New York City Marathon officials, despite days of wrestling with countless post-hurricane contingency plans intent on staging the five-borough race just six days after Hurricane Sandy, nevertheless were taken by surprise by Friday night's 11th-hour decision to pull the plug.
"Two hours ago, we thought we had a race," one official said shortly after Mayor Michael Bloomberg's announcement to cancel the annual 26-mile, 385-yard run from Staten Island to Central Park. Well aware of the crosscurrents of support and protest, organizers nevertheless proceeded Friday to finalize details -- such as how thousands of runners would be transported to the Staten Island starting line -- in the belief that Bloomberg's official go-ahead, issued Wednesday, was the last word on the controversy.
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Several of the elite professional runners arrived in New York only Friday, and the race official even acknowledged the unlikely possibility that the start could be moved to the Brooklyn side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, or that runners could be allowed to run without numbers. The marathon, another official said, has had contingency plans long before Hurricane Sandy to move any part of the course at the last minute.
Still, as the area slowly rebounds from the storm, race organizers and the elite athletes who were to lead the parade of runners -- expected to total between 30,000 and 40,000 -- argued for the event's symbolic show of resiliency and the enormous economic engine it provides the city.
Race officials already had cut back on the weeklong buildup to the race, canceling all pre-marathon festivities, including Friday night's opening ceremonies and Saturday's 5-kilometer run for marathoners' families and friends. Runners had been informed that there would be unspecified but "substantial modifications to the logistics and operations of the race."
Of the paid pros contracted to run, only one, reigning Olympic bronze medalist Tatyana Arkhipova of Russia, had not arrived Friday.
A group of five Kenyan runners, faced with a long Sandy-triggered layover in London between Nairobi and New York that would have required United Kingdom visas, had to be rerouted to Boston and brought to New York by car. Once in New York, with Central Park still closed, scores of runners were sent to hotel gyms and to the bicycle path along the Hudson River for pre-marathon workouts.
But complaints had been surfacing from inside the running community. The website The Gothamist reported that a Brooklyn social worker, herself a marathon entrant, was gathering a group of runners to stage a starting-line boycott, followed by a day of volunteering aid for storm victims. A separate Facebook group was organizing a similar action.
"It's clear that the best thing for New York and the best thing for the marathon and the future is, unfortunately, to move on," race director Mary Wittenberg said, a reversal of previous arguments that holding the marathon not only would mean millions for the city economy, with another $1 million raised for charity, but also would be symbolic of the area's ability to bounce back after Sandy.
The New York Road Runners now will donate food and supplies from the marathon to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.
Friday night, Wittenberg said, "This isn't the year or the time to run it. It's crushing and really difficult. One of the toughest decisions we ever made" -- the first cancellation of the race, first staged in 1970 and spread to the five boroughs since 1976.
Officials had considered paring down from a full marathon to a shorter race -- perhaps a 10-miler -- that would be contained in mid-Manhattan. But that, too, was abandoned. They now must consider if there should be compensation to out-of-town and international runners, and what to do about appearance fees typically paid to the pros.