NYC Marathon Becomes a Lesson in Leadership and Flexibility

You’ve probably heard the New York City marathon was canceled yesterday, about 36 hours before runners were to board buses to the start line on Staten Island. The decision was the culmination of four days of controversy and called into question the civic and moral responsibilities and leadership of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Road Runners President Mary Wittenberg.

It’s hard to gauge the degree of devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy from my room near Central Park. There are hotel vacancies, businesses are up and running, and transportation is readily available. It’s not until you watch the constant local news coverage of the situation in Staten Island, Lower Manhattan and other areas that you realize how badly hurt this city is.

Bloomberg and Wittenberg thought the marathon would be a unifying event for the city, a way to show resiliency as it did after 9/11. But many people expressed concern that areas most heavily impacted by the storm were not getting critical support. They believed race organizers had a responsibility to donate food and generators to the recovery efforts. In some cases, runners had reservations for hotel rooms that others felt should be used for displaced people. The race was dividing the city.

It should have been canceled. No question.

But it the decision should have been made on Tuesday, not Friday afternoon. After the storm passed, runners from around the world anxiously waited to hear whether or not the race would go on as planned. We trusted city leadership and the event organizers to make a decision in the best interest of the city and its residents.

Many runners had their flights canceled and others chose to withdraw because they didn’t feel right about running. My sisters and I arrived on Thursday thinking recovery efforts were well under way, but as we watched the news, we too began to question the decision to run. I also felt a conflicting sense of responsibility to my charity and to everyone who supported me in getting here.

It’s hard for someone who’s never trained for a marathon to understand how big of a an emotional let down this is. Runners train for months for an event, especially in the weeks leading up to the race. Strenuous training plans are created and followed. Plane fares and lodging deposits are paid well in advance. Add to that the reassurance of the city that there would be no disruption to the recovery efforts and that the city needed the marathon’s $340M economic boost.

We wanted to believe it could happen.

This experience has evoked every emotion imaginable: Nervous excitement before running a big race. Guilt because I really wanted to run but wasn’t sure if I should. Desire to help with the recovery efforts. Frustration that I’ve spent a lot of money and used vacation time on a trip to a city where I don’t feel welcome. Relief because Mayor Bloomberg and the NYRR finally made the decision for me. Sadness because this race had so much personal significance.

After a brief pity party I did a little re-evaluation of my running situation.

Last night I registered for the Seattle Marathon on November 25. I’ll join the marathoners who are running laps around Central Park tomorrow, but stop at 17 miles and do another taper over the next three weeks. I may be running the full 26.2 in my city, but I’ll be wearing my New York marathon shirt.

My sisters and I have three full days left of our NYC vacation. Our plans are to explore the city, catch a show and hopefully volunteer with one of the relief organizations.

It’s not what we planned, but it promises to be memorable.

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