My BER class at NYU started an online publication a couple of weeks ago to cover how the New York City area is getting back to business after Hurricane Sandy. I wrote a story about the fallout of the cancelation of the NYC marathon, consulting runners, the New York Road Runners, a PR expert, and marathon supporters. The consensus? The cancelation sure was a suspicious one.
By Sonya Chudgar
As news broke of the decision to cancel the New York City Marathon late on Friday, Nov. 2, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many runners grieved.
“I got a little emotional,” said Chicago resident Emily Hutchins, 32, who had trained for the marathon since March. “And then I just lost it. You don’t even think about the fact of the race itself. You think about the time and the energy you spent training for it, to get there, and of course, the money.”
The marathon brings a minimum of $340 million to the city annually. With most of the race’s 47,500 runners and their supporters already in the city by Friday evening, 36 hours from the race, some wondered whether NYC leaders held off on a cancellation after Sandy in order to capitalize as much as possible.
The lack of communication about future plans from the race organizer — the New York Road Runners — further frustrated runners, leaving a massive branding problem on the hands of the NYRR, its president Mary Wittenberg and its biggest sponsor, ING Financial Services.
The Suspicious Cancellation
The former treasurer of the New Orleans Track Club, Bonnie McAfee, 56, flew to New York on Friday before the cancellation decision was made. She traveled from Pensacola, Fla., with her husband, Scott Hoxie, who planned to run the marathon.
“The NYRR, they’re the same as any local track club, except for the fact that they’re like a normal track club on steroids,” McAfee said, adding, “[The NYRR] works with big numbers—millions and millions of dollars instead of, maybe, hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Total revenue for the NYRR was more than $1.7 million for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011. The organization hiked up the cost to enter this year’s race by $60, asking $216 from NYRR members, $255 from non-members living in the U.S. and $347 from international applicants. It cited rising police costs as the impetus.
Communication from the NYRR about the fallout—why the marathon was canceled so late and whether runners will be refunded or at least grandfathered into next year’s race—has been sparse.
A press release issued by the marathon’s organizers and Mayor Bloomberg cited a couple reasons for canceling the event, including the controversy of holding a race so soon after the storm and the marathon’s distraction from recovery work.
Few runners first learned of the eleventh hour cancellation directly from the NYRR. Hutchins heard it on CNN and got an official email a couple hours later. McAfee and her husband learned of it when they went to pick up his race package at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the West side of Manhattan.
McAfee said the city should have figured out some way to hold the marathon, perhaps by moving the location.
In a request for comment on this article, the NYRR responded with its latest message to runners—a three-paragraph statement that said the cancellation was an unprecedented event, the NYRR’s priority it to address runners’ concerns and that it is working out the details.
Cheryl Snapp Conner, founder and managing partner of public relations agency Snapp Conner PR, said the NYRR should have realized it might be forced to cancel and thought through a Plan B.
“An organization this substantial should always have at least a template PR plan in place,” she said in an email.
But with no apparent plan to fall back on, the NYRR’s muddled actions left runners and supporters puzzled. Some began drawing their own conclusions.
“I’m thinking maybe what happened was, intentionally or unintentionally, Bloomberg got the $340 million because people were already there,” McAfee said.
She said she’d had a bad feeling since she arrived at LaGuardia Airport on Friday.
“We find out the first thing is that there’s a ration on gas. And our shuttle is going to be three hours late, ‘cause he’s sitting in New Jersey getting gas,” she said. “That’s the first indication that things were not hunky-dory in New York.”
Her journey to the marathon cost about $4,000.
Andrea Hutchins, 36, flew from Michigan to NYC to support her sister Emily in her first marathon.
“I think my sister, in a way, felt like a jerk for even being in New York,” she said. “We really saw that folks on Staten Island and elsewhere were really upset the marathon was going to happen … It probably would’ve been better if they had announced it sooner, because with the subways and everything not running and power down everywhere, we question why the decision was so late.”
The Hutchins sisters flew to New York with their parents and a friend on Nov. 2, with Emily offering to pay for everyone’s travel expenses and two hotel rooms in Brooklyn. She said the trip put her out $4,500.
The NYRR faced massive backlash from runners, many of whom flew in internationally and complained of the group’s irresponsible and negligent actions. McAfee looked into filing a class action lawsuit, inspired by a group of French runners who are doing the same.
“I think it’s caused a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of people from out of the country,” she said. “It makes me embarrassed, almost, being American. I wouldn’t handle a race like that.”
ING Financial Services, the marathon’s biggest supporter, also came under heat from aggravated marathoners. Some accused the race’s title sponsor of putting its monetary interests before New Yorkers’, despite the fact that city officials ultimately controlled the cancellation.
The NYRR pledged $1 million to Sandy relief efforts, or $26.20 for each runner, with the creation of its 2012 ING New York City Marathon Race to Recover Fund. ING donated $500,000 to the fund.
Another group of disappointed runners went after Mary Wittenberg, the NYRR president. They took issue with her salary of half a million dollars and her Tweets: “2012 INGNYCM will b run 2 show the vitality & spirit of NYC,” she sent out on Oct. 31. “Run 2 aid in recovery & show NYC will be back stronger than ever.”
Contrary to Wittenberg’s Tweet, many runners agreed that canceling the race was the correct thing to do, especially as residents in lower Manhattan, coastal Brooklyn and Staten Island who were displaced by the hurricane had tried and failed to get hotels in the city that were booked by the marathon crowd.
“That was frustrating, to have just gotten there and just have it canceled,” Andrea Hutchins said. “But it put us in the place that I think we were supposed to be.”
Hutchins, like many runners and supporters, joined in an effort called New York Runners in Support of Staten Island. The association went live on Facebook shortly after the marathon was called off. It organized an impromptu mission to send runners to Staten Island with recovery items.
Andrea Hutchins said, in hindsight, she and her sister had a great experience in New York by helping the residents in need.
“There’s been many times that I know we’ve sat here in our Midwestern homes—where we’re not really impacted by hurricanes or things—and we see when Katrina came through and these disasters,” she said. “You see the news and you think, ‘What if there’s something else I could do? I would like to be able to help these people.’”
“However, the fact that we were there, and the experience we had, it was like, we were supposed to be here on this day,” she added. “It gave us that opportunity to look back on all of the times we’ve said, ‘We’d like to be able to help in one of these situations,’ and we were actually given the opportunity to do that.”
Her sister Emily agreed, adding that the experience made the trip worth it, despite the loss in finance.
“To be able to help those people and just bring a little bit of sunlight into their world for the hour and half that we helped them made the trip worth it,” she said.
Runners are still waiting to hear from the NYRR about whether they will get refunds and their qualification status for next year’s race.
Emily Hutchins, who wants to return to run the race in 2013, said the NYRR responded to her inquiry email saying it was working out details and would get back to her in a couple of weeks. Likewise, McAfee said she was still waiting to hear something definitive from the organization.
As for the future of the NYRR, public relations expert Conner said the best thing for the organization to do would be to hit the restart button: “Speak openly and candidly about where they fell down and what they’ll do differently as a re-emerged organization to ensure they emerge stronger and never have to re-learn these lessons again.”
She expects Mary Wittenberg will be given the boot or relegated to an administrative position soon.
“[It was] so badly handled that it will likely be incontrovertible,” Conner said. “Even if she didn’t handle it as badly as it looks, she has destroyed their PR and her own.”