As I watched the coverage of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation on TV and followed the personal stories from my friends on Facebook, my first thoughts were simply for the care and safety of those in Sandy’s path. When the coverage switched to recovery efforts, my attention switched to the decision of whether or not to hold the New York City Marathon. I have always seen endurance races as hopeful and inspirational events. Initially, I thought holding the race could be a positive way to distract people from the struggle to get their lives back to normal. However, as I watched the pain and anger in the faces of those still in the throes of trying simply to live; to get food and water, electricity, heat, gas, I realized the wounds were simply too fresh and raw. These folks were at the starting line of their own personal marathon to normalcy. Throwing a 26.2 mile city-wide party would simply add more salt to the wound. I understand that the economic impact to the city for cancelling was not insignificant and I doubt anyone argues that NY needs all the economic help it can get right now. And, as much as Mayor Bloomberg and race officials said the race would not divert resources from the recovery effort, I can also understand how anyone else might say ANY police, fire, or other workers that were working the race are resources that could be helping those in need. I don’t really know if their reassurances about resources were true or not, but the reactions of the people of NY were emotional responses, not rational ones and they were starting to turn that emotion against the running community in general. I am such a lover of this sport, and I hated to see runners cast in the role of villain, so I was honestly relieved when the race was cancelled.
Of course, I wasn’t registered to run this race, so it’s easy for me to be relieved from the comfort of my armchair. I didn’t spend months and months training, I hadn’t asked my friends and family to donate funds to a charitable cause on my behalf, I wasn’t running in honor or in memory of someone close to my heart, or in celebration of any personal triumph over adversity. But I have done all those things for other races and I can easily imagine the aching hearts of those who did them in anticipation of this event. After one of the worst hurricanes this nation has seen, missing this one race pales so much in comparison that these disappointed runners didn’t even have a right to complain. They must put on their brave faces, openly share only their concern for the hurricane victims, and try to tell themselves and the world that it’s only a foot race.
Having been to the running rodeo a few times now, I have come to learn that disappointment and running are often partners in endurance running. Injuries plague even the fittest runners. For slow-pokes like myself there is the ever-present threat of being taken off the course for missing time limits. They don’t call it “hitting the wall” for nothing and some runners aren’t able to finish their race in the face of overwhelming physical and/or emotional obstacles. Even if you cross the finish line, it’s often in a disappointing time – maybe just short of a Boston qualifier for the faster runners, or your body is so wrecked you can barely remember getting there. It’s also not unusual for runners to find depression waiting for them on the other side of 26.2 miles once the high from crossing the finish line wears off. Given the never-ending opportunities for disappointment and disillusionment, it’s sometimes a wonder that anyone does these events at all.
In the middle of writing this, I took a break to meet a friend for lunch. We were chatting about the NYC marathon decision and I remembered that she had recently run a local half-marathon. I asked her how it went and she excitedly recounted the highlights of the race – where she saw her son and her husband on the race course, how Mission Impossible played in her headphones as she powered her way up one of the tough hills, and how for the first time she actually sprinted the last few hundred feet to the finish line. She said it was one of the best races she had ever run, and she even beat her time just a few months prior by almost 20 minutes. I could almost see that runner’s high in her eyes as she described the run. For even a chance at one of those magical moments, that is why we bear the pain and suffering that is training for an endurance event. And, honestly, if the training were not fraught with peril and frustration, the rewards would not be nearly so rewarding. Every lost opportunity and failed effort steels a runner’s resolve and makes the victory later just that much sweeter.
To the NYC marathoners who are staring straight into the face of disappointment and let-down right now, take heart. This too is part of your journey and the true athlete knows there will be more chances, more races, and victories yet to be had.