You would have been excused late Sunday afternoon if you thought a cult believing in wearing orange and walking with a gimpy gait had descended on Columbus Circle in Manhattan.
That's because thousands of runners were then making their way to hotels and homes in orange ponchos, the most visible manifestation of the New York City Marathon's new race-day baggage policy.
The policy was supposed to debut in 2012 -- before the race was canceled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy -- as a way to alleviate the long walks and lines that had become standard for runners retrieving bags checked at the marathon's start on Staten Island.
Marathon registrants were given two options this year: check a bag at the start and walk several blocks north after the finish in Central Park to get the bag, or not check a bag at the start, receive a fleece-lined poncho soon after the finish, and leave the marathon venue sooner.
When the policy was announced last year, it drew heavy criticism. The main complaints were that, given the marathon's entry fee, bag check on a point-to-point course should be included for all runners; and that, in November, a poncho might not keep marathoners warm enough until they connected with family or friends with more clothing.
The first criticism included the thought that the marathon's logistics mean that runners spend several hours getting to and waiting on Staten Island, during which time they would want access to favorite and familiar clothing and other items. (Runners who chose not to pack a bag left everything they didn't run in on Staten Island, and the discarded clothing was donated to charity.)
Of this year's 50,000-plus starters, approximately 40 percent chose to check a bag and 60 percent chose the poncho. All runners received a conventional post-race heat wrap, and finishers were then divided on the basis of their bag-check choice. Both groups told Runner's World Newswire that their experience was positive overall.
"From the time I crossed the finish line, exited the park and got to my poncho, I'd say it was probably 20–30 minutes," said Alison Feller, who ran 3:58 in her first New York City Marathon. "It went by very fast and everything seemed very well-organized."
Allison Lassoe chose the no-bag option after poor experiences with bag retrieval in some of her four previous runs at the marathon.
"In 2011 the trip to the baggage trucks became a forced march through a narrow walled trail," she said after finishing this year's race in 3:55. "It was not fun and not a nice way to celebrate the end of a race. It was enough that I said I would not do New York City again."
Lassoe said it took her 20 minutes to get her poncho, and then 10 minutes to get to a cousin's apartment where her mother had dropped off clothes.
Russell Marks chose to check a bag for his second time at the marathon "because I want to be able to listen to music on the way to Staten Island. I wanted to be able to wear my team gear, North Brooklyn Runners, to represent them, and obviously that isn't throw-away clothes at the start."
Marks said it took him 20 minutes to get his bag after finishing in 3:08. Farther back in the pack, Priya Seshan said it took her 30 to 35 minutes to get her checked bag after finishing in 4:33, "no different than in 2011, 2009," she said.
"I am happy with my choice," Marks said. "I think it was absurd for [the New York Road Runners] to even consider no baggage. I'm lucky that I live in New York City so I could do it, but [not checking a bag would be] much harder for people from out of town."
The temperature was in the 40s when most runners finished the marathon, with noticeable wind. All the runners interviewed for this story said they didn't get cold while walking in the poncho to get more clothes.
"The ponchos were really warm, even hot after walking," said Carolina Margarella, who ran 3:42. Margarella and others said they thought the ponchos would keep marathoners warm enough if temperatures were in the 40s or higher, although several wondered what would happen if it were raining.
Runners from both groups also said there was room for improvement.
David Yoo, who chose the poncho and ran 3:02, said, "There was no information before about how they were going to handle the no-baggage situation."
Yoo said the walk to get his poncho was longer than he had expected; Lassoe said the post-race walk was about the same length as to retrieve a bag in previous years. Seshan, who checked a bag, said that this year she got her heat wrap after the post-race photo area, a difference from previous years, and that as someone not getting the poncho she would have preferred to get the wrap sooner.
And what will become of the ponchos?
On Sunday, Feller said, "I want to belt it and wear it with heels to work on Monday.
"I thought about it, but it doesn't have arm holes, so it would have been a little tough to pull off on the commute." she said. "I did see lots of people standing outside 'Good Morning America' in Times Square wearing them."