A different kind of marathon will take place on hard-hit Staten Island on Sunday, with runners carrying backpacks filled with things like baby wipes and energy bars to those in need.
They’ll be wearing orange, just like they would have if the New York City Marathon was held as scheduled. But there will be no bands playing on the corner as they go by, no one handing them cups of water as they make their way.
And no one will be setting a personal best.
Just a bunch of runners trying to do some good and beat a bad rap pinned on them by greedy race organizers and a mayor who seemed oblivious to the end.
“We initially were bummed, but also saddened by the perception that runners were indifferent to the needs of other people,” said Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine doctor in New York. “We wanted to turn a negative to a positive.”
If only Mayor Michael Bloomberg had been nearly as enlightened. Might have saved himself some political capital, and thousands of would-be runners the expense of coming to New York for a marathon he kept insisting would go forward.
The idea that a marathon could somehow lift the spirits of a city following Superstorm Sandy was a stretch to begin with. There are things that sports simply can’t heal, no matter how appealing it seemed to have New York recover on the legs of thousands of runners.
The mayor stubbornly spun it like this was two months after 9/11, when the marathon went ahead in tribute to the victims. Rudy Giuliani was in charge then, and won widespread praise for his efforts to get the city back to normal as soon as possible.
But this was only a few days after Staten Island and other parts of the New York area were hit with a furious storm that caused widespread devastation. It wasn’t until Friday that the first real aid arrived on Staten Island, and on Saturday lines for gas stretched more than two miles.
The mayor wanted to run when the city was still struggling to walk.
Nowhere was that more evident than at the marathon starting point in Staten Island, where 19 people are dead because of Sandy, including two young boys who were swept from the arms of their mother by the waters. To host the citywide party that is the marathon there just days after the storm devastated the island was simply unthinkable.
Tough enough to justify hosting an NFL game at the Meadowlands when gas is in short supply, public transportation is still spotty and more than 1 million people in New Jersey are still without power. Impossible to justify using scarce city resources to help more than 40,000 runners make their way 26.2 miles through the city’s five boroughs as residents struggle to with the most basic services.
Up through the end of the business day Friday, though, Bloomberg was trying to do just that. The marathon would be good for business and good for morale, the mayor insisted, a sign to the nation that nothing can keep New York down.
It wasn’t until outrage over his decision to forge ahead spread via social media and the city’s employee unions started to rebel that Bloomberg abruptly reversed course and called it off.
Amazingly enough, he seemed as clueless on Saturday about the public reaction as he was all week long.
“I’m sorry. I fought the battle,” he told WCBS-TV, when asked what he would say to runners who came to New York. “And sometimes things don’t work out.”
The runners will get over it, no matter how much they were griping about being lured to New York on false promises. About the worst that will happen to them is they’ll be out a few thousand dollars for travel expenses and they’ll have to wait another year to regale friends back home with stories of their triumphant runs through New York streets.
The hotels and stores that might be out a few bucks because of the cancellation will survive, too. The New York tourism market is still quite strong, and will rebound quickly.
The residents of flooded and wind-battered areas won’t have it quite so easy. They have to rebuild homes and, in some cases, rebuild lives torn apart by a storm that showed little mercy.
Those are the people New York Runners in Support of Staten Island will be looking for Sunday as they run with backpacks stuffed with emergency supplies and gift cards to hand out. Their mission is to help, but they also want to show that those signed up for the marathon aren’t all selfish runners preoccupied with themselves or the times they set.
They seem to understand what continues to elude the mayor – that even if the city could find a way to host the marathon without diverting critical resources you can’t parade through the streets at a time when people are burying loved ones and others are just beginning to crawl out from beneath the wreckage caused by the storm.
New York will have another marathon, so it’s not like all is lost.
We can only hope it won’t have another storm like Sandy.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg