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New York divided over decision to cancel marathon in wake of Sandy

NEW YORK -- Even on its best day, New York is two cities.

The Algonquin Hotel in Midtown famously serves the $10,000 Martini on The Rock -- the "rock" being a diamond that takes the place of the conventional olive. Within reasonable jogging distance are New York families that live on less than that in a year. But the divide between the afflicted and the comfortable is rarely as confrontational as it was in New York City this week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, with images of marathon prep -- the gleaming white tents in Central Park -- set beside images of drowned Staten Island neighborhoods that looked like bombed out war zones. The images just didn't stop coming -- the cover of the New York Post on Friday showed generators that the marathon was using that the paper suggested could be powering homes -- and by Friday, when the marathon was canceled, the city was psychically divided as well.

With no good transportation from my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I ran the seven miles to work Friday, stopping to talk to NYPD officers every few miles. The first officer I spoke with was managing a cross section in lower Manhattan where the traffic lights were out. One of her friends had nearly drowned when the bus he was riding in Queens flooded during the hurricane.

"Why don't they just postpone it a week?" she asked. Her off day was Sunday -- marathon day -- and she expected to be enlisted for work. "I just hope I'm not working the marathon," she said. Why? "I'd be fine working [on my off day] if it was helping families in Staten Island, but for a sports event? This is our Katrina."

Two miles later, another officer was less offended. The marathon wouldn't take first responders away from relief duty, he said, but would only force more overtime, and the police presence at the marathon is paid for by the New York Road Runners.

Marathon runners were of two minds as well.

Chris Dunst, 36, director of online learning at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, had entered the lottery for a spot in the marathon the previous three years, and missed out every time. This year, he had an entry but decided not to use it, even before the race was canceled. "I was working in Midtown [for CBS] on 9/11," Dunst says, "and I can say that 9/11 was not Hurricane Sandy. 9/11 was contained on the Lower West Side. Sandy impacted a much larger area."

Dunst had no idea how he would navigate his family around the city, given all the transit impairments, and felt that no police officers should be working a marathon when they could be doing hurricane relief. But "the nail in the coffin," he says, "was when my friend called from Jersey and was like, 'We have no power, no water, and there's no food at the grocery store. We tried to stay at a hotel, no luck.' If I had gone, I would've had to stay in a hotel and take up a room. It's not worth it. It's a race."

Even those who planned to run had mixed feelings.

Brad Benson, 30, a digital advertising professional who lives in Brooklyn, planned to run for the prostate cancer foundation ZERO. Benson expected the race at least to be postponed, but planned to run if the race went on. "I'm probably going to be a mess at the end of it, just knowing what the city has gone through," he said, before learning of the cancellation. "I feel I kind of take on that role as a cheerleader for the city."

Some of the pro runners were hoping to be cheerleaders for the city as well; hoping to be part of one of those rare moments where history and competition converge to make a race more than a race, as was the case for the New York City Marathon after 9/11, when firefighters ran in full gear, to the ecstatic cheers of New Yorkers.

In the lobby of the Midtown hotel where the professional athletes stay -- in the minutes after the cancellation news spread like brush fire -- a rare mix of awe, disappointment, and understanding was on display.

Abdi Abdirahman, a Somalia-born American and four time U.S. Olympian, was planning to donate $10 per mile he ran to Sandy relief, and to ask everyone he knew to do the same, and also to ask his corporate sponsors to contribute. "Now I can't do that," he said. "I understand the cancellation, and at the same time I don't understand the cancellation. I think this would have brought some excitement and a little bit of normalcy to the city. You have to start to return to normal at some point." Added Abdirahman, "my prayers and thoughts are with the people of New York. I'll be back in 2013."

In the same lobby, Kurt Fearnley, an Australian athlete who has won the wheelchair division of the New York City Marathon four times, was headed for a beer, now that the race was off. "Of course I understand the decision," he said. "In the scheme of disappointment in New York, I think we're at the end of a very long list right now."

If anything, Fearnley seemed disappointed for the recreational runners who would miss their chance to participate. "I've done this race for eight years, and fell in love with New York because of this race ... this is the one race in the world where 50,000 people think they're unique because the [New York Road Runners] treat the athletes so well."

Just about seven hours before the cancellation news, Kenny Moore, a former Olympic marathon runner and ex-Sports Illustrated writer, was being honored by the New York Road Runners for his life of writing about running. In his acceptance speech, Moore likened Friday's situation to his experience at the 1972 Munich Olympics. "After the terror attack, after we lost the Israeli athletes, Frank Shorter and Jack Bacheler and I had to find some way to assert by our performances that we were not going to be defeated by that terror ... we went through three or four stages of grief ... and Frank said, 'This is as scared as I've ever been,' and he channeled that grief and won that race."

"All I can leave you with," Moore added, "is my certain knowledge that to run the New York marathon this year is to channel our grief and to channel our grief 40,000 times over."

Many of the criticisms leveled at the New York Road Runners -- when the race was still on -- had little substance. Was NYRR only concerned about the bottom line in continuing? Not really, because the non-refundable race fees are already paid, and the race is insured anyway. Interviews with eight people involved in putting on the marathon -- all of whom asked not to be named -- testify to the fact that the race organizers truly felt that the marathon was going to be part of the city's psychological healing. That this race, which has at its core the ability of the everyman and woman to do something great in sports, would somehow become a symbol of excess, came as a surprise to many of the people who help to make the race work, particularly after NYRR canceled the normal pre-race festivities and donated $1 million to hurricane relief. But, by Friday, as New York City deputy mayor Howard Wolfson put it, the marathon was no longer the marathon, because "it wasn't the marathon if it wasn't a unifying event." Many runners suggested that the marathon simply be postponed, but that was never a possibility.

Much of the city -- and all of Central Park -- stops for a few hours every year for the marathon. It's not like a dinner date that can be kicked down the road. Nor like a Nets game -- the first home game in the new Barclays Center was postponed when the area became a transit hub for busses after Sandy hit -- which can be rescheduled for a time when people can actually fill the seats. (The Giants and Knicks games, which will go on as scheduled, never riled the public the way the marathon did, given that those small-footprint events hardly change the city for a day, nor require a visible police presence.) For the marathon, it was always on, or off, with no possibility of postponement. Even aside from the logistical hurdles of rescheduling such an event, the thousands of international runners couldn't simply push back a week.

Niklas Rudfell, a photographer from Sweden who arrived Thursday for the marathon, said he had to schedule his trip 18 months in advance, given the limited travel and hotel packages offered through Swedish agencies. Rudfell said he almost expected the race to be canceled, given the images he saw on the news in Sweden. But he figured that Mayor Bloomberg had the most information, and would make the appropriate decision. As Friday wore on, Rudfell said, "from the news, it's quite a negative feeling."

And that's never what it was supposed to be. Ultimately, public sentiment did not align with Kenny Moore's vision of this marathon as a symbol of a city rising from its knees. This time, there were simply no terrorists to stand up to.

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