Commentary

Canceling marathon was a mistake

Race would have kept media spotlight on devastated NYC

Originally Published: November 5, 2012
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

TBDAP Photo/Jason DeCrowRunners cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 2011. This year, the scene was drastically different.

WHAT A MISTAKE, and it will be remembered forever because of the unfixable hole in the records: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg canceled his city's marathon two days after he promised it would go on, six days after a hurricane named Sandy made some of our greatest monuments seem smaller than they are and the Atlantic Ocean seem almost as big as it really is. Mayor Bloomberg, I don't envy your decision these divisive days, but you were right the first time: On Sunday morning, your crippled streets should have been filled with thousands of runners, rushing through every last crack that the water did.

Not because some people traveled to your city hoping to run, only to find out that they would not. There are far worse breaks -- just ask the families who have only foundations, rather than whole houses anymore. And not because of some strange idea that marathons lift us all up, these inspirational antidotes to our worst cynical instincts. There might be that rare spectator who watches a marathon and is moved to change something about his or her own life by the experience, but resolutions by proxy don't often last. Ultimately, marathons are for the marathoners.

Hurricanes and marathons remind us of how good we have it every minute we don't spend thinking about how fragile we are ...

I know this because I am a runner, and while I wave at my fellow runners like I'm supposed to -- solidarity, brothers and sisters -- the truth is, I don't much care whether anybody's running with me. I know my running will not save them and their running will not save me. This is just up to us. I have those running friends who are the equivalent of religious zealots, who beg you to join them and see the beauty that they've seen through their wild eyes out there on the road. But I'm afraid my friends are vampires and werewolves, creatures expressly designed to spread their own suffering. Running hurts, the sort of hurt that can be overcome only by the purest strains of self-interest, by vicious things like vanity and fear. If runners truly cared about other people and their collective fate, they'd be playing soccer instead.

That's why, Mr. Mayor. That's why you should have forced those thousands of runners to run past that Staten Island marsh where those two poor lost boys were found in their wet clothes. You should have forced them to run through the dark and empty streets of Lower Manhattan, past all those cars piled up and trees knocked over, past that Con Ed plant that the water turned into a meteor in the night. You should have forced them to run through the smoking ruins of Breezy Point, through that vast erased stretch in however many people's lives. And you should have forced the cameras and reporters to follow those runners for 26 miles across your city, every last desperate step of the way.

Because we're selfish. Because we talk a good game about love and a new mindfulness but so many of us will remain forgetful and whiny and mean. Because it's only Monday and already this feels like old news. Because the storm rattled my windows but my power never went out, and so I wasn't forced to pause at the miracle that is light at the flick of a switch, or confront how that same miracle is one of the reasons that hurricane came to my door in the first place. Because we watched football that same Sunday we did not watch a marathon -- bloated, all-consuming football, those same precious resources be damned for football -- and observed our meaningless moments of silence because just a moment of supposed reflection is all our scared hearts can stand.

And most of all because of the single terrible good that hurricanes do, the same good that running does: They turn the unconscious into the conscious. Hurricanes and marathons remind us how good we have it every minute we don't spend thinking about how fragile we are and everything we've built is. When else do we listen so closely to our own breaths? There were people who lived on your city's shores for 50 years, Mr. Mayor, never once imagining that one night they would drown pressed against their living-room ceilings. Who would ever believe that sort of nightmare might actually come true unless you could somehow make them see that it did? That's why you should have held your marathon. Because then you would have forced us to see.

And instead, 1,000 years from now, when glowing fingers run down our ancient ledgers and they wonder what happened in 2012, why there was no marathon in the long-submerged metropolis that used to be known as New York, they'll find different records that will tell them that this was it, that this was the pivotal moment when we decided once and for all that it was better for us to close our eyes, to stop when we should have run.

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Chris Jones is a feature writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire.