Monday, November 5, 2012

Water and Walter: The 2012 NYC Marathon Legacy

"Who are all of these people in orange? I see them everywhere."
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Nov. 4, 2012, at Midland Beach on Staten Island

Being without power, being cold and dealing with long gas lines was only an inconvenience for me and my family in the New York City area -- frustrating and perspective-challenging but only an inconvenience. On Sunday, the day I was to run my third New York City Marathon and eagerly reach double digits for 26.2 mile or greater distance, I instead found myself on a Staten Island Ferry headed to some of the greatest devastation left in the wake of Sandy.

I think most of us 47,000 entrants were relieved that the race was canceled. For me it was a tremendous relief. On Saturday, after the cancellation was announced, I had planned to drive over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge myself and bring supplies. Then I discovered the Facebook movement of New York Runners In Support Of Staten Island. One of my fellow runners summarizes the entire day better than anything I have seen, on youtube:

About 1,000 of us, mostly clad in our orange NYC Marathon Expo event shirts (I drew the "@" sign in front of "Marathoner" on my back), met at the Staten Island Ferry terminal at 8:30 am on Sunday. The night before, I had gone to Target to buy supplies -- batteries, prepaid phone cards, dog food, baby wipes, towels, etc -- and I went down in my basement and found my 2008 Beijing Olympics backpack that had been unused, a giveaway to media there. I loaded it. Here is what the force of volunteers looked like as they gave directions to all of us awaiting the ferry ride:

All the volunteers you see with optic-yellow caps in this picture below had come from England. They were among so many internationals who wanted to do something after their marathon was canceled. I got to know a man from Denmark who said his goal was to run every marathon major, and since he could not, he wanted to be here.

We were split into several groups, and the thinking was that runners have a unique ability to "get to" areas and people most in need, using leg power. We would run anyway from 6-8 miles to 14+ miles on Staten Island, dropping off supplies and helping. When we got to Staten Island, a local who spoke to all of us came over to our group and said we should just get on the train and get to New Dorp as fast as possible.

We did that, and then we walked a mile over toward the coast, to the battered and shocking area along Cedar Grove Ave. Homes were swept off their foundation by the reported 14-foot surge of water. People were lost in the disaster. Houses had the eery spray-painted "FD OK" on the fronts, signifying the fire department had been through already. We deposited the contents of our backpacks at a long row of tables, each labeled "Men," "Women," "Children" and so forth. We were told to avoid overwhelming surviving residents with our presence, but instead to go around and simply ask how we could help.

They needed mostly cleanup supplies, because many of them were removing the visible signs of their despair -- ruined drywall, flooring, everything. I carried over a large roll of heavy-duty trash bags. "Take that to 65 Neptune. The resident requested it," said the woman at the relief-supply table. At 65 Neptune, there were at least 10 other NYC Marathon runners in an assembly line removing contents of the house, wearing masks. Missy, my new friend from Memphis, was so helpful as we walked around from street to street. She is a former E.R. nurse and I learned a lot from watching how she interacted.

This scene played out for hours in that area. I was not prepared for what I saw, but I was humbled and my greatest takeaway was this: THEY ARE HEARD. I was so moved by the mass of people all pitching in. Not just us runners, but the volunteers already on the scene. One guy, Richie, shook my hand and thanked us for coming, and he told me he was trying to get his brother to move out of his house to a hotel or shelter, but he wouldn't budge. "We took him some homemade (pasta) sauce," Richie said -- it was an Italian thing.

On Cedar Grove, we moved past U.S. flag-draped homes and got to one where a mother and her son were standing, chatting with helpers. I got down on my knee to meet Walter, her son, and we shook hands. He was clutching one of those white masks that residents and volunteers were wearing because of the dust. I realized then what I had come there for more than anything. I had a few personal things left in my backpack, and I emptied it. Then I asked the mom: "Could I give Walter the backpack?"

She said "He needs that for Boy Scouts," and then she broke into tears and cried in my arms. I asked if she could use the 2007 NYC Marathon mylar finisher blanket I still had from my first-ever marathon on its five-year anniversary, and she said, "Actually we have heat." That surprised me, in a good way. "Then maybe you know a neighbor who can use it," I said, as she took it. So amazing. All the stuff I crammed into my backpack, and then it was the actual backpack itself that in my own experience made the biggest difference. Thanks to my teammate Missy for taking this picture of the backpack handoff:

We walked around, through the streets, asking how we could possibly help. Sometimes, I felt in the way. I think that is a good thing. Work was being done, instead of crying out with no one hearing.

Then we resumed running. Anytime we weren't helping, we were running somewhere to be. I was stopped during part of the run to be interviewed by New York mag. I was happy to see so much media coverage.

It was unbelievable to see what could happen when people come together, right there in the center of devastation. I know that so many places felt the wrath of Sandy. We at Major League Baseball also have donated $1 million, and I am proud of my company for that. I see it all over. I just wanted to give a public thanks to sports Dr. Jordan Metzl and others who started the New York Runners In Support Of Staten Island movement. And I want to thank other NYC Marathon runners who donated at Sunday's Run Anyway NYC Marathon -- including Runners World legend Amby Burfoot -- and all the others who pitched in to help in whatever way they could. Mayor Michael Bloomberg (right), who originally had stood by his decision to go with the marathon and then finally relent and cancel it, even showed up in a surprise meeting with Metzl where we had worked.

It is also important not to feel like this is a recap of anything. This is a work in progress. People are still suffering, people are still trying to reach each other. Nothing is done. This is just an update on one thing that happened on Sunday. I hope it will give others an idea how they might help.

Lastly, I want to say that I am always restless the night before a marathon or half-marathon, but I never have felt the rush of excitement and anticipation that I felt in trying to sleep Saturday night, knowing we were going to do something as one to help others. And my thoughts are most definitely with those who still are struggling to restore lives after Sandy, and for those who were were lost and who lost so much.

More pictures:

1 comment:

EVW Communications said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for being part of the efforts. What a great day to be a marathoner! Our company also took part in the day and created a video documenting the events. Feel free to watch and share: