NY marathon run for relief

This happened several days ago, but it got mostly overlooked for all the bad, shocking and salacious news breaking over that time. Which makes it all the more important to highlight. It’s like a flash mob of charity, help and goodwill.

The New York Marathon is a big deal every year. Unfortunately, this year it was scheduled on a date right after the area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. So they had to cancel this major event. From there, it took on a life of its own.

I love this story.

On Friday evening, with slightly more than 36 hours to go before the 2012 ING New York City Marathon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg canceled the annual event, amid criticisms the runners would be siphoning off valuable resources needed in the city’s recovery from Superstorm Sandy. But the decision hardly discouraged a group of nearly 1,300 runners from boarding the Staten Island Ferry toward the starting line. Far from anticipating a grueling 26.2-mile run, however, these would-be racers ran their own marathon, carrying garbage bags and backpacks full of donated supplies ranging from blankets to Home Depot gift cards that they delivered to the destroyed homes of Staten Island residents.

“I’ve run the marathon three times, and there was an odd familiarity getting on the Staten Island Ferry this morning with a group of runners for a completely different reason,” says runner and New Yorker Jon Bennion. “It was fascinating, the anxiety and jitters were replaced by an overwhelming sense of community.”

This is great.

The group, organized over Facebook by Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports-medicine physician at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery, met early Sunday morning and divided into groups to run the supplies to the most severely damaged neighborhoods on the island. Metzl, who carried a backpack filled with batteries, says he had expected about 300 runners, but was surprised by the overwhelming number of volunteers who showed up.

“It is one of the most compelling things I’ve ever seen in my life,” Metzl says. “Part of the myth of this whole thing was that runners were callous to the suffering and just wanted to run their marathon. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

On a bright, sunny day with cool temperatures perfect for racing, the runners disembarked from the ferry with a kickoff cheer, but it didn’t take long before the route transformed into a somber reminder of why city councilmen and New Yorkers suffering power outages and flood damage vehemently argued the marathon should not continue.

“All of a sudden, we turned a corner and everyone was cleaning out their basements. Sidewalks were gone, replaced by sinkholes,” says Emily Snyder, an avid runner who discovered the New York Runners in Support of Staten Island group online. “People were cleaning out all their stuff by the handful. The gas lines are astronomically long. It’s shocking.”

They ran miles of routes to deliver goods and clear out homes that smelled of rotting books and furniture.

“We have a runner from England and a runner from Scotland who came to New York to run their first marathon and found out about this over Twitter. They’ve never even heard of Staten Island, and for them to come out here and spend the day cleaning this man’s home is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

This year’s race would have marked Metzl’s 30th marathon, but he says the cancellation was unsurprising given the wreckage. “It wasn’t even a question to come here,” he says. “This is the right thing to do. It’s more gratifying than any run I have ever done.”

Because it was for a cause far greater than the self, and it revealed the true excellence of the runners. It’s the humanity that transcends any event, even one caused by a force of nature, that’s the real story behind the story.

But even after these runners turned in what may have been their personal best, and returned to their homes around the world, the reality stays bleak in the New York area, in Staten Island and the Rockaways and areas of New Jersey, it’s still raw and devastating and still trying human endurance.

CBS’s 60 Minutes did a report over the weekend on the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, talking with ‘ordinary folks’ from the Rockaways about their survival and cleanup efforts, and to a person, they seemed like heroes.

Scott Pelley: Who lives here? What kind of neighborhood is it?

Susan Brady: This is three F’s. Family, friends, and faith. Everybody cares about each other…

Belle Harbor is down there below Manhattan, in Queens on a strip of sand called the Rockaway Peninsula. The Atlantic is to the south. Jamaica Bay, to the north, separates what they call the Rockaways from the island of Manhattan. After 1900, it was a beach resort. But over the years it settled into what were neat rows of middle class homes. The streets are piled high with sand now. The main drag has been knocked out of business. But a neighborhood is made of people and here they take care of their own.

During the storm, Mike McDonnell sheltered in a house with his neighbors when the tidal surge began filling the street.

Mike McDonnell: The windows blew in. You’ll hear, pop, pop, pop, pop. And all the water came rushing in. It came right up the stairwell. I said, “I’m going to the front of the house to see how much tide is still gonna rise.” At that moment, a gas line blew. And there were, there were embers of flames pouring over the house. The equal to that of a snow globe. If you shake a snow globe and you see all the white coming down. But this was raining fire.

When the house burst into flame, McDonnell wanted to lead everyone through the tide to a house across the street. He’s not the kind who gives up easily. He’s had 60 surgeries for skin cancer. McDonnell found that he didn’t have a rope for the rescue, so he made one.

Scott Pelley: Extension cords and twine and lamp cords. So the rope led from where to where?

Mike McDonnell: The rope here went from the banister over to the tree here.

Right there, where it’s tied to the tree, is how high the water was. McDonnell showed us how a neighbor on a surfboard tied the other end across the street. McDonnell used this lifeline as he carried six people, one at a time.

Mike McDonnell: I tell you, first of all, we’re being chased by fire. And then the other alternative is to jump into raging water that looked like tsunami waters.

Scott Pelley: Not good options.

Mike McDonnell: This whole thing was fueled by nothing more than hope and trust.

Scott Pelley: Why was this your job?

Mike McDonnell: Because I promised them that nothing would happen to them. There’s something great about this community. Everyone in this community, they’re all first responders. They’re firemen. They’re police officers. Rockaway has a great fabric running through it, through everybody here, where they don’t mind putting their lives on the line, if there’s a possibility to save another.

This is what’s going on right now, and will for some time, while politics and scandal continue to dominate headlines. It’s a reminder that news stories – all news stories – are about people. And choices.