Runners volunteer to help Sandy victims in NYC

Sometimes you need to see the worst to appreciate the best.

The annual celebration that is the New York City Marathon was canceled before it started this year, a historic first that no one seemed quite sure how to handle. But runners from as near as the five boroughs and as far as planes could fly in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy are making the most out of an unfortunate situation.

When Monday's hurricane swept the Northeast shores and left destruction in its wake just days before one of the largest marathons in the world was set to occur, everyone had an opinion. Public outcry led to a weeklong guessing game: Would the marathon go on?

Some rallied for a unifying event, a source of inspiration for a city whose spirit had been crushed; many opined that the sole focus should be bringing the five boroughs back from the brink. What has occurred in the nearly two days since the race was canceled has validated both schools of thought.

Laura Gentile

Hundreds of runners lined up Sunday to take the ferry to Staten Island to help Sandy victims in the area.

Redirecting efforts

Tens of thousands of runners no longer had plans on the first Sunday of November; they had no outlet for their energy, endurance and months of training.

"It was insane," said Jordan Metzl, a New Yorker, longtime marathoner and sports physician at Hospital for Special Surgery. "As soon as it was canceled, I started emailing with friends. We created a Facebook page for runners like us who, instead of asking for money, could run on Staten Island with things that could be donated."

The #SupportStatenIsland hashtag came to life.

The same synapses were firing all across the city for the race participants. Jaclynn Larington and Sarah Hartmann started, a relief effort site compiling volunteer opportunities in hard-hit communities around the city. A news release on Friday called it "a central communication outlet for the various organizations that are sending their messages from a variety of sources."

Marathoners, most of whom were already going wild on social media, started passing messages of community service to one another as well as spreading the word via chat boards and Twitter feeds. "The response has been amazing," Larington said Friday evening. "I think a lot of good will come out of this."

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Staten Island residents are still recovering from Sandy and are without power. Nineteen people from the borough died because of the storm.

Delivering relief

When Craig and Julie Lewis heard the race was canceled and saw posts about volunteering on Staten Island, the husband and wife team left their hotel in a cab to South Ferry the very next morning, took the recently restored free boat to Staten Island, where Sunday's race was set to begin, and followed the crowd to the hard-hit Oakwood section on the Lower New York Bay.

"I've never run the New York City Marathon," said Craig as he raked refuse out of someone's yard across from Cedar Grove Beach. "This was the last time I'd qualify with [guaranteed time] standards." But it was a no-brainer for this couple from London, Ontario. "It was kind of hard to get the information and get out here. But we heard that people were coming from all over, so how could we not?"

Metzl's Facebook page had more than 4,000 "likes" as of Sunday morning.

"We'll have hundreds of runners, with group leaders, maps and signs, to help them distribute supplies to hot zones in Staten Island," he said. "Let's be sensitive to what locals need. We all need to be flexible tomorrow."

He advised his fleet-footed friends to be prepared to split into smaller groups at the ferry and promised options for participants to do up to 14 miles to get to some of the hardest-hit areas.

In an age when social media is often driven by ads and product offers and used as a sounding board for personal gripes, the comments posted on both recently created Facebook pages were overwhelmingly positive, including calls for national media to cover Sunday's efforts. Staten Islanders were also using them to get across news of dwindling supplies and areas that needed the most help.

Those who have already seen the devastation in person, like Mike Sawa, a runner who arrived from Indianapolis on one of the first flights to LaGuardia Airport after it reopened Thursday, have their own take. "I made six new best friends here," he said. "I got more than I gave."

Staten Island seemed the obvious place to help after he watched news reports Friday night.

Volunteers from around the world and down the street are working together for one purpose: to piece together people's lives and try to get communities back in order. Instead of one day of running, many people will help in multiple ways, from donating goods and services to giving money for disaster relief.

"I came here to run the race," Sawa said. "This was much more rewarding than any race."

Rachel Cooperman is a freelance journalist in New York City.

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