This weekend's competition in Wisconsin is a bit more intense than it was in your grade school gym class.
There was a thin blue line to mark the marathon course for the men who ran the Olympic Marathon in Munich in 1972. A similar blue line has also always marked the course for the marathon that passes through the five boroughs of New York City every year. But on Sunday, when more than 40,000 runners approach the finish line of the race in Central Park, they will notice the blue line is joined now by a yellow line. Blue and yellow are the colors of the Boston Marathon finish line.
That’s just one reason why Sunday’s New York Marathon will be special. The race starts on Staten Island, which was of course heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy last October. After the storm hit, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was determined to go ahead with the race, because it would help the city move forward, just like it did after the 9/11 attack.
But this time it was too soon to move forward.
People in the storm-ravaged areas were outraged that generators and supplies they couldn’t get access to were being used to support the race. So on the Friday before the marathon was supposed to be run, Mayor Bloomberg reversed course and canceled it. The decision came 40 hours before the start, when thousands of runners were already in New York.
Mary Wittenberg is the CEO of the New York Road Runners, the organization that puts the race on every year. She was caught up in the controversy over what to do about the race at this time last year.
“We began moving forward with the marathon with the belief that it could help the city,” she told me this week. “You know, among the lessons learned really was that a longer pause was probably needed. We have this collective belief in the power of the marathon and all the positive it can do and typically does for our city, but it was a year when what was really needed was something very different.”
So on that weekend and on race day in 2013, Mary and many runners were on Staten Island, helping in the relief effort, distributing some of the supplies that had been intended for the runners in the New York Marathon.
A year later, it’s time to run again and Wittenberg says you can feel the city gathering around the race. “The energy in the city is amazing. You know it’s got a nice feeling of running in support of those affected by Sandy.”
Five months after Sandy, the unthinkable happened in Boston. Two bombs exploded near the finish line of the marathon. Three people were killed. More than 260 injured. Mary Wittenberg is always in Boston for the race. She watched the race, but she was on a train heading back to New York when she started to get text messages about what had happened in Boston. Which brings us back to those lines, blue and yellow painted on the street near the finish line of the New York Marathon in Central Park.
“This is our opportunity to support Boston, to run in honor of those that were hurt and lost,” she said. “You know the whole running community worldwide and our whole city of New York feel so connected to Boston. So this day, we feel a responsibility to really help honor and remember Boston. If we can do that in New York and continue to show that terror can’t stop what is the beauty of these days in our cities, then we will have taken advantage of the opportunity we have in New York on Sunday.”
The running of the 1972 Olympic Marathon came just days after the horror of the deadly attack on the Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village.
You could say that the thin blue line that marked the marathon course in West Germany that day now stretches to New York and Boston, cities that are now unfortunately also not strangers to terror.
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