Dear New York, I hope you’re doing well
I know a lot’s happen and you’ve been through hell
   –   An Open Letter to NYC, Beastie Boys

Yeah.  I’m going to run it.  There’s no need to preface this post with an explanation of what happened this past week and I’m not going to make any apologies for not posting in months1, so we’ll just get on to the point of things.

I don’t want to dwell on the “should they have canceled it?” question too long, because frankly most people who have an opinion on the matter don’t have enough facts to have an informed decision, but I will share my thought process on deciding to run it.  There are tons of arguments (including a half dozen separate groups on Facebook and at least one petition on change.org) against it, but I think the only valid one is summarized well by my friend Kiran over at Masala Chica.

When the storm was first forecast I was assuming that it wouldn’t affect things at all, but when friends in the tri-state area started reporting on how bad things were I figured we’d hear pretty soon if they canceled.  I know New York City well enough to have assumed on Sunday that all the precautions they were taking (suspending service and boarding up the subways, etc) were probably overkill and that they’d have some power outages, flooding, and wind damage but overall bounce back pretty quickly.  NYRR’s initial wait-and-see approach was, in my mind, validating this presumption, but it soon became clear that my vision of the level of damage was far removed from reality.

My parents and many friends in the area still have no power, many areas are still flooded, and there is tons of damage that needs to be repaired.  So I went back to assuming they’d cancel, only to be told otherwise by the Mayor in subsequently more definite press conferences.  And I still don’t know how I feel about that, but I’m not traveling here just for the marathon, but also for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hannukah with my and my wife’s families.  So if my flight was delayed, oh well; if the race was canceled, oh well; if I was stranded in Chicago for several days, oh well and bring on the deep dish pizza.

My father may have put it best when he described New Yorkers2 as a people who simply don’t quit.  Something was planned and scheduled and thus will happen, quite literally, come hell or high water.

Southwest confirmed that my flight was not canceled and EWR was scheduled to reopen at 9am EDT on Thursday3.  The NYRR extended the deferment date to the last possible minute.  So off we went; home in to storage (and hopefully all leaks sealed4), train to PDX, and across the country without a hitch.  We spent Wednesday night in an airport hotel5, which is when I read the update on the definitive “Marathon will go on – as a tribute to the city and it’s recovery” announcement.  Definitely spin, but I can see the point.

So now I have pre-race nerves.  Not because I’m actually worried about being prepared for it.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that I was sick for three weeks and probably won’t be setting a PR, but will adjust my plan and run the best race I can.  I’m nervous because I big part of me is torn over the “is this right?” question.  There are tons of arguments on both sides and as the general public I’m only privy to a handful of them, but it really comes down to one valid argument: is the benefit of bringing business and a sense of normalcy back to the city more important than the apparent callousness to hold such an event in the front yards6 those most affected by the storm?

I can’t answer that absolutely.  I’m not deferring because I’m here anyway and I don’t want to have to make the decision as to whether or not I want to do it again next year7.  The show is on, so I’m doing it.  Ready or not.  Here I come.  But I’m still not confident it’s the right thing.  It still feels like a big middle finger to the people who have lost loved ones or shelter to the storm.  But is it?

Argh.

I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
   –   The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett

The Best of a City

I am actually quite impressed with the city’s efforts.  It is now Friday and all but two subway lines are running again to varying extents, most bridges and tunnels are open with fairly minor limitations in place until midnight tonight, and while NJ Transit is not running most lines due to lack of power at their rail control facility, but both NJT and Amtrak Northeast Corridor service is unaffected and rolling from DC to Boston and Trenton to Manhatten, respectively, provided you buy your ticket online before you get to the (powerless) station.  And all the MTA and NJT buses are running extended service to try and make up for the shortcomings as best they can.

Also, regardless of whether or not it was the right choice in the end, I’m impressed with NYRR’s communication and the changes they are putting in place.  If a storm like this had hit in the days pre-popular internet I shudder to think what sort of chaos would have ensued.  (Granted, the race was less popular in 1980, but still by no means a small event.)  They had updates on both social media and their official site before the storm even hit and have been sending out updates via e-mail to all registered participants.  Aside from a fairly poorly timed “ZOMG!  Buy your photo memories in advance!” message from BrightRoom8 with the tip “Have Fun and enjoy this special marathon moment in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.”9 they we all very respectful and trying to balance the commitment they’ve already made to the event with the social commitment to not kick the city while its down.

I do not envy the situation they’re in – they are no doubt getting tons of complaints and petitions to cancel the race and would certainly be getting tons of complaints and petitions for refunds10 from runners around the world.  In the end though, it’s not just the economy of NYC, but the advertising investors who have the strongest pull.  Well, second strongest.  The final “it’s still on” message claimed that they’ll be making changes as necessary to avoid impacting recovery efforts and I truly hope that they are honestly doing that, but if the power of advertisers steamrolled police and fire chiefs then that is one disgusting state of affairs.  I like to think that everything is truly as it appears and the demand for first responders is past – and, let’s be honest – it’s NYC and there’d be a fire chief on the street corner holding a press conference if the Mayor or NYRR tried to bully his resources around – but even with conditions stabilizing how can anyone be certain that closing Fifth Avenue instead of Fourth Avenue11 isn’t going to block some essential traffic or ConEd access point that they don’t know they need to get at?  There’s only so many ways to get 26.2 miles from point A to point B and no matter how you route it you’re going to block certain things.  So, yeah, here’s to hoping the course isn’t in the way?

