This Year’s NYC Marathon Is Immoral: What We Talk About When We Talk About Running

I guess, run around the tanker?
  • Andrew Burton/ Getty Images
  • I guess, run around the tanker?

Staten Island has been devastated. The loss of life in that borough is higher than anywhere else in New York City and the damage to homes and property is practically incomprehensible. Most of Staten Island is still without power, many residents have no access to clean water, and gas shortages have prevented people from even having much freedom of movement. It is a humanitarian disaster that does not even have its parameters firmly established yet. Staten Island—like other parts of New York, like other parts of the region—is still digging out from Hurricane Sandy and needs all of the resources—both in terms of funds and manpower—that are available. That should be the priority, and yet, this Sunday, the priority for this city will be the NYC Marathon.

This Sunday, huge generators will be used to supply power at the starting line in storm-ravaged Staten Island, while tens of thousands of residents there remain powerless. This Sunday, important roads and bridges will be completely shut down to traffic so that the runners can get through. This renders emergency crews helpless to easily access certain areas, including, accessing Staten Island via the Verrazano Bridge. This Sunday, runners will—as they always do—leave trails of debris behind them as they shed clothes and toss aside empty cups. The cleaning crews that are designated to pick up after them would be better served to go to Coney Island or Breezy Point or Gerritsen Beach or the Rockaways or or or…there are countless places in New York City alone that could benefit from the manpower that is assigned to clean up the litter of the runners.

In fact, let’s talk about manpower for a minute. An estimated 40,000 runners will compete in this year’s New York City marathon, an event that necessitates an incredibly high level of physical fitness. Rather than invest the hours that they planned to spend running through a federally declared disaster area, it would be amazing if they would devote that time to volunteering and helping people that need it the most right now. Gawker reported on a Facebook chain mail that suggests to the runners that “half of you should turn around and run toward Hylan Blvd and go to Father Cappadanno or straight to Tottenville and help all those that lost their loved ones, lost their homes, lost everything in Staten Island… The other half should run through Brooklyn to Breezy Point to Long Island and help those that lost their homes and loved ones as well.”

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  1. What an idiotic article. Please, tell me what excludes someone who runs 4+ hours from also volunteering? How are these mutually exclusive activities? How are the charities these runners are representing any less important than the charities that will distribute aid to (specific parts of) the city? Why are you excoriating people who will most likely do a physically gruelling activity and then volunteer, rather than the people in the unaffected parts of the city who are doing nothing and will continue to do nothing? Is someone who does nothing but put out a power strip for passersby to charge their phones morally superior to a marathon runner? Do you honestly think the volunteers, generators, and cleaning crews launched to deal with the marathon will not have any positive effect whatsoever on the areas in which the runners will pass through? Do you really think the city doesn’t have a plan for how it will handle road closures, when it had done this dozens of times before? Next time you write something worthless, at least think it through first.

    I suppose it’s very easy to attack people who have far more motivation than you do to devote to an incredibly demanding physical feat. Surely your smug words about what is, at its core, a charitable event, do more for the people of Staten Island than any volunteer could!

  2. Hmm, I’m registered to run this marathon for charity and I’m having an impossibly hard time deciding whether or not to follow through with it.

    And unlike you, @Charitable Runner, I found this to be the most reasonably-stated argument against running of all the thousands I’ve read since the Mayor declared his intention to push ahead.

  3. @George, how much money did you raise for your charity of choice? Why are you abandoning them now? Are you honestly going to spend that same amount of time volunteering, or are you just going to sit at home reading a hipster magazine and nodding? Out of curiosity.

