NYC Marathon runners fill unexpected free time
NEW YORK -- Sue Johnson refuses to give New York City any more money.
She preferred to shell out for the change fee to move her flight home to Pittsburgh up by 24 hours -- leaving on the day she was supposed to run the New York City Marathon.
Many of the runners who had descended on the city from all over the globe worked out their frustrations with a jog Saturday through Central Park, site of a finish line that will never be crossed. Some scrambled to rebook return flights. Others made sightseeing plans for the unexpected free time.
Whether from Europe, South America or elsewhere, their sentiment was the same. Sympathy for the victims of Superstorm Sandy. Understanding of why city officials canceled Sunday's race. But bitterness that the decision was made Friday instead of earlier in the week, before they boarded planes.
And some, like Johnson, voiced suspicions that the last-minute announcement was a ploy by city officials to lure entrants to New York so they would still spend money at local businesses.
"They get the best of both worlds," she said after wrapping up a run Saturday.
The runners had dragged their bodies through months of training, often making preparations years in advance and saving money for what costs thousands of dollars for many international entrants.
Diego Pellegrino and his wife kept their plans to stay in New York through Friday. But he had imagined biking around, shopping and eating well all week with the sense of accomplishment of completing his first marathon.
"The illusion is broken," he said.
Pellegrino will still take part in a sporting event midday Sunday: With no race to run, he'll make his first visit to Madison Square Garden for an NBA game, cheering on fellow Argentine Pablo Prigioni of the Knicks against the Philadelphia 76ers.
On a crisp, sunny Saturday, Central Park looked the part of the usual telegenic backdrop to the marathon's final miles. Other than some downed branches, the runners who chugged along the paths saw no evidence of the storm that knocked out power and flooded homes all over the metropolitan area.
A block of sidewalk just outside the park was cordoned off, stacks and stacks of boxes of orange jackets originally intended for marathon volunteers waiting to be donated to shelters. On this Saturday, runners would usually carb load at Marathon Eve Dinner. That, too, was canceled.
More New Yorkers got electricity Saturday, but frustrations mounted over gasoline shortages as refueling sites turned into traffic jams of horn-honking confusion. Gas rationing went into effect in northern New Jersey, while crowds lined up at free fuel distribution sites in New York's boroughs.
The blue and orange structure above the finish line remained up, though nobody could run under it. Barricades kept people a few yards away, creating the feel of a tourist attraction: Runners stood against them to have their photo taken with "Finish" in the background. Many wore NYC Marathon gear, souvenirs from an event that never occurred.
Some runners organized their own impromptu marathon routes this weekend. Others will gather on Staten Island on Sunday morning as they would have for the marathon. They'll take off running -- to deliver supplies to residents devastated by the storm.
"We initially were bummed, but also saddened by the perception that runners were indifferent to the needs of other people," said Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine doctor in New York. "We wanted to turn a negative to a positive."
American star Meb Keflezighi, the 2009 men's champion, said some of the elite runners were considering entering upcoming marathons in Japan and Philadelphia to take advantage of their training. But he may take some time off.
For all the conspiracy theories from out-of-town runners, the city will take in far less than the estimated $340 million the marathon would have brought.
Anthony King, owner of the bar Finnegans Wake along the race course on Manhattan's East Side, had the mixed feelings of a New Yorker and a local businessman. He felt for other merchants who would lose much-needed revenue, but agreed with the mayor's ultimate decision.
"We're going to miss all the excitement," he said.
Race organizer New York Road Runners has cancellation insurance but must sort out the effects on contracts with elite runners, sponsors and broadcasters. NYRR President Mary Wittenberg said Friday that for now organizers were sticking with their policy of not refunding entry fees, but it would be reviewed.
Susan Bourque was in the car, halfway between Boston and New York, when her father called Friday evening to say the race was canceled. Still on the road, Bourque started researching whether she could enter a different marathon in the next couple weeks so as not to waste her training. Sure enough, Sunday's race in Manchester, N.H., had extended its registration deadline to attract jilted New York runners.
Bourque and her husband kept on driving because their two children had never been to the Big Apple. They arrived at 9:30 p.m. and squeezed in visits to the Empire State Building and Times Square before heading back to New England at midday Saturday, pleasantly surprised their hotel refunded the rate with their early departure.
Francesco Caielli, Mario Di Sabato and Luciano Sala were two hours from landing in New York on Friday when they saw the news on the plane's video screens. At least their trip was smooth: A friend whose initial flight was canceled flew from their native Italy to Hong Kong then New York, determined to make the marathon.
And now there's no race.
Di Sabato scoffed that if the same thing happened in his home country, outsiders would accuse the Italians of stereotypical disorganization. But this fiasco took place under the watch of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In his first comments since canceling the race, Bloomberg told WCBS-TV on Saturday his message to out-of-town runners was: "I'm sorry. I fought the battle, and sometimes things don't work out."
Runners signed up this year will be guaranteed entry into the 2013 marathon or the half-marathon in March, a valuable promise since it's so hard to get into the race. That could leave few spots next year for anyone else, though.
But some vowed to never again enter the NYC Marathon. Pia Nielsen, who flew in from Copenhagen, said city and race officials would have to regain her trust.
Lucy Marquez said she would come back, even as tears filled her eyes at the thought of the three young children she left at home in Mexico to race what would have been her first marathon.
"Shock. Denial. Rage," is how Marquez described the stages of digesting the news that the race had been scrapped. Twelve years ago, she watched her father run the course.
"I love New York City," she said. "This is the marathon I want to run."
Cara Anna, James Martinez and Karen Matthews contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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