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Some thoughts on the New York Marathon

November 4, 2012

Cancelling the 2012 New York Marathon was probably the right thing to do. The start line was one of the areas of New York worst affected by Hurricane Sandy. Areas of the city still have no power. The search for bodies continues.
Amidst the drama and spectacle that comes with a big city race, we have to remember that there are things more important than a marathon. Implicitly, every marathon runner signs up to the chances of not making it to the start line – drop outs through injury, changing personal circumstances, etc. generally account for 20 per cent of runners not making it to the start line.
But I can sympathise to an extent with the desire to hold the race despite the circumstances, leading to those defiant statements from New York’s mayor that the race would go ahead. After the devastation of 9/11 the race was a symbol of how New York wouldn’t be cowed by terrorism. After the Chilean miners were freed from weeks of subterranean confinement in 2010, one of the trapped men was granted a place in the marathon having ran every day in the dark of the mine.
The narrative of overcoming adversity is tempting. Perhaps it would have been fitting if the marathon was due to be held a month after Hurricane Sandy. But after a week, all effort needs to be focused on recovering the lives and livelihoods that have been touched by recent events.
The seductive groove of overcoming adversity was too tempting though, and the race was declared to still be on after a couple of days. A few more days of growing discontent followed, and the juggernaut of the marathon continued. Elite runners made epic journeys to the beleaguered city, thousands of recreational runners followed in their wake. Then, on Friday – after race numbers had started to be distributed at the race expo, which had been set up during the relief efforts – the race was called off.
Estimates say that 40,000 runners were due to race on Sunday, and about half of those are from overseas. Had the race been cancelled earlier, the runners could have had a chance to decide whether they still wanted to head to the US or stay at home. Sure, missing a marathon is frustrating, but comes with the territory. But for a casual runner, getting to New York and staying for the marathon is a significant expense.
Cancelling a marathon is always a big decision. When the 2011 Shakespeare Marathon was cancelledjust a couple of minutes before the race was due to start (it was downgraded to a half-marathon rather than a two-lap 26.2) runners were disgruntled. Conditions on the day were bad, and feared to be dangerous. In reality, the race organiser only had a few hours’ notice having inspected the course. A last-minute cancellation on the grounds of health and safety was probably unavoidable.
But New York had good notice of the conditions days in advance of the race, and taking a difficult decision early on could have saved negative publicity for the race, anger for those affected by the hurricane and expense and frustration for those who made special efforts to get out. While the immediate and urgent priority remains with getting New York back to its feet, I hope race directors are paying attention to the lessons learnt about how to make the decisions no one wants to make.

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