  4. NOT this year it doesn’t. This year, the marathon takes money, not gives. This year, the marathon drains the already overburdened efforts of emegency workers and a much needed police presence from those worst effected by the storm. This year, thousands of hotel rooms are reserved for people who are going to blithely run through neighborhoods to get to a finish line instead of help those they run past. This year, people in peak physical condition could be running food and water to the needy. They could be helping clear out flooded basements and ruined businesses. Hell, they could just start in Staten Island and look for bodies. They could be donating their entrance fees directing their charitable contributions and doing some good…

  5. @Charitable Runner, I appreciate the fact that many people are running for charitable causes, and in no way do I suggest that there is some hierarchy of charities. As I stated in my article, I would like to think that even if runners didn’t complete the marathon, that the people who donated money to the runners’ individual charities would not rescind their donations in these trying times. Maybe I am mistaken, but I know that every time I have donated to a cause in the name of some competition, I am doing it in the spirit of the event and to support the charity, and I would never take back my donation if the event was canceled due to tragic circumstances.

    I also don’t think that only marathon runners should volunteer. I do think that it would send a very powerful message if marathoners invested that time helping out people in dire need instead of just heedlessly passing through neighborhoods. I think everyone who was fortunate enough to get through this storm unscathed is obligated to help out, and simply because this article is addressing the decision to continue with the marathon, it doesn’t mean that only marathoners are culpable here.

    And while you describe this marathon as being “at its core, a charitable event,” it is also true that it is an event that involves millions of dollars in profit and it is obtuse to pretend that this is not a consideration in continuing the race. And I wonder why, if you think this event will “do more for the people of Staten Island than any volunteer could” so many people from Staten Island and around the city, including many prominent politicians, are vehemently opposed to it being run this Sunday. Perhaps it is because that while the marathon can be postponed, the recovery effort should not be?

    Of course, the world shouldn’t grind to a halt every time something tragic occurs. Resilience is an important part of recovery. However, to blithely ignore the fact that so many people who are suffering are actively opposed to seeing thousands of runners parade through the city as heroes, is absurd and narcissistic. But then again, I guess I’m just a smug writer from a hipster magazine. I don’t think the world will end if the marathon goes on as scheduled. But I do think that it sends a really disappointing message about where many people’s priorities are at this time.

  6. I’ve been cheering the marathon runners since 2003 as they pass through williamsburg.
    this year I will not. people are dead, many are still without water, power, a place to sleep, hospitals and schools are closed, we should focus all our efforts to help the people in need the most right now. race should not be on the top of to do list at this moment.

  7. @Alice Just curious, what leads you to the conclusion that George is a lazy hipster? What clic might YOU hold allegiance to? The jocks?

  8. Too bad the people building tents and clearing roads are the exact same people who are pumping water out of the subway and rebuilding infrastructure. Oh wait, this isn’t the case whatsoever, they’re wholly different sets of people and the marathon isn’t going to interfere with rebuilding or relief in any possible sense. My God, did the writer complain about the Mars rover when we have starving children in our country? Or how about the London Marathon just a year after the riots? A race that pays the salaries of professional runners and the nonprofits that sponsor them isn’t going to make the lights come on later. Hating on the Marathon is the epitome of misplaced anger.

  9. I first learned about Staten Island as the starting line for the Marathon- the race that has done a lot for the city. I agree that hating the marathon is misplaced anger, but a way to offer runners, spectators, and volunteers an opportunity to volunteer with relief efforts would be great. Also, it seems fitting to donate any NYRR profits to the Red Cross.

  10. Oh, I don’t know, @SI Marathoner. The “epitome of misplaced anger” might just be anonymous commenters who feel persecuted and lash out with illogical and irrelevant arguments. Some of these anonymous warriors even comment more than once, under different names!

  11. @cc, do not donate to the Red Cross. They are putting their efforts into very select parts of the city, leaving places like the Rockaways completely without help. I suggest sending money to a more local charity.

  12. @Suzy K – Since you’re not planning on cheering on the runners this Sunday, maybe you should take the author’s advice and volunteer somewhere with your newly found free time.

