03 November 2012

The Marathon That Wasn’t

And just like that, it was off.

Really, the timing was incredible. I’d been meaning to get an email out to my work team since Thursday morning, as some of them are in the New York City area just might be out to offer a cheer or two. As things go, life and work got in the way, and it was Friday evening before that task saw the light of day. At 5:29 PM, I hit the send button. Literally three minutes later, Dearest Spouse walked in the door and announced, “It’s cancelled.”

With the trepidation I’d been feeling, which she knew I’d been feeling, I knew she was kidding me, except for the funny fact that she wasn’t. The other funny fact was that the radio station she’d had on in the car finished up a tune, announced, “The New York City Marathon is cancelled,” and rolled right into the next hit. No fanfare, no commentary, not even a hint of excitement in their voice. That, I’d guess, was the one and only time that this announcement generated zero excitement.

Hardly anyone in the Northeast, if not across the country, is unaware of the controversy that was brewing about the City’s and the New York Road Runners’ decision to move forward with the event. As I wrote only a few days ago, only a city like New York would have the chutzpah to try to pull this off in the wake of the one of the worst disasters in history. But also as I wrote, if they believed that this would be a positive sign to lift the spirits of the city, I would back them, and I would be there.

Nevertheless, I harbored plenty of doubts. How could they truly do this without diverting resources from the recovery, as they claimed? Private coaches to the start are the easy part. Traffic and security require law enforcement, whom one would think would have their hands full at the moment. I fully expected we’d face protestors, and during this week’s taper runs, I’d gone over in my head what I might say to them, how I might react. But frankly my concerns went deeper to basic safety. Desperate people do desperate things. It would only take one fanatical individual to create a significant incident during the race, and one can only image what form that might take. I’m not big enough to throw or receive a tackle, and that’s on the mild side of what could have happened. Granted, that could happen any year at any twenty-six-mile-long arena, but this felt like walking into a Coliseum lurking with potential lions. The official announcement email later confirmed this concern as an element in their decision.

When I realized that my bride-turned-messenger wasn’t joking, disbelief was mixed with relief. Doubtless she shared that sentiment.

The media, predictably, whipped this to frenzy status. It’s not worth recounting. You saw it. And you saw that virtually every commentator found blame somewhere. Almost to a tee, they were all smarter than the people in the middle who made these calls.

I won’t stand with them. I won’t blame. I won’t second guess.

This was an impossible decision all around. I refuse to fault Mayor Bloomberg or the New York Road Runners, no matter how inconvenient the outcome. They did what they thought was right when they made those decisions, given the information at hand. Was it reasonable to think the city could pull out of this and shine as a beacon of resilience, and would there have been value in that? Possibly yes. What changed between that decision and the subsequent one on Friday to call the game? The way I see it, in a word (well, two words), Staten Island.

Did we know how bad it was on Staten Island when the decision was made that the show must go on? I think back a few days, and I would have to say no. Remember, with the Twenty-Four-Hour-Nonstop-Fill-That-Airspace Media, we hear everything as it emerges. We saw every piece of “breaking video!” within moments of its creation. To my recollection, we didn’t see the devastation of Staten Island until somewhat past midweek. Then we knew. They were still finding bodies with the weekend just hours away. That undoubtedly changed the equation.

We also experienced the hazards of social media. While I’m not a big participant in the space, with no Facebook, Twitter, or other significant medium in my fold save this non-real-time blog, I certainly see where these tools can be valuable. But I also see that they can lead to emotional and often flawed decisions. Sometimes it is better to let things soak in for a while (no flood-related pun intended), let them ponder and stew, before rushing to judgment. Is it possible that the timelines of recovery had been worked out to expect that by Sunday morning, the days would be far brighter than they were on Thursday, when it was reported that tens of thousands gave their electronic thumbs up to the downfall of the Marathon? Is it possible that the impact of the now-famous generators moved into Central Park for the finish line operations were well known to be entirely inappropriate and inadequate for the recovery efforts, a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket that really wouldn’t have much impact? (It was said they could power four hundred homes, but were there really four hundred homes with infrastructure ready for them to be plugged into?) Is it possible that those in the know really had worked out that the impact of the Marathon wouldn’t materially affect recovery efforts? And is it possible that the fury aroused by this instantaneous yet mono-dimensional communication channel excluded the ability for these hard questions to be properly considered, and instead created an environment where one spark could set off mayhem?

I can’t say what the answers are to these kinds of hypothetical questions, but I can say that when social media allows for what is in effect an instant electronic riot, staged by people who may are not in the middle and most likely do not have the facts possessed by those who are, flawed decisions can be made. I’m not saying they were made. I’m saying they can be made.

It’s as simple as this: I am confident that the people who were in control of the decisions had best interests in mind and made the best decisions they could with the information they had at the time. I highly doubt there was any ill will or evil intent going on here. In the end, those decisions resulted in a whole lot of inconvenience and cost some runners and various businesses some money. Put that in perspective against the people who lost their power, their homes, or their lives.

I won’t second guess. This is how it turned out. Life’s like that. Move on. Of course, I’d really like it if they’d send me my bib and my shirt, just for kicks.

And so we move on to Plan B: An hour north of here, there happens to be another marathon tomorrow, and so I and many other New York City Marathon Refugees descended on the extremely welcoming even if somewhat beleaguered staff of the Manchester City Marathon at today’s expo. So many of us arrived that they ran out of yellow full
marathon bibs and started issuing us blue half-marathon bibs instead, assuring us they’ll handle it on the accounting side. I took the liberty of spicing mine up, blotting out the “half”, and making it at least partially yellow.

Manchester is not New York. The crowds will be smaller, but they will cheer us just the same. The course is ludicrously more difficult, so our times won’t be as spectacular, but we’ll share that much more satisfaction at the finish. Ironically, the weather is forecast to be, almost to the degree, the same. We’ll have a grand time, especially if today’s small but welcoming expo was any sign. I walked in wearing the bib I’d created for my local club’s morning run (and may wear on my back
tomorrow), and had more fun conversations than at any pre-race event I can remember. Tomorrow, the refugees will run, and while New York City heals, we will have a fine day that happens not to be in New York City. This is how it turned out. Life’s like that. Move on.

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