ING NYC Marathon Sunday – A medal of a different color

A number of folks have emailed me and messaged me on facebook today saying things similar to this one:

“In spite of all the posturing, promises, and politicizing, the residents of Staten Island are no better off this AM. And we still didn’t have the marathon”.

To them, I can only say that today the NYC community was laser focused on the recovery and the clean up. There were no distractions, no diversions and no celebration for some while others were wondering if they’ll make it through the next night without any heat. It wouldn’t have been that way if the marathon had gone forth.

Additionally, we wouldn’t have had the thousands of runners who volunteered their time today to deliver food, water, blankets and other items to Lower Manhattan, Red Hook, The Rockaways and Staten Island, among others. They donned their marathon shirts and backpacks filled with supplies and drove, rode or even ran out to the homes and residents that needed them. Every year, marathon Sunday in NYC is all about transforming lives and that is exactly what happened today. Are things back to normal? Absolutely not. And they won’t be for some time. There is still a severe lack of fuel, power, shelter and clothing for far too many. But even if it is better today than it was yesterday for just a few people, then it was worth it. When the smiles on the faces of people who are given simple items like toilet paper, or a few apples are equal to the smiles on the faces of the runners distributing them, you know that lives were transformed today and we don’t need someone to slip a medal over our neck to prove it.

The 2012 ING NYC Marathon is Cancelled – What’s Next?

After a see-saw week of: is it on? Is it off? Tuesday it’s on. Friday it’s definitely on, and are you freak’n kidding me? Late Friday afternoon, the NYC Mayor’s Office released an announcement that reversed his previous positions and announced that the 2012 New York City Marathon is cancelled.

“We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event – even one as meaningful as this – to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track.” Bloomberg said.

I still stand by my earlier comments, that if the NYRR and the City could demonstrate conclusively that no resources would be diverted from the recovery efforts, and that includes no excessive burden on the part of FDNY EMS and other emergency workers, and if they could do it in a way that demonstrated that holding the event would actually accelerate and stimulate the response to those in need, avoiding further suffering, then they should hold the race. Barring that, they shouldn’t. They clearly couldn’t do this.

I have to assume that they wanted to do this, but to quote the famous line from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

The outpouring of criticism from the community was immense with more than 50,000 fans joining a new facebook page entitled Cancel the 2012 NYC Marathon in less than three days. To put that into perspective, the NYRR’s own facebook page has only 37,000 followers and it’s been up for years.

In the heat of battle, I understand it’s hard to get your ducks in a row, and everyone is gun shy about saying the wrong thing, but decisions were made in a way that made the community feel that it was all being done for financial reasons and worse yet, it was being done in the dark. What the public could see was a mix of rumors and exaggerations and absent any formal statements, aside from “Don’t run in Central Park”, the community saw what they wanted to see, dead bodies still being found in basements, residents of Staten Island without homes and outraged, victims being kicked out of hotels to honor marathoners’ reservations, Borough presidents and other elected officials speaking out against the marathon, portable bathrooms setup and fenced off so locals wouldn’t use them in advance of the marathon, and two shiny new generators being used to support the marathon as opposed to powering up a hospital or darkened homes across NYC.

Generators wait in Central Park for Sunday’s running of the New York City Marathon. (Getty Images)

To me, this was the nail in the coffin of any opportunity to hold this race. The pictures of the two generators were used in online articles, television news coverage and every media outlet available. They became a symbol for the selfishness and lack of sensitivity that the NYRR has for its community, whether true or not. The poor response from a NYRR representative when asked about the generators use while so many people were still without power? These are from a private source and they didn’t take away from any being used for recovery. That statement only made it worse. As I noted earlier, I think the City and the NYRR could have won over the community by matching every action used to support the marathon with one to support the relief. Adding two generators for the marathon? Then donate two generators to the relief. Bringing out thousands of water bottles? Then donate thousands of water bottles to those who don’t have clean drinking water. Giving away race shirts? Then give them to the people who lost all of their belongings. Even after the race was cancelled, aside from notifying runners about the cancelled race, the only message sent out on the NYRR facebook encouraged runners to come to the expo to pick up their race t-shirts and goodie bags and to stop by the vendors booths – presumably to spend more money. I can’t help but feel that they just don’t get it.