  13. As a runner who was planning to run on Sunday before the marathon’s recent cancellation (I got word while drafting this) for a charity team, I thought I would weigh in. In experiencing this event over the past week, what Sandy seems to have done is create a situation of serious, geographically-grounded inequality within New York City. Today I observed areas of Manhattan entirely unaffected by the storm—it was business as usual on the Upper West Side—and areas that were unsettlingly changed—Bowling Green was dark, desolate, and full of pumps draining water from subway stations, underground garages, and the like. This is clearly the tip of the iceberg in terms of drastic contrasts, as our fellow New Yorkers in Long Beach, Breezy Point, and Staten Island have lost everything they own, and in some cases their lives. The inequalities in New York’s Sandy experience are geographic, and weather driven; it seems arbitrary and thus unfair that experiences of the storm ranged from unaffected to complete devastation. Why should some be preparing to run a marathon on Sunday while others are scavenging for food and shelter? For me, Sandy’s injustice seemed to echo the social inequalities that exist as part of the city’s day to day life. These are largely rooted in socioeconomics, and are thus less random. They are also less contested.

    I am sympathetic to the argument that holding the marathon—a celebratory event—in the wake of such disaster may be deemed in poor taste. But it really makes me think about where to draw the line. Pre-Sandy, drastic inequalities existed in our city each day, and no one was out protesting the marathon. Social inequalities, such as access to high quality education, health services, and humane living conditions were left hidden behind the walls of public housing, health clinics, or some of the city’s urban schools. These issues may be less visible to the masses on a day-to-day basis than Hurricane Sandy-magnitude destruction, but create a similarly drastic disparity of experience in the city. Events like the marathon have been O.K. in the face of these inequalities—largely because the people they most drastically affect have historically not had a strong political voice.

    I think the recommendation that marathon runners use Sunday to volunteer instead of run the marathon was moronic. Organizing nearly 50,000 runners to carry out useful volunteer service given the time-table was unrealistic (unless, Kristin, you already had that organized—I’ll wait to hear from you on my volunteer assignment?). I also agree with Charitable Runner on the mutually exclusive argument; in no way does spending 3-5 hours on Sunday running mean that runners cannot volunteer in clean-up efforts. Furthermore, it seems as though civilian volunteer opportunities involving manual labor are more limited right now—what is really needed are supplies, and people who possess the skill sets necessary to pump water out of the city and get power grids functioning again. Shelters have been inundated with volunteers, and places such as Long Beach, LI are so devastated that non-residents are not able to legally enter these zones.

    Now that the race has been cancelled due to protesting, I guess all I can hope is for people to reflect on what it takes to make change. Inequalities and injustices that are most visible, and affect those with a political voice produce the greatest response—immediate change. Those that remain more hidden, but are deeply ingrained in our city, often go unchallenged. Would holding the marathon have decreased aid given to those in need post-Sandy? No. Would it have angered many of those whose lives Sandy devastated? Probably. Why? Because it would seem as though the city was ignoring their needs. But do marathon by-standers each year feel as though it’s problematic to hold the marathon in the face of the day-to-day social inequalities of the city? No.

    This year’s marathon was clearly divisive, as will be its cancellation. Marathon protestors have gotten their symbolic victory, at the expense of concrete loss for the tens of thousands of runners like myself. People who committed their lives for the past five months to running for a cause in which they believe—for making change. The activism and demand for change many New Yorkers have displayed in opposing this year’s marathon is encouraging and inspirational from a social change standpoint, but it seems displaced to punish those of us who have committed so much to the race. I can only hope that the race’s cancellation will encourage New Yorkers to become more cognizant of the inequalities around them that lie beyond Sandy’s aftermath, and know that a strong voice can produce real change.

  14. Amen to @Teacherlovesrunning. People are dying and homeless all over the city every day while rich a-holes parade around the city with clothing and jewelry worth more than what most people make in a year. Why don’t you write about that rather than glamorizing every step Gwyneth Paltrow takes in Brooklyn?

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