Much of New York City is submerged in water and out of electricity, but the city is still planning to host 50,000 runners for the ING New York City Marathon on Sunday. Forget the 26.2 miles — runners’ greatest hurdle could be making it to the starting line amid closed airports, offline subways, flooded streets and massive power outages.
On Tuesday evening, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the race would continue as scheduled as officials evaluated storm damage from superstorm Sandy.
“The Marathon has always been a special day for New Yorkers as a symbol of the vitality and resiliency of this city,” said New York Road Runners (NYRR) president and CEO Mary Wittenberg in a statement. “NYRR continues to move ahead with its planning and preparation. We will keep all options open with regard to making any accommodations and adjustments necessary to race day and race weekend events.”
Those adjustments may be considerable given the state of the city and the 47,000 runners, 8,000 volunteers, 1,000 staff members and 2 million spectators the Big Apple is expected to accommodate in only a few days. Yet so far the organizers say they’re still on track for their Health and Wellness Expo and runner-pick up on Thursday morning at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.
Even in fair conditions, the marathon is an immense undertaking, but planners and runners remain optimistic the race will go on. Some even argue that it must.
“Did I consider dropping out? No. It has to happen,” says marathoner Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of “The Marathon Method.” Holland is driving to New York from Darien, Connecticut where 93% of his town is without power. Holland ran in the New York Marathon in 2001, just a couple months after September 11th, and expects the challenges created by Sandy will pale in comparison to those following that tragedy. “I’ve been in over 60 marathons and this the eighth or ninth one in New York. It’s an amazing marathon and you want to be a part of it. With the craziness comes another experience. The city pulls together and it’s really amazing,” he says.
Plus, there’s the fact that training for a marathon is an investment that isn’t easy to give up, especially just days away from the run. “If you’re healthy at this point, you’re going. You’ve invested way too much time,” he says.
Megan Squires, a marathon runner from Madison, Wisconsin agrees. Squires pushed her flight from Thursday to Friday in hopes the airports will be up and running. “I considered canceling, but this is the last time I have a guaranteed lottery spot. I could defer to next year, but it really pulls on your heart strings when you train for four months and have this happen the week before the race,” she says.
Race organizers say time is on their side and the marathon route avoids most of the hardest hit areas. However, concerns remain over transportation to the Staten Island starting line and the safety of the racecourse. The course weaves through five boroughs as well as into Central Park, which currently remains closed due to debris.
“We know people are working around the clock in the park, and we hope the work on transportation with the subways and buses are at fever pitch. We have plans in place and will make any adjustments,” says NYRR spokesman Richard Finn. He would not comment on whether the planners would adjust the course.
“I thought about what I would do if the race got cancelled,” says professional runner and 2012 Olympic athlete Julie Culley. “I think I would still go to Staten Island and run the full course. The past few days I’ve been paralyzed watching the TV. My family is from New Jersey, but I’m focused and prepared for this. After the race, I’m helping with recovery.”
Runners from overseas – there are 20,000 amateur international runners registered — might face even tougher challenges in just making it into New York, says Finn, but hopes they “will find safe, and even creative ways to make it here.”
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Gafar Demirchi is traveling 14 hours from Azerbaijan with his 56-year-old father to run the marathon. “It would be a very painful experience to miss the marathon considering the time, effort and capital spent organizing the trip and preparing for the marathon,” says Demirchi who is running for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. “We are motivated, and as long as the race is happening, no matter how bad the weather is, we shall do it.”
Former elite runner and NYRR board member Toby Tanser is part of a 56-runner team for his charity Shoe4Africa, which includes a few international participants. One of his teammates from Liberia, Africa can no longer get on a flight to New York, but another British teammate is re-directing his flight through Montreal to make it in time.
“There is simply no city in the world like New York City,” says Tanser. “The overwhelming response I’ve received from domestic and international marathoners is that they want to come, they want to participate, and they want to help pull the city back to normality. It is a hard decision, but I am confident Mayor Bloomberg will make the right one.” He says marathoners are an “extreme” breed of people, and if the marathon is on, they will be there in full force.
According to Holland, the storm also provides a silver lining for east coast participants: they may actually run faster. “Most people run too much the week before the race because they’re nervous. They can ruin their race because they’re not resting like they should,” he says. “I think people are going to run better races than they thought because they were forced to stay in.”
Although timing is not ideal, race organizers say the marathon may be just what the city needs. “Usually the city rolls out the red carpet, but I think in this case, the runners will offer the encouragement and support to all the New Yorkers who line the course this Sunday,” says Finn.