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Today's Top News
Run the New York Marathon, Now? That's a Terrible Idea
The marathon is a great New York tradition, but to have it suck up vital resources as the city recovers from Sandy is inexcusable
Right now, the scenes from New York City look like this: the entire area of Manhattan island below the Empire State building is completely dark, without power or water or transportation. The subways, in some stations are flooded with seawater, while people wait on lines for three hours to get on the busses.
The airports have just started to handle a four-day backlog of delayed flights. On the streets, there is traffic gridlock all over as cars try to stream into the city to make up for the lack of public transportation; there are many police checkpoints to make sure that those cars are carrying three people, or else they are turned back from entering Manhattan.
Fuel for cars is scarce; lines at gas stations extend for hours; there is a fuel spill in New Jersey; and there are reports of gas is being rationed.
Many people are spending a lot of time figuring out where they're going to get their next shower, and enough power on their cellphones to be in touch with the outside world for another few hours. In Brooklyn, there has been looting on Coney Island, with people taking food, diapers and flat-screen TVs.
The headquarters of Verizon – communications hub of the city and the region – is flooded with water on nearly four basement levels. One borough, Staten Island, is suffering Katrina-like devastation in areas.
The New York City Marathon is a beloved tradition in the city – and an economically lucrative one. Last year's marathon, in fine weather, brought in $340m to New York's coffers, along with 47,000 runners and 2 million spectators. The New York Road Runners Club, which organizes the marathon, pays over $800,000 to the city, including over $100,000 to the New York Police Department for the use of officers to police to course. Charities, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, also depend on the New York City marathon to help them raise money; these charities train runners all summer so that they can gather donations for the charity as they finish the marathon.
The marathon largely covers its own costs, so it won't cost the city that much money, in theory, to host it.
In fact, this year's marathon will cost the city an enormous amount, at a time it can ill afford it. It will cost people; it will cost time and inconvenience for already harassed residents … and it will cost the city its pride in holding an event that showcases New York at its best, not as a struggling shambles.
For one thing, it's hard to understand where the course will be. The usual start, Staten Island, is in its biggest crisis in a century. People were drowned in their homes, unable to call for help. Local politicians there is appalled at the idea of a marathon – "a marathon is a parade," the borough president told one newspaper – winding its way through the scenes of waterfront devastation. Central Park, where the course ends, is currently closed, as it has been for nearly a week, as authorities worry about tree branches falling or other disasters. The public transportation system, which will carry thousands of riders after the marathon and millions of spectators to spots along the course, is barely able to hold the handful of commuters it currently has.
As any runner will tell you, running a race without spectators – especially the New York Marathon – is one of the world's most depressing tasks for a runner. That course is 26.2 miles, and no amount of audio playlists will get a person through; it's the energy of the crowd that sustains them. But how big are the crowds likely to be, when many people can't even plausibly leave their houses?
That does not even count the runners themselves. Last year, 20,000 of the 47,000 runners came to New York from overseas, according to CNBC. If they do the same this year – assuming that hotels and flights can bear the burden – it will increase the strain on the city.
Then there is the matter of police and emergency services that will be diverted to the marathon, when there is demonstrably more work and use for them in the city. Two of New York's major hospitals – the NYU Medical Center and Bellevue – are in crisis, struggling without power, and there are rescues still going on all over the city.
The police, similarly, are in short supply for a disaster of this scale. The city is so desperate for police support that it called off the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village for the first time in 39 years, because it could not spare the officers.
Traffic will also be blocked in five boroughs for the race just as residents will need to shop for food or reach family. Another day of New York residents being trapped at home when they need supplies – or just air – seems like a bad idea.
It is also questionable whether this year's race will have the same economic benefit as last year's. With air traffic limited and delayed, many runners may not make it, or may just choose to defer for another year. Hotels downtown may be closed, and unable to take guests. It's hard to picture another turnout, in the middle of this storm aftermath, like the one last year in perfect weather.
With all of these obstacles, the marathon could send the wrong message this year. The president of the NYRR, race organizer Mary Wittenberg, suggested on TV that having the race now will highlight New York's resilience. The marathon would be – if the city were up and running in any form – a gesture of resilience and triumph for the city.
But the city is laid low, very low, the lowest in living memory. There are currently bitter fights for limited resources. So there could be some very awkward, and maybe frustrating, images from the race, from the juxtaposition of the runners and the destruction around them.
For the runners who have trained for the race, it seems a waste of their admirable training time to cancel the race, and it's probably too late to cancel it, anyway. But the city should tread very, very carefully in how it goes about preparing for the marathon. Any sign of insensitivity to New York's current plight will be a bad hit for a city government that has largely shown itself to be very thoughtful about what the residents of New York need.
What they don't need is one more giant obstacle to keeping safe and getting their lives back in order.