Only a Race?

by guest blogger David Willey, editor-in-chief of Runner’s World

For me at least, there was no calm before the storm, and certainly none after it. Hurricane Sandy hit in the middle of the most surprising and intense two weeks of my running life. Over 17 days, I experienced in vivid detail the uniquely unifying power of running—or at least running races—as well as the limits of that power.

It began on October 19 at the Runner’s World Half & Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This was the first time we’d ever put on our own race. The weather had been dicey most of the week, but just before a shakeout run on Friday afternoon with Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan and 100 or so runners, the clouds parted and the sun came out as if on cue. It stayed that way all weekend, tweaking the fall foliage like a real-world Instagram filter. More than 6,500 runners took part in the 5-K, 10-K, half-marathon, and kids races, all of them starting, finishing, and reveling in the shadow of the old Bethlehem Steel mill, a rusted relic that seemed to hum again with positive energy.

I was one of the 800 or so who did the “Hat Trick,” running the 5-K with my 8-year-old son, and the 10-K and the half like a roving host, starting at the back and working my way forward in order to meet and cheer on as many runners as possible. I’ve run multi-leg relays before but nothing that culminated with a 13.1-miler, so I didn’t know what to expect that Sunday morning on our hard, hilly course. The only way to describe how it went is to sound like a sap. Running in perfect conditions, in my hometown, with thousands of people who were thrilled to be there, I had a smile on my face most of the way. There was an interconnectedness that made the 13.1 miles not a distance to be endured but an experience to be enjoyed. I’ve felt this way in races before. Because everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, you seem to be working together, sharing the strain of the effort as well as the joy of the achievement, everyone’s senses heightened by endorphins. It is hugely uplifting, if you are open to it. In the crowded finishing corral, I ran into an elated Marc Parent, author of The Newbie Chronicles, who’d just completed the longest race of his life. “I’ve never felt anything like that before,” he said.

But the one thing everyone raved about again and again was the weather. The one thing we had no control over. Races are complex affairs, even midsize ones like ours. There are countless details to manage and contingencies to plan for, yet something unexpected—for us, snafus with timing, irate residents who couldn’t get out of their driveways for a couple of hours—will go wrong. The question is: How will you handle it?

Although I was sore and peg-legged for the next four days, I had held up so well during the RW Half that I began to secretly reconsider my plans for the following weekend. Along with a dozen RW staffers and 300 Runner’s World Challengers, I was headed to Washington, DC, for the Marine Corps Marathon, a race I’d never done but always wanted to for a bunch of reasons. My family lived there for six years when I was a kid, so it’s always felt a lot like home. The summer after my sophomore year in college, I worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional intern, the first time I’d ever lived in a big city where big things are done. I still find Washington’s history and symbolism so inspiring that on my many visits back, I’ve had several I-could-keep-going-forever runs on the Mall and around the monuments. Even though I’d signed up for the Marine Corps 10-K and hadn’t done any marathon training (13.1 miles was the longest run I’d done all year), I started thinking about doing 26.2.

It made no sense. It contradicted the advice we give our readers every month. But I was still riding that wave of positive energy, and I wanted to see if a pack of other runners could help me do something I couldn’t do alone. I had a good base of fitness from doing triathlons over the summer, so I switched my bib and hatched a plan to start with 10-minute miles, a very slow pace for me, and drop out at the 16-mile mark if I needed to.

Hurricane Sandy was barreling in, but after we’d assembled in the dark on the edge of Arlington National Cemetery, the starting cannon fired under clear skies. It was 52 degrees. Great racing weather, once again.

They call Marine Corps “the People’s Marathon.” There are no qualifying times (as there are in Boston), no lotteries (as in New York), no prize money (as in just about every other big-city marathon). It has almost 30,000 runners—a high percentage of them raising money for charity—100,000 spectators, and water stations manned by men and women in fatigues. “Thank you, Marines!” someone would say at each one. “Oorah!” came the reply. The marathoners’ esprit de corps was strong from the beginning, but it wasn’t until mile 12, while running toward Hains Point, that I decided I was all in. A group called Wear Blue: Run to Remember had lined the course with American flags and photos of soldiers who had been killed while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The rest of the way, it really did feel like I was only partially responsible for my forward momentum. The spectators and the other runners and the collective emotion generated the rest. I certainly struggled in the late miles, but I never hit the wall, and I even had enough to go hard up the sadistic hill leading to the finish near the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.

A Marine draped a medal around my neck. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud to wear one. At 4:10, it was the slowest marathon I’ve ever run, but I’ve never gotten more out of one. Three hours later, with flights canceled and trains delayed, a group of us piled into a rental car and drove home. We had escaped the storm.

Four days after that, I arrived in New York City. Despite Sandy’s awful toll, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and marathon director Mary Wittenberg had decided the race would go on. Still riding that wave of positive energy, I agreed that it could bring people together. I lived in New York for 13 years. I have finished the marathon twice and covered it as a journalist for the past 10 years. While watching, running, or covering the “Super Bowl of running” for the past two decades, I had seen up close and personal how the race energizes and unites the city like no other day of the year—not just runners, but spectators, cops, cabbies, doormen, bartenders serving up celebratory beers. New Yorkers. And the plan to turn the TV broadcast, which would be national for the first time, into a telethon seemed brilliant. After all, $1.2 billion was raised last year for charities in U.S. road races. Yes, there was an urgent need for water and generators in Staten Island and elsewhere. But relief efforts needed more money. They always do.

But there was no escape from the storm. The weather spun out of control, and then so did social media, the local press, and popular opinion. Contingency plans were overcome by unprecedented circumstances. Things were handled badly. Instead of unity, the race sowed discord. Runners, so accustomed to being cloaked in virtue, were seen as out-of-touch, self-absorbed, indifferent to others’ suffering. Then, after the marathon was finally, mercifully, canceled on Friday evening, thousands of runners turned out in Central Park and in Staten Island on Sunday—race day. Some to run, others to deliver food and water or to help clean out ruined houses. What did it all mean? We try to answer that question and others in “The Storm (And Everything After),” in the January issue of Runner’s World, which debuts on newsstands today (December, 11th). There probably aren’t many definitive answers, just a tragedy, followed by catharsis.

For me at least, one thing remains clear: Runners, sharing the work as well as the joy, know how to come together and do some good. We didn’t need a marathon to prove it.


David Willey is the Editor-in-Chief of Runner’s World magazine. He joined the magazine in 2003 to broaden its editorial scope. Since then, Runner’s World has become a National Magazine Award winner multiple times, and for four consecutive years Runner’s World had a story included in the Best American Sports Writing series. David also served as the President of American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) from 2008 to 2010. @DWilleyRW

Related Posts:

2 Responses to Only a Race?

  1. Bonnie December 11, 2012 at 6:32 am #

    Beautiful story!

  2. maya rodale December 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Oooh, I’m all teary! Lovely post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *