Meb Keflezighi emigrated to the United States from Eritrea, which had been ripped apart by civil war. Edna Kiplagat comes from Kenya, where the annual per capita income is $820. Nobody has to tell them that the short-notice cancellation of a five-borough footrace is not a human tragedy, not when corpses are still being discovered in Staten Island.
“We understand,” Kiplagat said Friday after the mayor and race organizers had called off the New York City Marathon for the first time.
There will be other races, other paydays for the elite runners, most of whom were promised six-figure appearance fees just for flying in and lacing up Sunday. But the Apple is a big one, and there won’t be another top-tier 26-miler until late winter.
Kiplagat, the reigning world champion, and Boston victor Sharon Cherop were the biggest losers when the race was scrubbed. Had either woman won New York, she would have claimed the World Marathon Majors title and collected a $500,000 bonus to go with the $130,000 winner’s check. Since this was the last race of the two-year cycle, the crown and cash go to their countrywoman Mary Keitany, the two-time London victor.
Keflezighi wasn’t in contention for the WMM men’s title, which already was clinched by Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai, who holds the world record for all races between Hopkinton and Boston. But he could have picked up a cool $200,000 for winning since his status as a former champion (2009) would have entitled him to a $70,000 bonus.
This has been a redemptive year for Keflezighi, the Athens runner-up who largely had been written off after he crippled himself trying to make the 2008 Olympic team in Central Park. He won the trials for London, then surged out of the pack to finish fourth at the Games on a bad foot. Another victory here would have been a lovely addition to a résumé that, because he is 37, doesn’t have many pages left.
“I am honored and blessed,” Keflezighi said last week. “My career has been fulfilled. Everything that I do from here is frosting on the cake.”
Still, missing the chance at a hefty payday hurts, since most of the top guns get only two a year. Unless the women want to jet to Yokohama two weekends from now and the men to Fukuoka next month for what are second-tier marathons, their season has ended with a blank space. Depending on how the New York Road Runners want to make it up to them, the Mosops and Gelanas and Kipsangs may be reluctant to lay their one autumnal chip on the same number next year.
It was unclear Saturday whether the elite runners still would get to keep their full appearance fees. They did what they’d contracted to do by showing up ready to rumble and it wasn’t their decision to cancel the event.
“The NYCM is a special race for me & millions of people around the world,” Keflezighi tweeted, “but I understand why it cannot be held under current circumstances.”
Keflezighi loves New York, where he made his marathon breakthrough and which he says is “almost my second home.” The race may not have Boston’s primacy and pedigree, but it attracts a superb field, makes a point of showcasing Americans, and provides a global stage. It’s the culmination of the WMM series, and in an Olympic year, it’s the only real option for a fall marathon since it provides an extra month’s rest.
Kiplagat and Cherop had good reason to assume that the race would go on, as it had every year since the first one in 1970, even in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. They could have opted to pick up their WMM points in Berlin at the end of September or in Chicago last month and not had to worry about a once-in-a-lifetime superstorm turning Gotham City upside-down, but they took a calculated risk in putting everything on the finale.
They will get their next chance sooner rather than later since the Tokyo Marathon has just been added to the series. But since that race comes on Feb. 24, it would rule out competing in London and Boston and would force those who run in Japan to wait more than eight months for a major unless they opt for the August world championships in Moscow. Compared with what New Yorkers have been through for the past week, scheduling issues are small worries.
Many of the African runners have lived amid terrible times back home and none of them were complaining about an idle weekend in Manhattan, given the destruction and misery that they were watching on TV. But they can’t be blamed if Berlin starts looking a lot better. No hurricanes there — yet.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.