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Up and Running

Racing through the streets, searching for the meaning of a marathon in post-Sandy New York

Last Monday I went for a run. I had expected rain, sheets of it, inches of water around my ankles. Instead there was only a little nasty drizzle. Leaves shot through warm air, and some were green, pulled early from their branches. The entrances to the park were blocked by police tape. I ran north. The Hudson had become a sliver of ocean. There were boats on the water. The boats surprised me, until I remembered they had nowhere else to go: The hurricane was everywhere. The wind picked up, and it was fierce, blowing my body back. I ran for a while, quiet, just feeling the wind, still looking at the water. Clouds hung in long, low coils. There were a couple of other runners out, and we acknowledged each other as most New Yorkers acknowledge each other, silently.

That night when the storm hit land, I checked in with friends until they lost power. Our lights flashed once, and again, and my husband and I belatedly filled spaghetti pots with water in case the taps cut out. We gathered our two tiny flashlights, one the size of a pencil and the other a pack of cards. We told each other we were incredibly lucky. We watched Monday Night Football. We read reports of floods, fires, nurses evacuating babies from a neonatal ICU.

The next morning the pictures were even more absurd, more horrific, than I’d imagined they would be. We gave some money to Red Cross, talked about how we might help, and went outside. Leaves glutted the gutters and a flower bush was wrecked, and up in our neighborhood, high above the water, that was about it. We drank coffee and stopped at our local bookstore. I bought The Portrait of a Lady. We came home and went back online. I read about Rockaway and flooded subways and the San Francisco 49ers. I heard from a friend about a friend who had lost his home.

Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement last week that the NYC Marathon would go on as planned instinctively and immediately felt wrong. Considering the extent of the devastation; considering that people had lost friends or family or their homes; considering that people were without heat, power, water, or food; considering that shelters were suffering from a shortage of socks, it seemed inappropriate to say that “this city is a city where we have to go on,” as Bloomberg said on Thursday afternoon. The mayor had been doing a remarkable job in impossible circumstances, managing the city through the worst natural disaster to hit New York, but when he talked about the marathon he sounded strangely clueless. In media outlets major and minor, people were incredulous. Policemen were going to direct runners leaving Staten Island when residents of the island desperate for assistance and information weren’t getting any? Volunteers were going to hand water to runners when neighborhoods were without water? The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge would be closed for the race when traffic was restricted and lines for gas so long? And for what? When Bloomberg said “the economy,” his smoothness and fluency made it sound suspiciously like the race was in the service of the marathon’s sponsors and his own pride.

You started to hear stories. “ABUSE OF POWER: These massive generators are providing electricity to the marathon’s tent in Central Park … while NYers suffer!” announced the Post on its Friday cover, with a picture of two generators that looked like they were sneaking into the woods to do something kinky and illicit. People without places to go were being kicked out of their hotel rooms for runners. It was said over and over that the marathon’s Central Park generators could power 400 homes. That last fact took on a life of its own. The last time I heard about the generators, the rumor was that the marathon was using 400 of them.

The outcry against the marathon was almost universal, and it was loud and heated. A few tepid voices that defended the mayor in my Twitter feed were slammed. A Facebook page protesting the marathon quickly gained thousands of supporters. Online petitions began circulating. People were angry. Some people were really, really angry. Some had good reasons to be angry. They were cold and hungry and tired and confused, and the prospect of a “parade,” as James Molinaro, the Staten Island borough president, called the marathon, was outrageous. In the end, canceling the race was the only thing to do.

The cancellation was handled impressively, despite the late decision. The elite runners, some of whom rely on their NYC marathon winnings for half of their annual income, and some of whom who had already traveled from other continents to reach New York, were gracious and sympathetic. The New York Road Runners, which hosts the race, announced that it would donate a million dollars along with water and blankets to the recovery effort. Some runners put on their running gear and went to Staten Island as volunteers instead of competitors. Thousands of others ran an ersatz marathon anyway, jogging around Central Park again and again or cobbling together their own course. As they passed, people on the streets stopped and cheered, and some runners collected donations for Sandy relief as they ran.

What continued to piss people off was the way Bloomberg had announced the cancellation. He announced that he had done it because the race had become “divisive,” not because he was swayed by the arguments against it. People wanted him to apologize, and he would not.

It’s hard not to regret how all this was handled. The mayor and race organizers could have been more creative about going forward.The race should have been not only rebranded but reimagined. Perhaps they could have set up shelters for racers and asked competitors to donate their hotel rooms to people who needed them more. They could have done away with some of the generators and told journalists who wanted the outlets tough luck. They could have treated the fact that the race starts on Staten Island not as a problem but as an opportunity. They could have made the race about Staten Island, calling attention to its history, its devastation, and its future, bringing the issues to a national television audience. They could have even asked competitors not to run and organized a day of spectating and volunteering instead, while keeping the race for the elites, rerouting the course to make way for the recovery efforts. The top marathoners in the world, four laps around Central Park: As a couple of New Yorker editors suggested, that would be a race to watch.

People I respect were appalled by Bloomberg’s stubbornness, and when I suggested that, just maybe, Bloomberg’s initial decision, if not his pitch, to hold the marathon made some sense, they were appalled by me. But I can’t shake the conviction that it was a hard call. Not because the marathon would be a sign of the city “going on” — not when so many are in trouble. Not because it would be uniting or uplifting — not when the city is so starkly divided into those who have (power, heat, water, homes) and those who have not. Not because I have sentimental reasons. Because of the money.