As for the runners losing out? I think Olympic medalist and 2009 winner of the ING NYC Marathon Meb Kelflezighi said it best:

“I understand why it cannot be held under the current circumstances. Any inconveniences the cancellation causes me or the thousands of runners who trained and traveled for this race pales in comparison to the challenges faced by people in NYC and its vicinity.”

For the most part, runners understood that, but I was shocked to see so many runners posting comments asking for refunds of not only their fees but compensation for their losses and even one who wanted refunds of the merchandise she bought. Apparently, even the running community isn’t immune to selfish behaviors.

So what about the runners? It lightens my heart to see so many of them already jumping into the relief effort by volunteering in the City. As one runner who drove a truck of supplies this morning, Moffat Frazier posted:

“Back from volunteering this morning in the Rockaways…the devastation we saw on the way back left us speechless…I’m doing my part – donated clothes, food, money and time…make sure you get out there and do your part too…”

According to reports, the NYRR will provide guaranteed entry into the 2013 ING NYC Marathon to those who were registered this year. As for registration fees, the NYRR has a no refund policy, but Mary Wittenberg is on record as saying that they will be reevaluating this. Should you get a refund? In my mind, no. Not because you weren’t impaired, but because so was everybody else. That said, I think the NYRR would go a long way to help their badly tarnished reputation by both increasing the amount of money they donate to the recovery, as well as by providing some relief to those who raced. If 40,000 runners registered at $250 per person, that’s $10 million in fees that were collected by the NYRR for this race. Yes, some funds have already been spent, and yes, the NYRR relies on the revenues from the marathon for their annual operations, but I’m guessing something more than $26.2 per person can be either returned or donated to the relief. If it was me, I’d come up with a number and then give the runner the choice.

But for now, as has been throughout the week, communication from the NYRR is almost non existent and yesterday’s NYRR website full of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the marathon, has now been replaced with a homepage that only displays the image at the top of this post. Once again, communication seems to be lacking.

To the thousands of runners who are still in NYC and anxious to run, go for it. The beauty of running is that we lace up our shoes and walk out the door. We don’t need millions of dollars of support to get that amazing feeling. Spend your New York City experience volunteering and then head out for a run and experience New York City as only runners can. Most importantly, let’s get back to what New Yorkers do best. Getting things running again. You can help. I know you will.

An Open Letter to Mary Wittenberg and Mayor Bloomberg – The ING NYC Marathon – It’s Not Enough!

Mayor Bloomberg and Mary, please let me start off by openly stating that I agree with your decision for the marathon to go on, with a few caveats, namely that you can clearly demonstrate to the citizens of NYC and surrounding areas that resources are not being diverted from recovery efforts, and secondly that you go out of your way to respect and aid those who are still suffering. Mary, you know that I am a person with an opinion and ordinarily I insist on basing these opinions in evidence, but in this case, it’s pretty hard to find.  Transparency has never been one of the strengths of the New York Road Runners. So my opinions are based on what public information is there, as well as from the experience I had during the years I spent coaching and running the marathon training programs for the NYRR as well as my experience of living and working in and around New York City.

I’ve read that this year’s marathon is estimated to bring in more than $300 million in new revenues to the city. It will be a catalyst for spurring a return to tourism faster and it will open small businesses sooner. Getting ready for the marathon will also mean the City will work faster and recovery will occur faster. All of these are good things.

Critics have two major points. The first is that theses marathon efforts are taking valuable resources away from the clean-up and the repairs necessary in hard-hit areas such as Staten Island. The Post this morning and subsequent coverage on NBC cited utilities workers from Staten Island as well as hundreds of police officers being diverted up to Manhattan for the marathon preparations while at the same time hundreds of homes and thousands of people are without homes, food, clean water and the streets are being looted.

Address this point head on. Demonstrate to the public and show the evidence that resources are not being diverted.

