Nearly 1,300 runners volunteered to deliver supplies on Staten Island
Runners completed a 15-mile route, then stopped to help clear out a house
Thousands more ran around Central Park for their respective charities
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.”
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.”
Metzl and a group of runners completed a 15-mile route, distributing supplies along the way and then stopped to clear out the home of Alexandre Bersenev and his wife near Midland Beach.
“We walked into his house, and there was a disgusting, rotting smell from all their furniture and books. It looks like someone exploded a bomb inside the house,” says Metzl. “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.”
Homeowner Alexandre Bersenev, who moved to Staten Island from Russia in 1992, says Staten Island residents were aware of the controversy surrounding the marathon, and he’s thankful for the aid.
“It’s awful, my home is an absolute disaster. The runners removed so much debris, and they did it smiling. I am really touched.”
For those who didn’t join the impromptu relief run, thousands who had planned to complete the marathon for their respective charities lapped Central Park for an equally spontaneous way to creatively complete the 26.2 miles they would have run through the city’s five boroughs.
The finish line arch was still standing, and although gates and security guards prohibited runners from crossing under the signage, thousands veered around the blockades, leaning as close to the arch as the barriers would allow to take celebratory photos under the “Finish” sign.
“It would’ve been nice if they had opened the finish up for us,” says New Zealand runner Neil Anderson, who raised $200,000 for Catwalk, a charity supporting spinal-cord-injury research with 28 other runners. “I think the organizers were in a very difficult situation; it’s very understandable, but it’s hard on such a nice day like this.”
“Someone forgot to tell all these runners the marathon was canceled,” says Toni Rooney as her daughter Jessica ran by on the first lap of her customized version of the marathon. Jessica’s parents traveled from Orlando to watch Jessica run her first marathon.
“She trained all year and was hysterical it was canceled, but this is a really happy and special day,” says Jessica’s father, Tim Rooney. “Bloomberg should be here.”
Thor Gudjonsson, who finished four 6-mile laps around the park followed by an additional 2.2-mile loop with five other teammates from Iceland, says they wished the race was canceled earlier, before they made the trip.
“However, we completely understand why it was canceled,” says Gudjonsson. “We didn’t realize how severe the damage was until we got here.”
There won’t be any official winner of the 2012 New York City Marathon, and no official times recorded for the thousands who trained for the event as a personal challenge. But thousands of runners proved you don’t need official timekeepers to make a marathon worth running.
This story was originally published on TIME.com.