Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Race Like No Other

The 2007 New York Marathon changed me in two unexpected ways - it made me remember why running is a great sport and it caused me to have affection for a city that, being a proud midwesterner, I had been raised to hate. Let me make one thing clear - there are still a lot of things I don't like about New York.  I don't like the Yankees.  I don't like that people call it "The City".  I don't like how many people who live there don't think that anything else worthwhile happens in the US.  

However, it's impossible to run the New York Marathon and not come away feeling privileged to run its streets.  The crowds are even bigger and better than Boston.  The incredible diversity of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the vistas of the city from the bridges, the goose-bump producing roar of the crowd on 1st Avenue and the unmatched conclusion of the race in Central Park.  Liz Robbins 2008 book title says it all - it truly is "A Race Like No Other."

Robbins' book is organized by telling the story of the same race I ran back in 2007.  She does a great job of weaving stories of the top runners in the race, the middle packers (many time have truly inspirational reasons for running the race), the people of the community who have embraced the race, and the history of the race.  The book makes clear that the race owes so much of what makes it great to one man, Fred Lebow.

There are several stories about Lebow's incredible energy and determination to make his marathon the best in the world.  That New York would host a great marathon seems obvious today.  But it took years of Lebow's persistent pressure on Mayor Ed Koch and other politicians and leaders in the city in order for the marathon we have today to come to fruition.  Despite early concerns from community leaders about how the marathon would disturb their neighborhoods - Lebow convinced them to have pride and ownership in the race.  People who had never run a step in their lives eventually became some of the marathon's greatest supporters.

I have a lot of memories from that day in 2007 - but I think my favorite was running along 1st Avenue near mile 16.  The people are 6-8 deep for at least a mile and their cheers bounce off the buildings to create the loudest noise I've ever heard at any running event in my life.  It's the closest a distance runner can come to know what it feels like to score a touchdown in a full stadium of people. 

Marathons are completely unique in sports because our venue is the city.  As runners we need to remember that what makes our sport unique includes a lot of planning and resources beyond what are needed for other sporting events.  Even though they are much more popular sports - a game at Madison Square Garden or The Meadowlands has nowhere near the same impact on New York that the marathon does.   

Believe me - I know the pain of having months of training ruined by something completely outside of your control.  But the cancellation of this year's race isn't just about this year - it's about making sure that the incredible work of Fred Lebow isn't ruined.  It's obvious that the people of New York didn't want the marathon this year.  As runners we might think that the race would have been a great way for New York to recover from the storm, but that's a determination for them to make - not us.

There are many great arguments for why marathons and other races are good for cities - and in any other circumstances I would be right along side voicing my full throated support.  But I imagined myself on race morning - I imagined being dropped off by a bus and walking almost a mile through the neighborhood on Staten Island near the start of the race at Fort Wadsworth.  I thought about the fact that many of the people in that neighborhood would be awakened by the hum of generators at Fort Wadsworth while they hadn't had power or maybe even a warm meal in almost a week.  I thought about how angry I would be if I lived in that neighborhood - and how any good feelings I had about the marathon would be completely erased.  Running is a great sport - but our greatest events depend upon the support and commitment of many people who couldn't care less about the sport other than the one day a year it comes through their neighborhood.  Make them angry and what makes this race great would have been ruined for at least a decade if not forever.  It simply wasn't worth it.

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