My connecting flight from Chicago to Newark was at about 75% capacity, despite being sold out.  Obviously lots of folks canceled their vacation plans.  I think most of my fellow passengers were delayed New Yorkers or Jerseykin returning home, yet nobody was angry, disgruntled, or just generally unpleasant12.  A fairly large portion of the passengers were FEMA employees or volunteers coming to help out, or employees of companies with the tools and expertise to continue the recovery effort.  The guy across from me, for example, worked for a Huminification Technologies company.  Which he translated to mean he will be pumping out, drying, and sanitizing flooded buildings.

And that’s when it hit me.  Not only are New Yorkers resilient.  And stubborn.  And refuse to quit.  But people, in general, step up when they need to.  And more importantly for the situation at hand, there are no resources that the marathon is taking from recovery efforts13; the need for first responders is past.  The need now is for people with specialized skills, tools, and safety measures appropriate to the work that needs to be done.  The cop stopping traffic in Queens is not being taken away from a more important task; someone trained in repairing traffic lights or dredging basements or repairing roofs and elevators is doing that.

When I landed yesterday, I got an e-mail from Finish Line Physical Therapy, which is holding a pre-race pep talk with Jack Daniels, who wrote the training plan I followed (save for being sick for three weeks) for this race.  It seemed appropriate that I sign up, but I’d kind of assumed that even if the race went on that they’d cancel this purely promotional event with no cost to participants and no benefit to Finish Line or Run S.M.A.R.T. Project save for good will.  But no, the pep talk is also still on, free snacks and t-shirts and photos and autographs and everything.  Finish Line does not yet have power, but “hopes to” by tomorrow.  And it doesn’t sound like they’ll cancel even if they have no power.

So really, all in all, I’m impressed with how this was handled.  Assuming all is as it appears.  I feel for the victims.  I really do.  I want to help, and hope I can find a way to volunteer in the coming days, but need to figure out a way to let go of the guilt and focus on the race.

The NYRR have rebranded the race The Race To Recover14 and launched a page to promote donations to the Mayor’s Fund and various local charities.  And they’ve committed at least $1,000,000 of their own funds to the cause.  Which is something.  A fairly significant something, I think.  From what I understand from locals who have been listening to radio updates, they will also be bringing food vendors along the course (or maybe just near the finish in Central Park, where we’re disrupting the city the most?) not for runners but for people – spectators and the displaced as well – who are in need of a hot meal.  Again, something.

It’s tough to juggle competing priorities and balance respect with actual practical aid.  But I think they’ve done what’s reasonable.  There are still lots of people in need as the city recovers.  But NYRR is not the organization to answer that need.  And from what we know there’s no clear benefit to them in canceling the race.  It’s simply the awkwardness of the juxtaposition.  Which is purely emotional, but no less real.

So we’ll make some donations in the hopes that it will help.  And the city will move on.  And it will suck.  And eventually it will not.

UPDATED: 6:00 pm Friday, 02Nov2012

We have decided to cancel the NYC marathon. The New York Road Runners will have additional information in the days ahead for participants.
   –   @NYCMayorsOffice 5:21 pm EDT 02Nov2012

So, uh, yeah. Strike all that. And suddenly I’m wondering how much I was kidding myself. How much information could have been withheld that this took until the last minute to cancel? Can I get to New Hampshire in time to join my wife at a Halloween party tomorrow? Should I bring pants? Should I just delete this post before too many friends from New York read it? Should I register for Bucks County?

Show 14 footnotes

  1. Though I am sorry.  Damn it.  Now I’ve apologized.  There are drafts awaiting coherent thinking/typing time, though!
  2. My father very much at heart still being the New Yorker he was for most of his life.
  3. They actually ended up reopening midday Wednesday.
  4. We’re not allowed to worry about our rig again until January!
  5. And got to watch Arrow while nomming on Halloween candy in bed!
  6. No, not literally.
  7. Deferring, if you’re not familiar, means I’d be guaranteed a slot for next year but would need to pay again and work out the logistics – and commitment – of being in the area again.
  8. The world’s worst and yet most popular race photography company.
  9. Yes, literally, word for word.  They put that exact phrase in a bulk e-mail.
  10. There is absolutely no way you could have registered for this race and not seen the painstakingly clear zero-exception refund policy.
  11. They haven’t, as far as I know, changed the course at all yet – this is just a hypothetical!
  12. Actually, people were, as a whole, far more pleasant than my average flight to the NYC area!
  13. Save for my whole “blocking traffic for three hours” concern, above
  14. All rhymey with the cancelled Race to the Finish and charity Race to Deliver.