I stood on line with my friend at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan early Friday morning. "Normally, the line is out the door and around the block," she whispered to me as we walked into the building and joined the few hundred people already there. "I'll bet most of these folks are not New Yorkers," I whispered back.
Sure enough, as we waited in virtual silence, the air filled with hushed chatter in foreign languages: Italian, Dutch, German, French, but very little English.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Mayor vowed not to cancel the New York City Marathon and I was an anxious mess. We'd taken an early train in from Long Island; it was the first day of railroad service from our town and the fare was free. A good sign, I told myself. Maybe this really will be good for the city, I reasoned with that nagging voice in my head telling me to go home and defer until next year.
People had lost everything in this devastating storm; communities were dealing with unprecedented death and destruction. My dilemma paled by comparison, and yet, it was a conflict indeed.
I'd waited my entire adult life to run the New York City Marathon. Back in the early '90s I'd entered without a hitch (there was no lottery that I can remember) but had to defer because of an ankle injury. I never ran the following year and lost my spot. Then life just got in the way. I moved to the suburbs, had two children and while I continued to run, long-distance running was a thing of my past. Knee surgery in 2006 almost convinced me to give up running for good.
But then little by little, I started running again. And then I ran two half-marathons and felt pretty well. My kids were older and I had more time to train. So in 2009, I entered the lottery for New York City, and did not get in. The same happened in 2010 & 2011, so my entry in 2012, according the New York Road Runners policy, was guaranteed.
I'd run the Philadelphia Marathon with my brother in 2010. It was an incredible experience; I trained well and while my time was nothing for the history books, I never "hit the wall" and finished strong. Now I was even more determined to run the legendary marathon in my beloved New York City. Everyone who knows New York says that while logistically it's a nightmare, it's one of the best races to run for the experience -- 26.2 miles through the five boroughs of my favorite city in the world.
But it was as if my NYC Marathon experience was jinxed from the start. A two-week family trip in August conflicted with my training schedule. Nothing insurmountable -- but it was enough to rattle my confidence. Then my best friend's mom died in September. Grief and sheer exhaustion stole another week from me. And then after my 17-mile long run, I was plagued by a high-hamstring strain that I thought would never heal. I took another full week off from running, cross-trained on the elliptical and in spin class, went to active release therapy and yoga several times a week. I worried that I wouldn't be prepared when November 4 rolled around, but friends convinced me that I was psyching myself out and I was already prepared. Besides, they told me, the crowds and the adrenaline will carry you. I was in good physical shape before I started training and knew that if my leg cooperated, I could finish. By the time the end of October rolled around, my pain was essentially gone and I was just really excited.
Then Hurricane Sandy hit. At first, I assumed that the marathon would be canceled. When it wasn't, I, and thousands of others, was faced with a moral dilemma: was it right to run this race when so many were suffering and had lost so much? And shouldn't the manpower, water, food and resources be diverted to those in need? And yet, how could I not run when I'd waited virtually my entire adult life for this day? I wasn't sure I'd have it in me to sustain another rigorous marathon training season.
So I got on the LIRR that morning and tried to ignore my mounting anxiety. My hands and voice shook just a little. I had a strange sensation in my gut, not regular nerves, but the sense that what I was doing was wrong.
Once I entered the Expo, I pushed that feeling aside. When the volunteer handed me my bib and entrance package, I asked if I could still make the decision to defer. "If you have your number, then you can't," she said. But, she added, "You can always return your number tomorrow if you change your mind." I told her I lived on Long Island so that was unlikely to happen.
My friend and I walked around the Expo a bit, sampling smoothies, buying Gu and other essentials, collecting swag. I got caught up in the excitement of being surrounded by thousands of runners and forgot, just for a little while, about the reality waiting outside those walls. I called my brother for reassurance. "If they hold it, you should run. Whatever controversy you have to deal with will fade eventually. And do you really think you're gonna want to train again?" He didn't sound so convinced himself, but I wanted to believe his words.
On the train ride home, I check the Facebook page for the marathon and started to read the comments out loud to my friend. People were saying horrible things about the race, and how awful runners were to even consider running. One person even posted, "Have fun running by the dead bodies of those little children." I felt sick.
Back in my house, I tried to get excited and showed my family my number and race shirt. But I already knew my decision was made. I burst into tears and told my husband, "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I have to go back and return my bib. I can't do it." He hugged me and told me he understood. I called my friend to tell her, since she'd have to make arrangements to get into the city Sunday without me. "Wait," she said, "I heard they may cancel it after all." I turned on CNN. Wolf Blitzer was discussing the growing controversy, but no cancellation. "You can make the 5:35 back into Manhattan," my husband said. We got into the car and began the one-mile drive to the train station. I got pinged with a text: Don't go! They canceled! Sure enough, we turned on the radio and the news was true. I exhaled fully for the first time in 24 hours.
Contrary to what some may think, I'm not a horrible person because I considered running. The disappointment I felt was real, even though I'm well aware that in comparison to what victims of this hurricane are facing, my loss is relatively small. I see in my own town how many families are still living in darkness, or forced out of damaged homes, waiting for power and some sense of normalcy to return.
But this was my own personal dream and one I'm not sure now will ever come true. However, had the marathon not been canceled, I am certain I would not have run. How could I face my community, my friends and my family and proudly say I ran in the 2012 NYC Marathon? It would be a badge of shame, not of honor, to finish. Whatever joy I might have felt would be swept away by the unrelenting guilt and knowledge that it simply was not right.
"I'm glad it was canceled, especially for you," my friend told me. It would have been her eighth NYC marathon. "You wouldn't have experienced it the way you should, with the crowd's support and excitement. It just wouldn't have been the same."
On Marathon Sunday, I went out for a run. It was a beautiful, crystal clear, slightly chilly day -- perfect weather to run 26.2 miles. I didn't of course, though my kids suggested I do it anyway. I ran eight miles, past fallen trees and downed telephone poles and wires. I gave a thumbs-up and a smile to the caravan of utility trucks with Alabama plates headed out to the more remote areas of town still swathed in darkness. I felt light, free and happy.
It was a perfect run.