Running on Tilt


2012 NYC Marathon

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The houses at New Dorp Beach on Staten Island are small, with little space between them, and the streets are narrow. Walking down the passageways one shudders at the thought of what it must have been like when the water rushed in. On these streets are heaping piles of trash, as if the houses themselves were made ill by the storm and had spewed their insides. Yesterday I was part of a group of runners helping to provide and distribute relief supplies there. We were directed by a FEMA employee to a woman who needed help. She sat guardedly at her dining room table, and said that her husband had been in the garage when the water came in and that the water had risen to his neck before he was saved. Some in the neighborhood didn’t make it.

Many of the houses there are beyond repair, and many others vacant. What the residents requested most frequently yesterday was cleaning supplies.

It wasn’t the marathon anybody had imaged, but the modest offerings by those of us who had lost a race to those who suffered actual tragedies were often accepted. It was heartening in a way that running a race, or simply donating money online, isn’t.

When Mayor Bloomberg was questioned last week about holding the New York City Marathon with the city in such disrepair, his primary defense was that it would not divert resources from the recovery effort. The stance strained credulity. How could streets lined with cops not divert resources? The New York Post ran a cover photo of two generators that NYRR was using to construct the finish line. Were these generators not a resource diverted, even if, as NYRR explained, they were rented by the organization and were not the city’s property?

We the runners, inundating Staten Island with backpacks full of supplies on Marathon Sunday, were living proof that cancelling the marathon freed resources. And after the race was actually cancelled, NYRR in fact donated the water, Gatorade, blankets, etc. that would have been used for the race to recovery. It made for a nice story and has dutifully been covered by the media as a happier second act to last week's obsession over cancellation.

The problem is that those neighborhoods need a lot more help than 1,000 runners on Marathon Sunday could provide. Or two generators could have provided. Or loads of water and Gatorade. Or a bunch of cops who otherwise would have been patrolling the race (notably, there didn’t seem to be an inordinate number of cops in S.I. yesterday). The scale of destruction in Staten Island dwarfs the resources offered by not holding a marathon. This is probably what Bloomberg was getting at when he said no resources would be diverted, and the truth that the New York Post had so distorted in its image of the two generators.

One alternative narrative to the past week, a dark one both literally and figuratively in this city, is that had the old and new media not vilified the "despicable" NYRR (numerous posters on the NYRR Facebook page) and mocked the "prancing" runners (New York Times editorial), the marathon would have become a vehicle through which a great deal of money could have been raised both domestically and abroad, money that would help not only the Staten Islanders but also those in the Rockaways and the other hardest-hit pockets of the city.

The race was to be televised on ESPN2, and had the race gone off, the plans were to broadcast it as a sporting telethon. Inspired by the images of the hurricane’s destruction and/or by the images of the runners braving the 26.2 with additional purpose, viewers would donate. The runners themselves, having completed the life-affirming challenge, would donate more. The NYRR could have become a significant player in the recovery, collecting funds and resources not just locally, but nationally and internationally, and not just yesterday, but in the days and months ahead. Its ability to do so without the race has been hamstrung.

Looking beyond the forced metaphors of what a marathon “means” for a city or its participants, the race could have been both inspirational and a hell of a fundraiser. Had the race gone on, the generous outpouring from runners yesterday would have been channeled in a different manner, but diminished none at all.

Just as the bar for conducting a marathon became ridiculously high ("The notion that so much as a flashlight battery would be devoted to a sporting event is outrageous," screeched a New York Post editorial), so too were the efforts completely discounted to simply make it to the starting line from lands near and far despite all sorts of travel complications. The runners are resilient and would do whatever it took to get here and to race. They were absolutely the wrong scapegoat; it spoke poorly on the city that a scapegoat was needed at all.

This year's race suffered a sort of karmic retribution. I’ve run the NYC Marathon three times, and the support of the city on that day has always been wonderfully outsized to the value-neutral activity of competing in a footrace. Last week, after the storm stole lives and destroyed houses and as the power outage and lines at the gas stations became increasingly unsettling, the public and the media gave the race, its runners, and its organizers a big F.U. An enormous opportunity was missed when the marathon was cancelled, an event whose basic effect, when viewed from a distance, is the replacement of vehicles with people over a narrow band of the city’s streets for part of the day.