“The games must go on as a sign of our resilience? Why?” wrote the New York Times‘s Lynn Zinser. “(And yes, we know the answer is money. But money shouldn’t always be an acceptable answer.)” Yes, money answers too many questions, in sports as well as life — but it’s also important, I think, to ask what money and for whom. The estimated $340 million that the marathon brings in supports local businesses, including some of the local businesses that were devastated by the storm, and the taxes collected support the very essential services that are right now so strained. The race organizers had already pledged to pay for the city services it would use: the police officers, emergency workers, and traffic workers. According to Crain’s, the New York Road Runners were expected to pay the city $2.5 million. After the storm, the NYRR also pledged a million dollars to the recovery effort and urged runners to match a $26.20 donation, which would have brought in another million for relief. During a time of crisis, during triage, resources are scarce, and if the race hindered the recovery, then it should have been canceled. Bloomberg said it wouldn’t; intuitively, that sounds impossible, especially since the relief efforts in parts of the city are already so chaotic. But the city does need money to rebuild. Even if some of the money came in from racers who arrived early, and even if the total impact would have been less than estimated, the city stands to lose at a time when it needs it most.

If we’re going to talk about the abuse of public resources for sports — and we should! — we should give our attention where attention is due. Only three NFL stadiums were built without public funding, and two of those three used public funds for upgrades. (Only the Jets’ and Giants’ MetLife Stadium, as it happens, was privately built.) Yankee Stadium cost taxpayers $321.5 million. The Yankees are the country’s richest sports team (along with the Cowboys, who play in a stadium built in part with tax-free borrowing). According to Bloomberg (hello!) Businessweek, the U.S. Treasury loses $146 million a year on municipal bonds with tax-free interest issued for sports structures. The taxpayer subsidies to bondholders on the $17 billion tax-exempt debt on stadiums built in the last 27 years will be $4 billion. You know what would be a better use of $4 billion? Repairing roads, building sea walls, preparing for the next big storm.

I wonder if Bloomberg is being blamed for more than the marathon. I wonder if he’s being blamed for our vulnerability, and for the screwed-up priorities that govern a lot of people’s lives, including mine. On Friday, when the calls to cancel were loudest, the city was half-dark, people were dead, yards had become swamps and houses were left in ashes. I can’t help but think that the outrage over the marathon is partly displaced anger, and that the protest against it is partly misplaced activism. The marathon is a convenient collective target. We needed a target. In some ways it’s a good target. The marathon is no longer best known as an elite race. It’s become a spiritual quest for tens of thousands of people. It’s a way of setting a random but challenging goal, of doing something pointless and hard and imbuing it with meaning. It’s a reflection of all-American ambition with a self-help slant. For a regular person to run a marathon is a luxury. It takes so much time. It takes a surfeit of self-control. It is not a game, it is a discipline. That can be inspiring, but when people are suffering, it seems silly.

Of course, people are suffering all the time. Babies are in the neonatal ICU. Houses are burned down. People are cold and hungry. Marathons are always silly.

On Saturday I went for a run. This time the dome of the sky was high and clear blue, with flossy fair-weather clouds. I stopped at an evacuation center on the east side, which said it had too many volunteers, and ran down First Avenue, past the marathoners’ turn into Central Park. The United Nations buildings moved smoothly and implacably by. A little ways down, standing water had turned an empty stretch of land into a pond, and a building under construction had gained a perfect moat. The farther south I went, the worse the smells became. In Stuy Town I spent some time with New York Cares and visited my father’s 75-year-old cousin, who cheerfully talked about the relentless dark, sick neighbors, and watching the cars float by on the road that had become a river. I ran on.

I have never run a marathon. I have never been tempted. In fact, I have never run a race, even though I’ve been told I’m insanely competitive. Running for me is just something I need to do, like sleeping. I think when I run. It is maybe the only time I spend thinking really hard. I write when I run, too, in my head, and my sentences find their rhythm by my breath. I listen to dumb podcasts and really good books. I pay attention to the weather.

I ran south and then west, passing a cluster of Air Force troops in town since Wednesday handing out food and water. I passed tables of friends having lunch in the cold sunshine, relishing the tap water. I passed people exchanging gentle looks. There were heaps of garbage and scraps of wood. Along the East River, I ran on a road that, five days before, had been turned briefly into the bottom of a pool. Then I turned west, passing shiny-haired couples stepping into fancy stores. At a traffic light, I paused next to a bride and a groom being photographed on the median of Park Avenue.

In Central Park, the orange marathon banners were still raised high. An awning announced the 24th mile. Central Park was beautiful. As it happens, the park recently received a $100 million gift so that it could become even more beautiful. There are, incidentally, more than 1,700 other public parks in New York City. I looped around the top and started running south, then slipped out an exit and went west. By the time I reached the Hudson, the sun was getting low. The water turned a choppy, patchwork gray. The red-hulled big boats were still on the water. Behind them, the New Jersey skyline was completely dark.

Filed Under: General topics, New York City

Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and editor.

Archive @ louisahthomas