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Taking a Microscope to the NYC Marathon

Taking a Microscope to the NYC Marathon
     The scenes of flooding and mangled homes and businesses in New York and New Jersey still permeate the news, confirming the fear and hysteria that had pre-dubbed the halloweentime-behemoth of a hurricane Sandy as "frankenstorm". The triaging of help involved in reclaiming a city as complex and bustling as New York and it's surrounding metropolitan areas is bound to be a sensitive and chaotic issue. Do maxed out first responders pump water from the subways before rescuing the people in flooded Staten Island neighborhoods ? There were human deaths, destroyed homes, livelihoods tied up in the businesses that washed away and beloved pets drowned. These are the tragedies of natural disasters that bring out compassionate acts from the community and beyond, and aiding this level of loss is the top priority in the hearts and minds of everyone who feels called action.

     In looking closer at the particles bobbing in Sandy's wake, I notice that the range of destruction in NYC does not stop at the extreme. The power and water have not been returned to Alec Baldwin's apartment building, and that made the news. More than once. As did the wind-twisted crane dangling atop a luxury highrise in another affluent NYC neighborhood, causing the residents to be relocated. And then there is the New York City Marathon.

     This largest Marathon in the world in one of the most famous and intriguing cities in the World is many things to many people. To most people it's a parade through New York's 5 boroughs, celebrating the vibrancy of the city and uniqueness of it's pieces. After the attacks on 9/11 it represented the resilience of a city and a nation. To many participants it's an outlet for a running hobby or general lifestyle of fitness. For some participants it's a symbolic event, representing a particular life journey or charitable cause. To local New Yorkers it is a burst of tourism and resulting income or perhaps an annoyance in getting across the city that day. But to the NYRR and a small and sometimes invisible industry known as professional distance running, it is not just a day. It is an entire corporation embodied by a day. It's a day with a CEO, a marketing budget, sponsors, full time staff, volunteers, resulting outreach programs and preparatory races and a few workers whose briefcases are replaced by racing flats. The NYC marathon is the final event of a series of marathons called the World Marathon Majors- sort of the Grand Slam of the running world, with over a half million dollar prize for the winner of a 2 year spread of races, (as most athletes can only handle 2 major marathons a year). The elite portion of NYC marathon is always small, this year it was 88 men and women out of 47000 runners, a cool .2 percent of the race if you round up. Most people don't know that distance running is a professionalized sport. I understand, and for years, along with other professional runners, contemplated the relative meaningless of how I make a living. In an olympic year, we are recognized more as being one of the 3 most popular events at the Games, and have more avenues to use our platform of attention for personal endorsement deals as well as for actual soul redeeming moments where you can give back to your community in some way or volunteer with a group of kids or start or contribute to a charitable foundation.

     Within the niche sport of professionalized running is the subset of people who get different things from the sport. Aside from a bulk sponsorship deal by a shoe company, events like the NYC marathon pay appearance, prize and bonus money according to your status, placing and time. As a top American runner, if you really shoot the moon in New York, You are set for a good few years of income, maybe buying a lovely house in your neighborhood. Much of the field is the the seemingly oxymoronic group of "mid level elite runners", people that may have represented the US at the Olympics but did not come close to getting a medal there, or maybe just narrowly missed out on making the team altogether. For these athletes, this marathon was likely a majority of their income. You would be hard pressed to find a distance runner who didn't love and appreciate the support NYRR provides to the American professionals, which is not matched by any other marathon in the world. It is a hard race to miss. Africa is different. If you are from Kenya for example, and win the World Marathon Major and the overall marathon, with the current exchange rate of .01 Kenyan shillings to the US dollar, you don't just buy a house, you build a hotel , school, hospital and training camp for your neighborhood. If these runners have complained about the cancellation in the face of the destruction of the hurricane, it hasn't been audible to me. They are at times all too familiar with the hardness of life, having grown up in a place that in being unscathed by the level of infrastructure known to us in America is both beautiful in the richness of the natural land and strikingly sad in the losses caused by it; they are familiar with the plight of at times not having power and water.

     The final decision to cancel the marathon as made by Mayor Bloomberg and reinforced by the NYRR and CEO Mary Wittenberg was the right call only a week after a natural disaster. There just wasn't enough time to get to the marathon on the appropriate place on the triage list, and as all distance runners know, time is everything. As someone very close to a not so well known side of the race, I understand how difficult the decision must have been to Mary and the NYRR. She has the undiminishing energy, stubbornness and unwillingness to give up that is admirable and present in a lot of marathoners, which allows her to get the best from her staff and take the NYCM to new heights, like a nationally televised slot on ESPN on sunday morning. I also feel for the 88 runners who don't get to work on Sunday and are handling it with grace, creativity and compassion for those affected by the storm. Meb Keflezighi, 2009 winner of the NYCM and someone looked up to by the entire professional running contingent in the US said it simply and poignantly, " We've all been injured (before). 1 step back and 2 steps forward" . The runners and marathon and the city will be back on their collective feet next year, maybe with a few scars from the storm but on the way back to full strength. I guess I just wished more people saw the unique ripple that the storm caused to a small part of the Marathon . It isn't mass destruction, but it's more than the inconvenience of a vacation that got rained out. And it's being handled pretty well. I just wanted to say that. 
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