I had planned to run the New York City marathon Sunday afternoon. I'd looked forward to riding the bus to the start with my dear friend Alison Boyd Gelles, and running the race with my wonderful sister, Kafi (with Ali running six and seven minute splits, there was no way we could hope to actually keep up with her!). The marathon represented something bigger to me personally than a foot race -- it represented a chance to test myself body and mind, and the ultimate opportunity to prove the resilience of the human spirit -- mine in particular. During a grave illness and the recovery that followed, I lost some part of myself and for the first time began to experience real fear -- fear especially of my mortality, the finiteness of life. I felt powerless in the face of a life threatening health crisis, and a recovery that competed with my capacity (and desire) to make a contribution -- to affect positive change in the world. Angry that my body had failed me, I felt like I could no longer trust myself. I lost confidence, and was suddenly and constantly hesitant, tepid, nervous -- all traits completely out of character. My light blew out ushering in an exceptionally difficult and dark period for me, my family and my closest friends.
Since recovering, I have zealously pursued life, meanwhile rebuilding my spirit, regaining my confidence -- my sure-footedness. Having become intimately familiar with the crippling, demotivating, life sucking nature of fear, I've consciously chosen to be governed not by that menace, but rather faith, hope, love and charity. Running the marathon alongside my sister -- who was also at my side throughout my hospitalizations in Colorado and New York -- for me, it represented the culmination of three years of really hard work to be healthy, live fully, put love in the world with every effort, every gesture and to assure myself that in fact, I have overcome the most personally difficult period in my life so far.
I trained, and I trained. I first attempted shorter races, testing myself, building up to half marathons and training most of this summer, in order to do nothing more than finish on Sunday. No matter how hard I was working, or where in the world I was, I managed to get my runs in, including 20 miles in San Francisco one morning, immediately preceding what ended up being 12 straight hours of business meetings. During all of this I began to truly grasp, with every heartbeat, every pulse, every foot strike, that I am alive and free again, in much the same way I'd felt in the years preceding the day my blood stopped flowing. Indeed I felt not only alive, but that life is the ultimate gift, and with that come many responsibilities.
Then a mean girl named Sandy blew into town attempting to drown our joie de vivre and darkening, albeit temporarily, our spirits. And what was once an exercise in proving my own resilience and humanity suddenly felt like a foolhardy, selfish, wrong pursuit. My sister and I felt very deeply that we should be spending our time helping others, those without power, those without food and those who lost everything and have zero shot of getting it back anytime soon. We were shaken by videos of the ravaged Staten Island, where the race was to begin -- and of the Jersey Shore, where I've spent many weekends with generous friends (and where many friends continue to live). Our hearts broke for the people of Breezy Point -- their homes and possessions burnt to ashes -- and all of those throughout New York and New Jersey who unlike us, didn't have friends, or resources, to get through the aftermath of Sandy easily.
We'd wondered how our beloved adopted city was going to pull this off -- whether it would be safe, whether it was fair to already exhausted first responders, whether it was an appropriate use of resources. It seemed unfair also to the 14,000 or so runners who withdrew from the race because of Sandy, and to the many New York-based runners who'd gone through a week of personal hell, powerless, displaced, uncertain -- to say nothing of the hundreds, if not thousands of households who'd lost everything.
We began to challenge our assumption that our run might serve as inspiration to those suffering -- there is one thing I am sure of -- when suffering is acute, and just experienced, there is very little that's inspirational. And without a doubt, we knew there would be few people cheering (and perhaps many people jeering) along the sidelines; an event that typically brings the whole of the city together and is the ultimate show of will, had become a source of bitter division, at a time when we need to work together. We should be so lucky to run, while so many suffered. At once a test of our perseverant humanity, running was suddenly beginning to feel like an exercise of arrogant, frivolous inhumanity.
Still, I am disappointed I didn't get to run Sunday. I put my heart into training because it meant so very much to me. But I'm also deeply saddened by the devastation experienced by my city, my neighbors, my friends. And so I support the decision to cancel the race. It is the right thing to do.
Prior to the race's cancellation, I had privately committed myself to a minimum of 50 hours of service to help Sandy victims (and that does not include the refugee population who've been in and out of my apartment this week powering and showering)....and what I'm very glad about, notwithstanding my considerable disappointment over the event's cancellation, is that I could begin that service on Sunday morning. I hope other would be marathoners will join me; and that those of us who'd already picked up our race packets will proudly wear our orange "MARATHONER" shirts whilst volunteering because one thing I've learned is that you don't have to complete the race to show you're a survivor. And for me personally, the fact of survival means I have certain responsibilities. Right now, the responsibility to help ensure the survival and prosperity of those weakened by the storm -- of those experiencing the very same despair I felt when I thought I'd lost everything.
This is an amazing city. There is zero doubt that as we recovered from 9/11, the 2003 blackout, and so many other challenges over the last 15 years, that New York will recover again -- I am but one survivor in a city of survivors. New York's story is mine and my story is New York.
Binta Niambi Brown is a corporate lawyer residing in New York, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and a 2012 Fortune Magazine 40 under 40 business star.