'Inspired' thinking veers off course

It took several days for most of us to grasp the full extent of Hurricane Sandy's devastation and to understand -- through the words and images transmitted by reporters in the flood and fire zones, which I was not -- how many people are stranded and suffering.

During that interval, it became clear that the decision to carry on with the New York City Marathon had been made in too much haste and bolstered with questionable rationalizations that were both financial and symbolic.

One of the memes trotted out most frequently was the inspirational value of the 2001 race held two months after 9/11.

I was there. It was the first NYC Marathon I ever covered. And there is no comparison.

The loss of life on 9/11 was far greater than Sandy, the scale of property destruction more contained. The city and the nation were very early in the five or fifty or five hundred -- take your pick -- stages of grief. It's hard to recall how much fear lingered after the terrorist attacks and the Anthrax-tainted mail and the realization that we'd been collectively, tragically blindsided.

Runners looked at the New York City course and wondered if the great bridges would be targeted. I interviewed a priest who was still dealing with the memory of blessing body parts; he was one of many who ran in honor of the dead. Everyone ran for a reason that year -- to conquer fear, to start living again, to look up at the pure blue autumn sky over the city that day and try to form a new association with it, one that didn't involve planes angling lethally into buildings.

And I am certain there was merit in seeing them run. The marathon didn't bring back any lost loved ones or clear the ash from the first responders' lungs or help rebuild bricks and mortar. But enough time had passed so that people wanted to celebrate being alive and fit and -- they hoped -- defiantly safe. That was true of the runners and of those who lined the streets to watch them.

"On marathon day, New York City sliced through the yellow crime-scene tape and became simply a scene again," I wrote for the Chicago Tribune. "Columbus Circle, where runners rounded the last bend before the finish line in Central Park, turned into a happy open-air circus Sunday. There was a strolling bagpiper and a sidewalk preacher and mayoral campaign workers pressing fliers into people's hands and hucksters trying to make a buck.

"Spectators cheered from perches on walls and benches and water fountains. They skated and cycled and pushed strollers and let their dogs drag them around. People soaked in the sight of other people running for joy and accomplishment rather than in fear and flight."

I'm equally certain that is not what would have happened this Sunday had the marathon gone forward. I will admit that it took me a day or two and a lot of reading and watching the news to come to that conclusion. I drove into Manhattan on Wednesday thinking there were two sides to the argument and left achingly sure there was only one. But then again, I'm not paid to be responsible for the welfare of thousands or millions of people, and the officials who are should have had more foresight and taste.

Within 36 hours of the storm's peak, New York Road Runners president and CEO Mary Wittenberg was saying the race would proceed as long as the city allowed it. Wednesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg concurred, and threw his support behind it. The marathon is a big battleship to turn around, and much of the human and other infrastructure was already in place; it may have seemed as if there was enough time to restore electricity and public transit and calm.

But these two decision-makers, both experienced in running large, rambunctious organizations full of competing agendas and conflicting dynamics, should have recognized that the forces unleashed by the storm couldn't be measured in a matter of hours. They should have foreseen that as the water receded, it would expose terrible surprises, like the bodies of the two young boys found in a Staten Island marsh, or the elderly who drowned in their homes, or the boats and cars leaking oil and the thousands of families marooned without food, batteries, diapers or flushing toilets.

Yes, canceling the race Tuesday would have been a conservative move in a sense, because we didn't have as much information. But it would have been the right one. There might have been some healing, life-goes-on quality to seeing the runners stream through the streets, but it would have been equaled or outweighed by the sense that they were joyriding through a wounded city.

Some tourist dollars will go unspent, but that should be entered way down on the itemized ledger of collateral damage. And we'll probably never know the exact dollar amount or number of safety personnel the city would have had to divert to the marathon at the expense of those who needed it more, but to suggest that either answer is "none" would be preposterous.

Friday's delayed call creates a truly unfortunate worst-of-both-worlds scenario. Many out-of-town runners have already traveled to New York, occupying hotel rooms that could be inhabited by those in need. Earlier in the week, they could have made a choice not to come, and to write a check to charity in the amount of what they would have spent on travel -- or to come prepared to volunteer. The money spent on post-storm contingency planning, tearing down and re-setting-up, has been wasted. NYRR's largely feel-good brand has taken a big hit.

There are times when sporting events transcend their boundaries. They are more rare than helium-filled pop culture would have us believe, and this race wouldn't have been one of them. The marathon cancellation is better late than never, and it should serve as a future caution not to sprint through the initial shock and darkened stoplights of a disaster.