New York Marathon (Update)

A blog that I read has been ranting that this week’s New York Marathon should be canceled in light of this week’s hurricane and the continuing recovery efforts.  For what they’re worth, these are my thoughts on the issue, from a response on that site.  I am not running, so I have no personal stake in it other than a (often unfounded) belief in the ability of our nation at its best to meet any challenge.

One point that should be corrected is that the race isn’t something “a trivial number of people care about.” Last year just short of 47,000 runners started the race. Multiply by a few spectators per runner, and you’re talking about a good number of people immediately invested in the race.

It’s also not something that can be just rescheduled for any time. At the most basic, the marathon is indeed a huge event with a big footprint. New York’s a busy place with lots of things going on, you can’t just throw these kinds of events around anywhere on the calendar. Similarly, many of those 47,000 people times however many spectators will be travelling from far and wide. Beyond losing out on reservations, etc., if this weekend is scrubbed, they’re not going to be able to just pick up and do it some other random weekend next year.

Beyond all that, almost all of those 47,000 people will have been training and dreaming about this race all year. Setting aside the pros and hopefuls with career riding on it, think about all the people doing their first marathon. All the countless people who would have never previously thought they would be able to run a marathon. All the people who’ve shaped up their lives and found some discipline just to make this one goal happen. All the people super excited about their big—maybe their first—trip to New York. Though intangible, that’s an awful lot to just throw away if holding the race is at all feasible.

If America and New York are as awesome as our idealistic collective vision of them, the race should be able to happen unless the situation is much more dire and immediate than what’s been projected. Whining about a couple generators is small & shrill. If it’s as simple as throwing around a couple extra generators to fix the problem, there wouldn’t be a problem.

Update

Monday: As expected and pretty clearly bound to happen, the generators and all the supplies (water bottles, food, emergency blankets) simply sat in the park through the weekend despite the cancellation of the race.  Some were still there late today.  This was reported with varying levels of outrage by “news” outlets, with most people continuing to fail to really account for some obvious points in their complaints and cancellation rationales.

As pointed out by the mayor’s office and more cogent commentators, the generators in question physically aren’t applicable to most of the city’s needs due to their output characteristics.  Even if they matched, there were no resources to transport them.  Afterward they also had been or were immediately contracted to move to other sites.  Most importantly, power generation does nothing when it’s the power distribution grid that is destroyed and immersed.

Food and other supplies presumably were not distributed for similar reasons.  The region’s not exactly a site of mass starvation, and what problems do exist seem to be largely about transportation (road blockages, gasoline shortages) and lack of electricity (no ATMs, functioning stores, etc.).  If the problem was mere acquisition of crates of PowerBars and bananas, the situation would have been rectified long before now.

Most shockingly, despite the cancellation of the race, the many off duty police and other course marshals thereby released did not magically transform into the engineers and construction crews required to drain subways, inspect power lines, rebuild houses, and conduct the countless technical tasks actually required of disaster recovery once the initial crisis is over…

Finally, it is worth noting a point to all of the uproar about the propriety of conducting the race.  I mean, obviously spectator sports like the football games conducted Sunday in New York “Gave NY-NJ region much-needed respite from Sandy’s aftermath,” but participant sports are clearly just utterly inappropriate at this juncture.

Regardless, Sandy’s wake is without doubt terrible.  So far ~110 people have died in the US and ~70 in the Caribbean, as well as a few others.  Reported numbers vary widely, but tens of thousands of people in the New York/New Jersey area have had their homes destroyed or rendered inhabitable (ten, twenty, and forty thousand seem to be typical estimates).

However, every day of the year in New York City, over 50,000 people spend the night homeless.  Over 110,000 people rely on the homeless shelter system at some point throughout the year.  More than 500 people are murdered every year in New York City.  Similar or (many) more die needlessly simply because they don’t have access to medical care.

But, somehow, there’s hardly ever any outrage or questions of propriety and spectacle about any of that.

  • David

    All this talk of the optics about NYC, the training and logistics of the runners, etc. is a distraction from a basic fact: the resources, human and otherwise, necessary to support the run are desperately needed for much more urgent purposes, by the people who pay taxes directly to have these services available to them. In an emergency, priorities should matter. NYC residents’ homes and lives >>>> Non-NYC residents’ hobby.

    • tjkopena

      If it’s the case that the race takes any significant resources away from recovery efforts, then that is certainly a problem. But it’s not obvious that’s the case. For example, various personalities and venues have been citing the media center generators as egregious wastes. But my understanding is it’s downed power lines—because America largely has an obsolete, brittle, above-ground power system—causing shortages, not generation. A couple more generators wouldn’t do much to help with no lines to distribute it. Similarly, the course control (police) and other services like EMTs are either working off duty or are hired private companies, with the race and not the city picking up the tab. I think most people opposed to the race’s conduct are critically overestimating what resources would be freed up to the recovery effort by cancelling it.

  • Origami_Isopod

    The selfishness and solipsism of this blogpost is absolutely unbelievable. Your endorphin high and your personal “glory” are really, really not as important as the health and lives of NYC residents.

    • tjkopena

      I’m sure then that you will cite how cancelling the marathon actually helped anybody, or freed any resources? Because as far as I’ve seen, no news reports have actually done so, nor anyone opposed given any concrete reasons.

      Supply doesn’t seem to be a problem. We’re not exactly a nation lacking in water bottles and emergency blankets. If there are shortages in areas, it seems to be about physically getting material the last few miles, completely unrelated to some limited supplies being consumed elsewhere. Similarly, power generation doesn’t seem to be a huge issue. A few more generators probably won’t achieve much in the face of massive electrical grid disconnects. Lastly, at some point after a disaster, recovery is about engineers and construction crews. Having off-duty police and others help marshal aren’t going to detract from that actual work.

      Long story short, no one’s actually argued that the mayor was wrong or lying in saying that the marathon should go on as it would not detract from recovery efforts. Like your comment, they all seem to be just spewing assumptions to that effect.