A controversial decision to hold the New York City Marathon barely six days after Hurricane Sandy terrorized the city has left Canadian runners morally conflicted about running in a disaster zone.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg emphasized on Thursday the race will demonstrate the city's resiliency and provide a vital financial boost. The event draws some 47,000 runners and 20,000 visitors from around the world, winds through all five boroughs and requires 8,000 volunteers. A recent study showed the massive undertaking generates $340-million in economic activity.
But New Yorkers and even some registered runners reacted angrily to the decision to go ahead with Sunday's annual event, saying it is in poor taste to stage a marathon when transit systems are crippled and hundreds of thousands of people remain without electricity and running water. Critics cast the event as a frivolous endeavour that will deprive the recovery effort of precious resources.
"When I was running [last night], I kept thinking, God, I hope I can get to New York," said Kevin Laird, 50-year-old Victoria resident who had envisioned the event as "the race of a lifetime."
"When I woke up this morning, I thought, oh, those poor people. I'm going to be doing something that's fun, and their whole lives have been turned upside down."
Online, runners are trolling running forums and news sites, wondering whether they are part of the recovery or part of the problem.
"I read a lot of negative stuff online," said Rick Barfoot, a resident of Waterloo, Ont., who decided on Wednesday to cancel his trip. "Eighty to 90 per cent of folks who were in New York were saying no, you shouldn't run in the race. Other people need the attention and need resources more than people running in a parade to drink bottled water along the route."
Mr. Barfoot said he suspects that negativity, combined with logistical problems, will ruin the celebratory vibe that draws so many runners to New York. Usually, two million cheering spectators and dozens of performers line the 42.2-kilometre route, providing one of most inspiring, albeit gruelling, ways to see a great city.
"The only thing worse than people not coming out to support you would be people coming out and booing you," Mr. Barfoot said.
Others said they'd prefer to return later and see New York at its best.
"I think the hurricane was the straw that broke the camel's back to say, you know what? If we want a nice weekend away, maybe we should go to the West Coast," said Blaine Penny of Calgary, who pulled out of his 13th marathon and scheduled a last-minute trip to San Francisco with his wife.
Race organizers say they have not seen a huge spike in cancellations, although runners have until Saturday to pull out. They will forfeit their registration fee but will be guaranteed a spot in next year's marathon, said Mary Wittenberg, chief executive of New York Road Runners, which organizes the race.
One reason may be that runners feel they have no choice. Doug Geddie of St. Catharines, Ont., says that rather than forfeit more than $1,200 in non-refundable flights and hotel fees, he's heading to New York on Friday, even though no one is answering the phone at his hotel in Lower Manhattan, one of the worst affected areas.
Despite assurances from organizers that they have contingency plans for making the route passable on Sunday, he's concerned about getting around the city. "If planes start landing at airports, and there's no way to dislodge the passengers from the airport, it'll start with headaches right at the beginning," Mr. Geddie said.
Others have been buoyed by the mayor's assurances. Mr. Bloomberg said Thursday that electricity is expected to be back on in downtown Manhattan by Sunday, freeing up an "enormous number of police."
He added that sanitation workers and fire fighters who are aiding storm victims are not involved in the marathon. Race organizers have said they'll use more private contractors than in past years to minimize the strain on city services.
"I figure, if we have the people and we spend the money, it's good for the recovery effort," said François Aufranc, who's flying in from Cluny, France, and staying with friends.
"It could be that people want to celebrate because it's a rebirth after a hurricane."
Brent Haynes, a 45-year-old Canadian living in New York, thinks that will be the scenario.
Since the storm hit Monday, Mr. Haynes has played host to friends whose homes are without power, and worked with colleagues who haven't showered. He ran on a treadmill earlier this week because Central Park, where he usually trains, is closed.
On Wednesday morning, he ran past the marathon's finish line, located two blocks from his Upper West Side apartment. Every year since he moved to New York from Toronto four years ago, he's watched runners cross that line and felt inspired.
He's decided that this year, hurricane or no hurricane, he should be among them. It will be his first marathon.
"Everyone has their own struggles. Everyone has a reason why they are doing it. It is already stacked with emotion on a good day. I can't even imagine what it would be like if we get to run this thing on Sunday," Mr. Haynes said.