NYC Marathon: everyone loses

What a mess – and I’m only peripherally talking about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I am, of course, referring to the decision to cancel the ING New York City Marathon a day-and-a-half before the race.

Calling the marathon a “source of controversy and division,” the City of New York and the host club, The New York Road Runners decided to shut the race down.

It’s a poor decision, but not surprising given all the missteps in the way the city and the Road Runners handled the situation.

Under CEO Mary Wittenberg’s leadership, the Road Runners have flourished. The marathon has seen a 30 per cent jump in the size of its field since Wittenberg took over as CEO in 2005. Road Runner staff has grown from 60 to 150 and revenue has doubled to the point where the club now takes in $60-million annually, according to the New York Times. Much of that revenue has come from increasing the race fees as well.

In a large profile of Wittenberg in the Times (http://nyti.ms/QBquSv) in mid-October 2012, the newspaper reported she’s also drawn a lot of animosity from former club members with her move. One ex-board member called the club “way too corporate.”

But this latest move may cost Wittenberg her job. The decision to shut down the race, at a time when 40,000 of the 47,000 registered runners had arrived for the marathon, is a debacle. How would shutting down the marathon at that point assist anyone? All it did is add to the confusion and tension already in play.

If the marathon was going to pull out, then it should have done so immediately after Sandy. Instead, it decided to move ahead, saying it was dedicating the race to the City of New York, victims of Hurricane Sandy and their families.

A couple of things could have gone a long way to deflecting criticism of the marathon. First off, the Road Runners offered a $1-million donation to the hurricane relief fund. Given the optics of the race size and so forth, that was far too little. The marathon should have stepped up and  offered a sum closer to, say, $20-million. That would have gone a long way to pacifying people and would have prevented what will now be a massive two-year hit on the Road Runner’s budget because of the marathon cancellation.

Secondly, and this suggestion came via Sub-three reader Augustine van der Baaren, the race could have taken place as five loops through Central Park, where it has been run in the past and also, more recently, as the course for the 2012 Olympic Trails. Such a closed circuit would have dramatically cut down on the resources needed to run the marathon and would have helped deflect much of the criticism leveled at the run.

As it is, the next question may well be whether the marathon finds itself searching for a new sponsor. Businessweek  (http://buswk.co/SxPIlA) reports that title sponsor ING has taken a lot of flack over the decision to move ahead with the marathon. The tarnished reputation may cause the bank to reconsider its association with the event.

One other disturbing thing to come out of all this is backlash against runners that the media seemed more than happy to fuel.

“They should make all of these runners bring food and water to people’s houses who need it,” Yelena Gomelsky, a Coney Island resident, told the New York Post.

In Forbes online, the magazine ran a comment piece headlined that “Going forward with the NYC Marathon would have been moral affront.” The same piece discussed how 10 days after the Sept. 11 attacks a game-winning home run at Shea Stadium served to bring optimism to the city.

And the writers go on to pen: “Maybe a case can still be made for playing football.”

Just not runners.

I’ve seen a lot of persuasive pieces arguing for the cancellation of the race; but I believe a more substantial donation and a better contained race might have mitigated the lasting resentment that’s bound to come from the marathon’s on-again, off-again waffling.

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About subthree

A multiple award-winning journalist, I'm currently a contributing editor with both Canadian Running and Canadian Cycling magazines. My articles have appeared in Explore, Canadian Geographic, enRoute, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, and many other magazines and newspapers. Formerly a competitive cross-country mountain biker, I switched to running in 2006. I've run seven marathons, qualifying for Boston five times (and which I've run once). Generally, I've placed or won in my age group in races, in distances ranging from five and 10 kms to half and full marathons. I've also taught spin classes at a number of leading Eastern Canadian gyms. Sub-three was a 2012 #Runchat finalist for Best Overall Blog.
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22 Responses to NYC Marathon: everyone loses

  1. Mitch says:

    I feel that if they didn’t cancel the marathon I would be reading an article on how bad the organization is for not cancelling. They had a catch 22 it’s sad that anything is taking away the focus on the people who need our help.

    • subthree says:

      A tough call either way, I agree. But I do believe they could have made a real contribution to the hurricane relief and still had the run, albeit in a modified form, and it would have been much less divisive overall. This just leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Thanks for reading.

