For many participants of the New York City Marathon, running in the wake of superstorm Sandy makes this year’s race more meaningful. As the event’s organizers noted in a statement this week, “This year’s marathon is dedicated to the City of New York, the victims of the hurricane, and their families.”
And according to sports psychologists, this rallying mentality may actually help some run a better race.
Marathons in general tend to bring people together and generate a sense of community, says Toronto sports psychologist Peter Papadogiannis, director of the Goodlife Fitness Toronto Marathon Psyching Team, which provides mental strategies for runners. Bonding over a common purpose – in this case, to honour a storm-ravaged city – may add another element of inspiration.
“It really kind of allows people to have an extra motivation,” Papadogiannis says.
Organizers have announced the marathon will take place as scheduled on Sunday, drawing criticism for diverting resources, such as police and medical volunteers, when the city is still struggling to get back on its feet.
But participants such as Cathie Portrie of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., are undeterred. “People in New York and New Jersey are really survivors. Part of me feels really bad because of what happened. ... But I know they’re going to go on with the race no matter what,” Portrie says.
Whether the show of resilience translates into a faster finish time will depend on the individual runner, but Papadogiannis says it may help.
“In such a long event, if you’re able to have the extra will, determination, the physical stamina and the mental strength, you do run faster. You run a better time.”
At the very least, the extra motivation may allow runners to push through the more difficult moments when their energy and willpower wanes.
“I think what it’s likely to do is to increase their capacity to enjoy the four hours or five hours; it may or may not have any direct effect on their time,” says sports psychologist Kate Hays, founder of the Toronto Marathon Psyching Team.
Getting to the start line on Staten Island, however, may prove to be as challenging than making it to the finish, since flights earlier in the week were cancelled, while subways remain closed and many roads have yet to be cleared of debris.
To limit their stress, Papadogiannis says runners should be open to unexpected changes, but should plan as much as they can. “You don’t want to go into a new situation that morning and trying to figure it out on the fly,” he says. And once that starting pistol goes off, he advises runners to shake off whatever frustrations they have by focusing on their run.
Adds Hays: “I think my primary advice would be to seize the day, to relish the moment, to appreciate the amount of training and hard work that has already occurred, and the outcome is going to be whatever it’s going to be.”