Long Beach's Labor Day road race was billed as the 24th annual, but in one way it felt like a beginning.
The Robert McAvoy Five Mile Run -- "The Mac" to locals -- started and ended Monday on the first portion of the city's iconic boardwalk to be rebuilt after superstorm Sandy. It was the first race held along the oceanfront path since the storm landed more than 10 months ago. The race route over the years has included stretches of the boardwalk.
"It's a good sign that Long Beach is coming back," said Marilyn Mahoney, a city resident who was in attendance on the gray, humid morning to support her son's girlfriend, one of about 400 participants.
Her sentiment was common around the race's start and finish line, near Laurelton Avenue, where music played and runners and their families snapped photos with the fog-obscured Atlantic as a backdrop.
But for a reminder of how far the city's recovery still must come, one had to look no further than Mahoney's husband.
"It's not back yet," Lawrence Mahoney quickly countered to his wife's optimism, gesturing out to Long Beach's business district. "You can see all the empty stores still there."
The city will spend $44.2 million to rebuild the 2.2-mile boardwalk with tropical wood it believes will be more resilient to weather. Almost half of it has been reopened to date, with a November target for completion.
Long Beach councilwoman Eileen Goggin, who was running in Monday's race, acknowledged the difficulty that many residents still face post-Sandy, but said the boardwalk is crucial to the city's identity and tourism business.
"There are people still not back in their homes," she said while stretching. "But this is a great day, because it signifies that there is much more to come."
The annual Labor Day event is named after a local civic activist who died of a heart attack at 58 in 1989. His son, Kevin McAvoy, stood near the start line Monday, as he does every year.
He pointed out a spot where the family had dedicated a bench that was lost when the old boardwalk washed away.
"Very symbolic that the race is starting where the bench used to be," said McAvoy, 57, who runs a plumbing business. "I know it's only one section, and that there are things to deal with like the hospital [shuttered since Sandy], but this is important, too."
After the race, Scott Brennan, 52, of East Meadow, and his cousin, Bill Fisher, 58, of Levittown, leaned against the boardwalk rail and caught their breath, sporting times of 38 and 33 minutes, respectively. They agreed that the boardwalk seemed to hold a larger significance to the city than simply its physical purpose.
"And this was a nice way to break it in," said Fisher, drinking a celebratory beer from a can.