  2. kgrace7 says:

    I agree, Charles. My brother lives in NYC and I’ve been beside myself worrying. At the same time, the backlash against runners amounts to an unfortunate amount of misplaced frustration and anger. There is a huge amount of destruction, and the aftermath is going to be an obstacle that needs to be surmounted together, by the city as a whole. At a time when a unified front is most important, it’s unfortunate to see people unlikely to have flown across the world during the 2011 Tsunami or Katrina to help out, let alone to have trained for a marathon, chiming in from their homes in Texas about how selfish runners are, behesting them to get out and volunteer rather than thinking solely of themselves. I’m only a student unlikely to see a return on the $281 registration fee; other runners were training for one race as a means of providing for themselves and their families, and flew from across the world with reliance on NYRR assurances to have it cancelled two days prior. This is inexcusable from any organizational perspective. Here’s hoping the city can learn from this and turn a difficult situation into a better one for runners and NYC residents alike. I’ll reserve judgment until then.

    • subthree says:

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I think the Road Runners’ CEO is going to be in a tough spot after this, for sure. Generally, it seems like a tremendous waste of everyone’s time and patience. The running backlash bothers me, for sure, too.

  3. tlsylvan says:

    I’ve read so much about why the marathon should be canceled, but you bring up a great point. I agree with you that a much larger donation would have made a bigger impact, and holding the race in Central Park would have made the best of the situation. Thanks for different perspective!

  4. Yet there was no backlash about the New York Knicks playing a home NBA basketball game in Madison Square Garden last night! By the same reasoning about the Marathon resources should go to the victims of Sandy (whom my heart sincerely goes out for) couldn’t all the concessions sold and workers at the Garden benefited the citizens in need also? Yet while runners are somehow blamed for being selfish, it is not surprise that many, many have donated their hotel rooms to help dislocated families! In closing, SubThree, thanks for your insightful — and brave — essay post!

    • subthree says:

      Thank you for this. I didn’t realize the Knicks played last night. But there you go: organized sports with teams seems okay, but the weird runners in spandex somehow crossed the line. Seriously, I understand 47,000 people converging on the city at this time is a strain, but it could have been handled better. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

  5. Wonderful perspective on a tough situation. A compromise or earlier cancellation truly would have made more sense. It is sad that the Marathon as an event will suffer in the future because of the poor judgement of the organizers.

    • subthree says:

      It is a tough situation made tougher by destructive bickering rather than constructive thinking. It will be interesting to see what the fall-out is for the marathon from all this. Thanks for taking the time to read.

  6. Al DiMicco says:

    Good post, and I agree that a decision immediately would have been the right decision. Although there was of course no 100% correct decision, I think between a “go” and a “no-go”, I think the latter was correct on several levels. I feel for all the runners who endured many personal hardships to get to NY because they were told the race was on, and then have the rug pulled from under them, but it would have been morally wrong to have a “runner’s celebration” through the 5 boroughs only blocks from where people lost their lives and possessions. I don’t think comparing it to 9/11 is an apples-to-apples comparison. We, as a country, needed normalcy, plus the Marine Corps Marathon and New York were 6 and 8 weeks respectively later. 9/11 was very small in the area affected, but affected the world in emotion. This tragedy affected all the resources for security and transportation for tens and tens of thousands of runners. volunteers, police, families, and all connected in any way with the race. A nightmare of logistics to be sure. I don’t really see how you could have 4 loop race in Central Park for 45,000 runners + spectators. The Olympic Trials were less than 200 runners. As far as Mary Wittenberg goes, I never felt she was 100% behind the original decision to proceed, but instead was following the lead of the Mayor. I wouldn’t crucify her. This was definitely a worst-case scenario for ALL involved. I appreciate your excellent views on this difficult situation, but I think, despite the unfortunate handling, we have to remind ourselves that in the end we’re talking about running a race vs. a terrible tragedy which has literally torn the guts out of so many lives. There will be a lot of revisiting the decisions once the dust has settled. Until then, let’s pray for all involved.

    • subthree says:

      Al, thank you. A very thoughtful response. I still believe a $20-million donation would have helped immensely – especially if they’d requisitioned, say, half that amount for relief immediately. If the political will is there, it can be done. Good point on the park loops, but they nonetheless could have modified the course and, this is something else that bothers me the more I think about the whole thing, is the inability of the Road Runners to respond quickly and in a nimble manner to the entire event. An organization with $60 million in revenue and 150 employees should be able to shift quickly to respond to unforeseen circumstances. This didn’t happen here; everything was reactive. I believe that shows some real weakness within the organization. All that said, you make some excellent points,and I really appreciate that you took the time respond and rebut my opinion so thoroughly. Thanks again.

  7. Great post! It’ll certainly be interesting to see what happens from a sponsor perspective and within the ranks of NYRR itself. I personally thought it was a joke when it was cancelled, by Friday night most runners are already in town or on their way for the race. It definitely could have been handled much better, especially considering there was plenty of warning to everyone about Sandy and it’s potential effects. One would think they’d have plan A,B, C and D which they clearly did not. Quite honestly, I just feel terrible for the city and the negative feedback they’ve been getting on an event that is normally a celebration. More so, I feel bad for many runners who trained for months, through injuries and the like to have to defer to next year. It’s just a horrible situation all around.

    • subthree says:

      I have to agree with you. I have a friend who was making this a return to the marathon distance after several years of not doing it, trained through uncertainty, became confidant about doing the run and then…anti-climax. I’m sure there are lots of stories like that. On the other hand, I recognize the frustration many people had over “the parade” happening while they struggle to pull their lives together. I just feel it wasn’t handled all that well all the way around. Thanks for reading.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The reports in the UK media make it look like the Mayor cancelled the event. If that is the case the City of New York will have to have done a deal with NYRR to cover their losses or if the Mayor hasn’t then NYC will be sued for the losses incurred by NYRR.
    Sorting out the losses is going to take some time. Obviously all lot of costs will have been incurrred by NYRR already, but runners who had to travel can argue that they should have been told earlier and could seek compensation for the wasted time and costs.
    If they can re-schedule for two to three weeks time and afford to pay people their lost travel and accomodation costs, NYRR may be able to avoid a class action. If not then the company should join the list of NY businesses that tragically will go down as a result of this natural disaster.

    BTW a $20m donation from a company turning over $65m need a very friendly bank.

    • subthree says:

      Reports do say that Mayor Bloomberg cancelled the race; however, the CEO of the Road Runners wouldn’t have been in the dark about this at any point in time. She stood beside him at the news conference and she could have had the political will to argue in favour of the race. Yes, runners could and undoubtedly some class action lawyers somewhere will encourage the filing of suits. Whether or not they’ll actually gain anything from that is a moot point. I’d argue the lawyers are the most likely winners in such a scenario. Runners would probably receive pennies on the dollar and very little satisfaction to boot. In terms of whether or not the Road Runners need a “friendly bank” for a $20-million donation would depend on how they allocate the money in the first place. It would be a small price to pay compared to what they’re going to go through now – which was partially my point.

  9. Pingback: » New York Marathon cancelled. Darragh Murray

  10. Dawn says:

    Kara Goucher posted a photo on Twitter showing runners, who had shown up for the marathon, volunteering to help with relief efforts instead. Good on those people. If I were in the same situation, I hope I could show that kind of class.

  11. This is a really solid POV offering smart, practical alternatives. But when you really get to the heart of what our city is facing, I firmly believe canceling the race was the right move. It was just days too late and shows very poor judgement on behalf of not just city officials, but Mary Wittenberg and the NYRRC. The initial decision by the Mayor was to grant permission for the race to happen. At that point Wittenberg could have made the decision to cancel the race and dedicated help and resources to the relief effort. Instead she got dolled up and sat on the couch at the Today Show defending her decision while people were living with no heat, water or basic necessities. The fact that they made a last-minute decision to cancel proves the first decision was wrong. And yes, I was registered to run. But I’m also a New Yorker and my heart is breaking for the people who lost so much.

    Yesterday 1,300 runners gathered at the Staten Island Ferry and we ran with 20+ pound backpacks all the way to the furthest of the hard-hit areas and instead of spending the day celebrating our training and personal motivations for racing through all five boroughs, we spent the day in the borough that needed us most. Shoveling up debris, ribbing down drywall, moving soaked furniture and delivering food to tired, sad, destroyed people. After seeing it firsthand, I firmly believe that running the race would have been wrong. I think because the race is so public, and out in all five boroughs, makes it different from an NBA game that’s happening indoors. It wasn’t about sports, it was about the venue of our particular sporting event. The race will still be there next year, and unfortunately some of the devastation will be as well. It will take years for these people to start again.

    • subthree says:

      You are all role models for the running community and the community-at-large, proof that the on-again, off-again marathon need not have been controversial and divisive. Reading your post, I find it hard not to agree, if the race had been cancelled in time, people could have made up their own minds. Maybe many would have stayed home; perhaps others still would have come regardless and helped out. Someone yesterday said the Road Runners should have changed this year’s event to a 10 km race. The runners would have at least gotten a run in, felt like they’d participated in an event, and then could have gone on to volunteer if they’d wished. Certainly the Road Runners are going to have to take a hard look at how they handled this and what they’ll do going ahead. Thank you for your comment and for reading.

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