Their second point is perhaps more damming. How can you hold a celebration of resiliency when police and fire fighters are still pulling dead bodies out of homes in the borough’s you’ll be running through?

The only thing I can say here is that everyone needs to start acting with a whole lot more empathy and sensitivity. It needs to go beyond appearances on The Today Show. Show through your actions that you value citizenship first. I know you are well intended, now let your actions prove this out as you go about putting on the most magnificent running race in the world. Make this a true RACE TO RECOVER.

You’ve pledged $26.2 for each runner running on Sunday or a minimum of $1 million. The Rudin family is committing an additional $1.1 million and ING Foundation another $500,000. This is $2.6 million dollars being pledged to relief efforts. Unfortunately, Mary, it isn’t enough. Start spending the money that has been brought in from runner fees, from sponsorships and even from your charity program. And let your staff know that good citizenship means that we think about the impact of every decision. Before turning the generators on in Central Park, you should have known that it would be seen as a slap in the face to those without power in Staten Island, Westchester, Rockland County and elsewhere. Just because they were private contractors and not city resources doesn’t make it any less offensive, and Richard Finn’s irritated attitude just goes to show you why so many people are upset and feel that the NYRR is out of touch with their community. Before powering those generators up, could you have paid for having an equal number of generators sent down to Staten Island to power up those homes?  What would it have cost you? Another $100K? Big deal. What else could you have done to actually help people now given your unique position in the NYC community? Here are a few ideas and I’m sure you can come up with many better than mine:

  • Put up a bulletin board on your website so runners this weekend can share rooms together, opening up more rooms for those New Yorkers who are in hotels and will get kicked out to honor runners’ reservations
  • Mayor Bloomberg, make a statement that New Yorker’s health and welfare comes first and hotels will not be penalized for helping people who have lost their homes
  • Every registered marathoner that comes into the City and donates their paid room to a displaced resident gets free entry into the 2013 ING NYC Marathon (You can still be cheap and just say guaranteed entry, they’d be just as thrilled)
  • Every registered marathoner who donates more than 6 hours volunteering gets guaranteed entry into the 2013 ING NYC Marathon – you require aspiring marathoners to volunteer at your races, this is the same but a bit more important
  • Set-up buses to take marathoners who want to volunteer to the areas where they can help
  • Make it simple for marathoners to know how they can help, where they can go, what they can do
  • Any money you are spending on the marathon, spend an equal amount NOW to help those in need.
  • Allow marathoners to have their registration fee donated to the relief effort, not $26.2 when you know they paid more than $200 for the right to run in your race. It’s almost embarrassing.
  • Commit the $500 you charge charities for each charity runner and put that to use immediately, not for elite runner appearances but for the citizens of your city

I know my ideas are based on imperfect or out of date information, and please know that I am writing this understanding how difficult of a position you are in. You both have the power to make things better, not just in the aggregate or at some point in the future, but now to individuals who are currently suffering. I do believe that you feel you are, but it isn’t enough. Make it clear to the marathoners coming into NYC that this year’s marathon is NOT ABOUT HOW FAST YOU RUN! It’s about an event with a national audience that can help to speed recovery, lift spirits, help the economy recover more rapidly and most importantly, can actually help those who need help by productively galvanizing the most able-bodied, fit and inspired community in the world – marathon runners!

This year, a ‘PR’ or Personal Record should have nothing to do with your running time, instead it should be measured by the time and effort you commit to helping those who need it.

I’ve read posts where runners coming into the city are being told, “run for those who can’t run”, and while this is well intended, it won’t actually help those in need. Give these runners an opportunity and the tools to help, really help – starting today! You know they will. Mary, you’ve always wanted the New York Road Runners to be the leader in running across the world. Here’s your chance.

A leader has to make tough decisions and this is a tough situation. You may be far better served to forget less about pomp and circumstances and spend more effort figuring out how you can use the power you have to turn your money, influence and close to 40,000 runner citizens loose on the city in a coordinated way to do what they really want to do – Race with Purpose!