Marathons involve lots of suffering. Sarah Ferris knows this. When she ran her first one last year, the pain in her legs toward the end of the 26.2-mile race was excruciating.
But there’s the physical pain of a marathon, and then there’s the emotional pain of losing a house or a business or a loved one. There’s just no comparison.
That perspective prompted Ferris, a Concord homemaker, to give up on her childhood dream of running the New York City Marathon. The race – scheduled for Sunday – is one of the world’s largest participatory sporting events, a massive undertaking that has ignited a firestorm of criticism by moving forward after the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.
Ferris is among hundreds of North Carolina runners – and nearly 50,000 others from around the world – who have spent the past few months training, only to find themselves scrambling to adjust travel plans, stressing out over uncertainty about the city’s readiness so soon after such a disaster, and in some cases pondering a larger question: Is it even appropriate to run the race this year?
“I don’t have anything against the people putting on the race. I don’t have anything against anybody running the race. Whatever they want to do is their own business,” said Ferris, 34, who grew up in Rumson, N.J., a seaside town 50 miles from Manhattan that was hammered by the storm. “I just feel like … if it takes 8,000 volunteers to put on, why can’t we have the 8,000 volunteers do something else right now that New York really does need?”
“I’m just not into it. My head’s not there.”
At least 37 New York City residents were killed by the storm. More than 600,000 in the metropolitan area were still without power Thursday. Thousands were without water. The estimated damage is in the billions.
Since organizers announced plans to go on with the show Wednesday, they have been showered with a chorus of boos. Politicians including Staten Island borough president James Molinaro blasted the decision as “crazy, asinine”; an opinion piece on the New York Times’ website Thursday mocked Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support of the race.
Emily Hansen, 33, of Charlotte, was among the dissenters – on Wednesday she canceled her plans to run the marathon.
“I think it just is maybe sending the wrong message, or it’s gonna rub somebody the wrong way,” said Hansen, a research assistant at Centacs. “I didn’t want to be a part of ‘that.’ Like, ‘Oh, you guys are suffering? Well, I’m gonna come run a marathon.’ ”
Marathon as a symbol
In any other year, calling off the New York City Marathon – a fall staple since 1970 – would make about as much sense as letting the Knicks move to Poughkeepsie. The competition was expected to host runners from all 50 states and 135 countries, and generates nearly $350 million for the city’s economy, according to Bloomberg.
The event also has been a symbol of hope and normalcy in trying times, as in 2001, when the race was held two months after the 9/11 attacks.
“There’s an awful lot of small businesses that depend on these people,” Bloomberg said at a news briefing. “It’s a great event for New York, and I think for those who were lost, you’ve got to believe they would want us to have an economy and have a city go on for those that they left behind.”
Charlotte-area runners who do make the trip may have their endurance tested before they even get to the starting line on Staten Island.
The three major airports – Kennedy International, La Guardia and Newark Liberty – were struggling to get back up to speed Thursday. Flooded tunnels may keep portions of the subway network closed for days. The Staten Island Ferry, which usually gets 20,000-25,000 runners to the start, is not an option.
“I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m kind of taking it one thing at a time,” said Charlotte attorney Marc Gustafson, 38, a two-time marathoner. He is scheduled to fly out of Charlotte at 6:30 p.m. Friday. “If the flight gets canceled or moved, then I’ll go to Plan B. If the hotel doesn’t have power (he is booked at the Millennium Hilton in ravaged lower Manhattan), then I’ll go to Plan C. …
“I think (if) it taxes infrastructure and transportation, then it’s a bad idea. But if it can go on and not affect other resources, then I don’t necessarily see a problem with it.”
Runners who can’t get there or who choose not to participate will automatically be extended an invitation to next year’s race, which is a big deal since it’s traditionally difficult to land a spot. However, they will not be issued refunds, and if they take the guaranteed entry in 2013, they’ll have to pay the $250 entry fee.
(New York Road Runners President Mary Wittenberg expects the field will be smaller than the 47,500 who ran last year because some entrants can’t make it, but said organizers hadn’t received more cancellations than normal.)
“I’m gonna go either way,” said Cindy Wallace, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who plans to run the marathon for the second time in four years. “I’ve paid for the flight. I’m not gonna turn around and just not go. … If the city needs help, I’m willing to put in a helping hand.”
The Associated Press contributed.