Sunday, November 4, 2012

Timing is everything

The New York City Marathon was supposed to be run this morning. At this very moment, thousands of runners were scheduled to make their way through the storm-ravaged streets of NYC. But they aren't. Late Friday evening, the organizers of the event announced that the race would be canceled. Was it the right decision?

That depends, it seems, on who you ask. After Sandy struck last Monday, flooding the lower parts of the city and plunging millions into darkness, to say that a marathon in six days sounded unrealistic was like saying the Sistine Chapel is just a church. After all, organizing events like this, especially a road race through America's biggest metropolis, takes time, planning, and coordination between many different entities and agencies - including emergency responders who worked just a bit of overtime this week.

But marathon organizers and the mayor all agreed to move on as planned with the race, saying that it was good for the city's economy. Mayor Bloomberg talked about the importance of showing resiliency by refusing to cancel the race. The public outcry was overwhelmingly in favor of cancellation, saying that any resources directed to the marathon could be better used to help suffering NYC residents.

Friday evening, after three days of defending his decision, Mayor Bloomberg canceled the race.

His timing was - interesting, to say the least. Getting ready to run a marathon takes months, if not years, of preparation. It's not just being able to run 26.2 miles, either, which is no small feat in itself. The qualifying time for guaranteed entry for NYC in 2013 is 2:45 for men 18-39, which means running those 26.2 miles at 6:02 per mile, and 3:10 for women 18-39 (6:52 pace). This isn't your Thanksgiving Day turkey trot. Many, if not most, American adults will never run even one mile that fast. These runners have dedicated a significant portion of their lives to the sport, training like any other athlete. To them, this race was a big deal. Many plan their year around a particular race like this, training for several months to "peak" right on race day so they can run their best time. Traveling thousands of miles for a race like this isn't out of the question, and the entry fee is $255, even higher for international runners. Mayor Bloomberg's decision to cancel the marathon less than 48 hours before the starting guns were to fire meant that many runners had already arrived in the city, wasting thousands of dollars as a result.

Any inconvenience to the race participants, however, pales in comparison to that of the beleaguered residents of the city itself. Nearly a week after the storm hit, millions are still shivering in darkened homes - those who still have homes, that is. The death toll continues to rise as the floodwaters recede. A canceled marathon seems a minor inconvenience in comparison.

The problem is PR. After arguing that the marathon should go on for most of the week, Mayor Bloomberg seemed impractical at best, if not completely insensitive. Friday evening, he seemed still more impractical and insensitive, as thousands of runners descended on the city, expressing outright frustration and anger at finding the race canceled on their arrival. Timing is everything in this type of situation, and what would have been a swan dive just a day earlier became a belly flop by Friday evening.

So was canceling the NYC Marathon the right decision? Absolutely. Every available resource should be directed to those affected by the storm, especially those who still lack shelter, water, food, and power. But even the right decision can look regrettable when the timing is off. By waiting so long to cancel the race, the mayor missed his chance to take control of the situation, in the eyes of storm victims and race entrants alike. His arguments that the race was a economic necessity for the city showed blatant disregard for the suffering of his constituents.

The record books will show that the 2012 New York City Marathon was canceled, but the cancellation itself will go down in history as a major political blunder. Decision making in the face of crisis is a critical skill when it comes to politics. It includes not only making the right decision, but having the confidence to make the right decision at the right time. Mayor Bloomberg's actions regarding the marathon this week made it painfully clear that he still has some work to do in this area. When it comes to racing, it seems timing is everything - whether you're running the race or canceling it.


  1. I loved that this explained both sides so well. I work for a NYC hotel and understand how important this weekend is or business. On the other hand I live in the hardest hit borough so I do feel having the race so soon when we needs cops for more important things is crazy. In the end of course some people were going to be disappointed but they should have cancelled it earlier so at least people would have the options of canceling their hotel and flights etc.

    1. Thank you, Sara! I definitely agree that devoting resources to a race is unfair and disrespectful at a time like this. It was unfair and disrespectful on Tuesday just as much as Friday, though - it's too bad it took so long for the mayor to figure that out! Thanks for reading!