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Runners mourn the Long Beach boardwalk

Lew Bauer, left, Bill McDermott, Diane Bownes and

Lew Bauer, left, Bill McDermott, Diane Bownes and Wayne Vartabedian pose for a portrait in front of remnants of the Long Beach boardwalk, in Long Beach. (May 19, 2013) Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

A few weeks after superstorm Sandy had devastated Long Beach, Bill McDermott returned to his home, and to one of the central fixtures of his community and his life: the Long Beach boardwalk.

Or what was left of it.

The historic boardwalk, built in 1914 and replaced by a second one in 1936, was shattered. McDermott, a longtime runner who has lived in Long Beach since 1987, clambered amid the wreckage until he found what he was looking for, about 200 yards east of Riverside Boulevard.

"I saw a plank with some white painted dots on it," he said. He recognized it as the start line of the popular Labor Day five-mile run. "I said to myself, 'Dude, I want a piece of running history.'"

There is a lot of that in Long Beach, a community that has attracted runners for decades. Paul Fetscher is a founding member of the Sandpipers. Formed in 1974, it was one of the first running clubs on Long Island. In a blog written after Sandy, Fetscher, who is also the founding director of the Long Island Marathon, reminisced about how much he would miss his morning runs along the 2.2-mile boardwalk, where he could "watch the gulls feed, see a promising sunrise and pass a gaggle of surfers."

Few communities on Long Island were more deeply affected by Sandy than Long Beach, but for McDermott, Fetscher and the many other runners who did the bulk of their training on the boardwalk, the full extent of the storm's impact is being felt acutely as the summer season begins.

A new boardwalk is under construction, but according to city officials, it's not likely to be finished until October or November. In the meantime, running refugees like Diane Bownes drive miles to get in their miles. Bownes, who lives in Point Lookout, now goes to the campus of the State University at Old Westbury, or to Cedar Creek Park in Seaford. "It's so not the same," she says wistfully. "You don't see the ocean. You're not seeing the same people, like you do on the boardwalk. No comparison."

Others, like McDermott, run on treadmills, on the roads around Long Beach, and maybe for short stretches along the shore (most distance runners prefer firmer surfaces). But he, too, laments the loss of the not-too-hard, not-too-soft boardwalk surface, with its attendant water views and ambience. "I miss it," he says, noting that he developed a case of tendinitis in his right ankle this past winter. "I think it was because I wasn't running on the boardwalk."

The new boardwalk will be opening up in sections through the summer and the fall; and the Labor Day five-miler, which will be held as scheduled, will include some completed sections as part of the course. Still, McDermott senses that Sandy's destruction of the old boardwalk was the end of an era. Maybe that's what compelled him to pick up the plank symbolizing one of Long Island's great outdoor fitness venues.

"I'm donating it to the Long Beach Historical Society," he says. "That's where it belongs now."

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