The NYC Marathon, cancelled for the first time in race history. Photo: Steve Broer/Shutterstock
I don't live on the East Coast. I'm landlocked in the high desert, where it is 65 degrees, sunny, and cloudless today, as it has been all week. We have not had rain all month. But I grew up in New Jersey, and my parents and my brother and his family live in Connecticut, on Long Island Sound. Compared to the Sandy-inflicted horrors on the Jersey Shore, lower Manhattan, and Staten Island, they got off easy. They lost a few trees, part of a dock, and some branches. They're still without power, but they have a generator. It could have been much, much worse—and for millions, it was.
I don't know what it feels like to be in New Jersey or New York City this week, without electricity or heat, with long gas lines and bodies of the lost and drowned still being recovered and the terrifying, jet-engine roar of the wind burned on the brain. I don't know what it feels like to live in a city still crippled by a hurricane even as 50,000 people began arriving to run 26.2 miles through every borough, past unimaginable destruction and hardship.
But I am a runner, and I know that running, especially long distances, is an act of perseverance and faith. You train hard for months, prepare as best you can, but on race day, you show up and turn things over to the unknown. You can't possibly know what the day will bring. You might feel strong and fast. You will no doubt doubt yourself. You might hurt and curse your legs and want to quit. You will be carried forth by the strength of the runners around you, their energy and conviction and courage. You will run with the memory of those you have lost, and those you might never know. Unimaginable things happen when you run. Who's to say if they will be beautiful or horrific, strange or wonderful. They will be all those things. Running is like life that way.
When I first heard that the New York City Marathon would go on as planned this Sunday, I thought it was a mistake. For a moment I thought I might get worked up about it. It would be easy to do. Families, neighborhoods, and entire towns are without power, heat, fresh food, gasoline. People have died. There is still so much work to be done. It was outrageous to think about running in the aftermath of such a cataclysmic storm.
Hurricane Sandy flooding in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Photo: Anton Oparin/Shutterstock
But then I remembered why I run and what it feels like when I do. The spirit of the race takes over. The collective faith of dozens or hundreds or thousands of runners who are running, too; the generosity of the volunteers; the encouragement of the spectators—it's invisible, this energy, but you can feel it buzzing and rising all around you, lifting you up and propelling you on. It's palpable and contagious and goes both ways: from runners to spectators, from one to many. It magnifies and endures, long after the last racer has crossed the finish line. It has unintended, unimaginable consequences, a ripple effect that you can't possibly predict.
On Friday afternoon, after days of debate and mounting criticism, the New York Road Runners Club called off the marathon. It was an unprecedented decision, the first cancellation in the race's 42-year history. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg said they had hoped the race would boost morale; instead it was dividing the city.
Running the New York City Marathon on Sunday might have been a horrible, shortsighted mistake or it might have been a genius act of faith. Who's to say what would have happened? At this point, we'll never know. The only thing I know is that running always teaches us something if we show up and let go. Running has the power to heal, to make us bigger and wiser and stronger.
To run at all is to persevere, to carry on under all circumstances. This is human nature. This is what we do best. The race may be off, but we can—and will—keep running.