native Staten Islander and as I runner, I couldn’t be more appalled (and I wasn’t scheduled to run Sunday’s race).
Of course, this was never really about the marathon. It was about anger. We had just been devastated by a terrible tragedy. We were upset. We needed someone to blame.
To see ourselves as the victims of a randomly cruel universe didn’t offer much comfort. Existentialism is unsettling.
So the marathon became the scapegoat, a symbol of extravagance and political insensitivity. How dare the City hold an event celebrating hope and possibility when we are suffering?
Crusading was cathartic. We were powerless – some literally and some paralyzed by incalculable challenges.
Protesting offered an outlet. We couldn’t resurrect the dead and we couldn’t rebuild homes, but we could complain. At least it felt like we were doing something.
And we succeeded.
Sadly, what we accomplished only makes us worse off.
If the marathon was to be an exercise in frivolity, what are we to make of vitriolic editorials and self-righteous Facebook groups? Are we now to forgo all activity just because someone is less fortunate? 46,000 New Yorkers are homeless every day – should the rest of us give up our homes? If others are hungry, should we not eat? If a neighbor is unemployed, are we to quit our jobs, too?
Should we go to a Knicks game or gamble in Atlantic City? Because those are apparently necessary and proper distractions.
I can only imagine what Kenyans and Ethiopians who were counting on Sunday’s race for a paycheck think of us. “You’re cancelling a race because of substandard housing, lack of electricity, and premature deaths? Isn’t that…normal?”
Like an alcoholic reaching for a drink, our remedy provided temporary respite without solving anything. We made a spectacle of a spectacle, diverting attention and squandering opportunities. The New York Post only has one front page. Mike Bloomberg can only focus on so many things.
Worse, we deprived ourselves of something that would have really helped.
We’re not going to wake up Sunday and magically have homes rebuilt, hearts healed, and lives sown back together.
Far from wasting resources, the marathon would have enhanced the recovery.
Forget that the race subsists mostly on volunteers and private contractors. Mary Wittenberg and the New York Road Runners were poised to use the event to catalyze charity. Race organizers and sponsors had already pledged millions. Nationally televised coverage on ESPN would have attracted millions more.
Use a road race to raise money for a cause? What a novel concept!
But it’s even more basic than that.
The marathon isn’t a parade. It’s not about generating economic activity. It’s not about showing the city is “tough.”
It’s about setting goals and achieving them, confronting limitations and surpassing them, embracing pain and producing something beautiful. The marathon is not a road race; it is a triumph of the human spirit.
I’ve run New York three times. I’ve placed as high as the sixth American. And I can say with certainty the marathon isn’t about singular acts of individual brilliance. It’s about the magic of community.
There comes a point in the race – usually on Fifth Avenue’s unrelenting upslope – when you reach your physical breaking point and give up hope. Everything you worked so hard for feels lost.
But then it happens. A “You can do it!” A smiling face. A young child leaping in excitement. The selfless applause of total strangers.
All of a sudden, you’re in Central Park. The finish line is in sight. The impossible becomes inevitable. Unspeakable pain transforms into realized dreams. What was lost is found.
A road race can’t rebuild lives, but it can rebuild hope. By encouraging humanity’s best when we’re at our worst, we could have inspired the very performances that would have, in turn, inspired us.
Yes, the marathon requires resources, and, yes, we have urgent needs. But recovering from disaster requires more than infrastructure and supplies. It requires emotional healing and spiritual optimism.
The marathon is a testament to how despair can give way to hope, how agony can yield to ecstasy.
I’m not concerned about the runners. They’re disappointed, but they’ll adjust their training and find other races to run. Dealing with adversity is what we do.
No, I’m worried about the rest of New York. Our propensity to point fingers, our inclination towards anger, our tendency to be destructive rather than constructive.
I’ve seen how the marathon can represent New York at its best and I’m saddened to see how it’s become a symbol of New York at its worst.
The marathon has been called off but the City’s long run recovery has only just begun. I can only hope that the spirit of the marathon lives on.
Mike Cassidy, an Olympic Trials qualifier, is a native of Staten Island with a marathon best of 2:18:52. He was 22nd overall and the sixth American at the 2010 ING NYC Marathon in 2:24:05.
Editor’s Note: Earlier, thanks to a typo, we incorrectly said he ran 2:24:05 at the 2012 ING NYC Marathon which is obviously impossible since the race wasn’t held.