As a public relations disaster for the New York City Marathon, Superstorm Sandy may finally blow over Sunday.
“We’ve been hurt and we’ve overcome a lot,” New York Road Runners Club chairman George Hirsch said. “And if we wake up on Monday and we’ve had a glorious marathon, I think we’ll be over it. We’re not quite there yet.”
For decades, the Road Runners Club has accumulated enormous public favor with its annual Running of the Humans through the city’s five boroughs.
The marathon has been one of Gotham’s feel-good spectacles, an event that plays locally and internationally as a love story to New York: giddy runners, cheering crowds, smiling policemen, postcard photos of a shining metropolis.
But when Sandy hit, six days before the scheduled 2012 marathon, and both city and race officials bulled ahead, focusing on the needs of 40,000 runners while so many citizens lost loved ones, homes and basic amenities, the marathon appeared frivolous.
Not until Friday evening before the Sunday race did the Road Runners, in talks with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pull the plug.
“If you step back from it,” race director Mary Wittenberg said, “we feel our marathon, our team, kind of represents New York City. It’s always been, New York City goes on, right? New York City has resilience. That’s the mind-set of distance runners, and certainly our (club) mind-set.”
Both Hirsch and Wittenberg readily acknowledge the mistake not to cancel immediately after Sandy. And by marathon day, their club turned its substantial energy toward distributing water and ponchos and other runners’ aids — in-kind resources from race sponsors worth roughly $1.5 million — to storm victims. Another $1 million was donated to the mayor’s recovery fund, even as the Road Runners were coming up $500,000 short in event-cancellation insurance coverage and ultimately ran a $4-million deficit.
More painful to the organizers was a perception diametrically opposed to the club’s reputation for service.
“I can speak for myself,” Hirsch said, “in saying that sometimes the storm of the century is the storm of the century. But as we were seeing reports come in, and seeing the gas lines and so on, there was this tug that the city could get a lift (from proceeding with the marathon), that the city could be boosted, because that is the history of this marathon.”
In 1976, Hirsch reminded, he and then-director Fred Lebow went to city officials about spreading the marathon — previously run entirely inside Central Park — through the five boroughs, in conjunction with bicentennial celebrations, as a financial stimulus for a city on the verge of bankruptcy. And, in 2001, two months after the 9/11 attacks, the marathon functioned as a signal of New York’s toughness.
Organizers concluded — too late then but maybe not too late for a 2013 comeback — that the marathon similarly would triumph over the gloom and suffering wreaked by Sandy.
“We’re so much about helping and inspiring,” Wittenberg said. “And living with not getting that right is hard.”