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Sean Larson

Sean Larson

Sean is a senior at the University of Oregon majoring in journalism. He has lived in every region of the country, most recently in San Francisco before coming to Eugene for school. He can be reached via email (larson3@uoregon.edu) and you can follow him on Twitter. (@SeanALarson)
sean.larson@eugenedailynews.com

Excitement, Heartbreak, Inspiration: My New York City Marathon Story

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This past weekend, Sean traveled east to run the 2012 ING New York City Marathon as a member of a team of writers assembled by Asics. This is his story of the excitement, heartbreak, and inspiration he experienced while in New York. 

Four months ago, when I began training for the 2012 ING New York City Marathon, if you were to tell me the race would be cancelled for the first time in its history due to a hurricane slamming into the area leaving a wake of destruction, and tragically, death, in its path, I would have thought you were crazy. However, that is exactly what happened.

Last week, Hurricane Sandy slammed full force into the city. The country hadn’t seen a natural disaster so catastrophic since Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. I instantly became  consumed in the event practically 24/7 for two reasons. First, my sister lived in Brooklyn. I was only getting updates from her maybe once a day, and I was worried for her safety. Once I learned she was safe, my thoughts shifted to the marathon I was supposed to run on Sunday.

For the past four months, I spent hundreds of hours training for the New York City Marathon that was scheduled to be run less than a week after Sandy. Many believed the race should be cancelled immediately, saying that it would be disrespectful to the victims of the hurricane to hold such an event. We would be running through the streets entertained by live bands along the way while millions were forced to eat dinner by candlelight. We’d take some water, splash some on our faces, and dump the cups, all while millions more didn’t have access to clean drinking water. When you look at it that way, it seemed that there was no way the race could go on.

A banner of Ryan Hall hangs in New York two days before the ING NYC Marathon was scheduled to be run.

On Wednesday afternoon, Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, announced that despite the effects of Hurricane Sandy, the race would go on as scheduled. His reasoning was that New Yorkers were resilient, and they would use the race as a way to help the city cope with disaster and tragedy to get back on its feet.

The race was re-branded as a “run to recover,” with the New York Road Runners, the organization hosting the race, promising to donate $1 million to relief efforts. The attitude of the race would be much like the 2001 New York City Marathon, held less than two months after the 9/11 attacks. But there was one major problem in comparing the race in 2001 to this year’s.

Back in 2001, they had nearly two months to recover and prepare. This year, they would have less than a week. Would they have run the marathon in 2001 if the attacks had occurred less than a week before the race? That would have been highly doubtful.

Either way, with a green light for the race on Sunday, I packed my bags and flew to New York. Friday was a pretty incredible day in the city. At the race expo, there was still the same pre-race buzz that there would be at any marathon. I attended a pre-race run with Asics and got to meet Ryan Hall, the Michael Jordan of American distance running.

I was fortunate to have a breakfast sitting at a table that included Molly Pritz, the top American finisher at last year’s race, as well as Deena Kastor, who won an Olympic bronze medal in the marathon in 2004. I returned to my hotel later that afternoon to relax. That’s when the weekend was turned upside down. As I flipped through the channels and stopped on the local news, I heard the news anchors utter words I thought I’d never hear.

Ryan Hall and I. Hall is the owner of the fastest American marathon under any conditions ever.

“We are getting reports that the New York City Marathon, scheduled for Sunday, has been cancelled.”

I immediately began to panic. This couldn’t be happening. I had to be dreaming. They couldn’t just pull the plug 40 hours out from the race right? They could, and they did. Within minutes, the reports were confirmed, and there it was in big bold letters across the screen: NEW YORK CITY MARATHON CANCELLED.

To be quite honest, my immediate reaction was anger. How could they take this away from the 47,000 of us who sacrificed so much to train for this race and get here? We had travelled from all over the world just to find out we might as well turn around and go home. On my way down to the lobby, we informed a runner of the news that she hadn’t yet learned. After we told her the race was cancelled, the look in her eyes was like she found out a family member had died. The hotel lobby was chaos. When looking around at other runners, you would have honestly thought the president had just been assassinated.

The mood was that grim. I had to get away from the lobby, away from other runners. Within thirty seconds of leaving the hotel, a reporter from the New York Time interviewed me to get my opinion on the race being cancelled. Not wanting to say anything stupid, I gave him a very textbook answer on how it was more important to focus on the relief efforts of the hurricane.

On Friday, I found my name among the 47,000 runners who would have run in the ING NYC Marathon on the “Wall of Marathoners” installed by ASICS at the Columbus Square subway station.

After a couple hours, my head started to clear, and I came to a realization. As heartbreaking as it was, canceling the race was the right thing to do. When you looked at what was happening around the city, it was impossible to think of running a marathon. How could we shut down the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to run across it, when the residents of Staten Island who had their homes destroyed relied on rescue teams using the bridge to get to them?

How could we use generators to power the start and finish when millions were in need of one to provide something as basic as electricity to their homes? How could we use so much water and Gatorade in the race when there were people in the same area who had no access to such resources?

Running the marathon would have been disrespectful, and we all knew it. It wouldn’t have been lifting the city up in a time of need; it would have been kicking it while it was down.

All of those not involved in the race saw that from the start, while all of those in the race were so blinded by our own goals, that we needed the race taken away from us to fully come to that realization.

Part of the ASICS team at what would have been the finish line of the ING NYC Marathon.

Sunday morning, we went to run a loop around Central Park. I put on my race shirt and attached my number, one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a runner. But when we got to the park, the scene was not one of sadness, but inspiration. Tens of thousands had descended on the park to run, many of them running laps until they completed the 26.2 miles they had travelled so far to run.

In a time of tragedy, it was one of the most inspirational events I’ve been able to take part in, and the run I took part in through Central Park that brisk, clear Sunday morning was something that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Now, I return back to Eugene, and while I’m not as sore as I had planned on being, I’m coming home more inspired than I ever imagined possible after this trip.

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