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NYC Marathon mindful of Ebola and other health issues

Mary Wittenberg, president and CEO of the New

Mary Wittenberg, president and CEO of the New York Road Runners, which organizes the New York City Marathon, speaks during an interview in New York. (Oct. 3, 2013) Credit: AP

Ebola already has touched New York City Marathon officials in a personal way, which is not to say that Sunday's race will feature politically controversial isolation tents or imposed quarantines.

Marathon organizers already have determined that none of the 50,000 registered runners -- or any of their international volunteers -- are residents of the three West African nations severely impacted by the virus.

But race director Mary Wittenberg is worried about 23-year-old Idrissa Kargbo of Sierra Leone, who just a year ago was introduced at a marathon luncheon for realizing his dream to run the race.

"This young man, through a woman working in Sierre Leone from the U.K. and with a kick-starter campaign that raised the money for him to come here, fulfilled his dream to run the New York City Marathon," Wittenberg said. "And a year later, his country is in such a challenging time."

She said race officials have stayed in touch with Kargbo, whose unfamiliarity with New York's cold led to his disappointing race time of 2:58:24 last year. (Kargbo never had been on an airplane before and, during a chat with reporters before the race, said he even was fearful of his first escalator ride. "I did not want to die," he said.)

"It's heartbreaking," Wittenberg said. "A month, six weeks ago, just texting on him, he responded how much he appreciates so much support. He's still in Sierra Leone. I mean, they can't go anywhere, and he's not running much. He is one of the ambassadors for the people working on joining a leadership group that's out in the neighborhoods, trying to teach about how to prevent Ebola."

As for Sunday's race, "We're taking Ebola very, very seriously," Wittenberg said, "Remember, we went through H1 N1 [the worldwide swine flu pandemic of 2009] that threatened people's ability and desire to be here. This one we've been watching for a long time.

"We absolutely planned for months that there would be a case in New York before we got to the marathon. And, obviously, we're working closely -- at the city, state and federal level -- with the health department."

By the time marathoners pick up their race numbers Saturday night, those who have traveled from overseas will have been quizzed repeatedly about their movements and health.

Furthermore, Wittenberg said, marathon officials have a history of preaching prevention and preparedness, and the early November date of the race has meant advising runners' response to the approaching flu season.

"We always tell runners," Wittenberg said, "if you're sick, cancel. Don't run. We will be here next year [and will grant free entry]. And when you get a situation with Ebola, you're not likely to be able to run."

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