Hurricane Sandy Sweeps Away N.Y. Marathon, Makes Way for Tikkun Olam

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

NEW YORK - “We were all sitting around thinking, ‘dude, this is a shame,’” says Jordan Metzl, a celebrated sports medicine doctor and award winning author of fitness books, who was signed up to run this past Sunday’s New York Marathon. The 46-year-old Kansas City native turned New Yorker, who grew up going to Hebrew day school, can say that in Hebrew too, incidentally. “It’s chaval,” he throws out with a grin, “but then again, I’m like ‘dude, let's turn this whole thing around.’”

The first Sunday in November is typically a big day for both Staten Island and the vast marathon community. For that’s the day when, every single year since 1970, tens of thousands of pumped-up runners from around the world line up right here, at the tip of the 59-square-mile borough, near the approach to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

And then, with friends cheering, music blasting, cameras popping, and some 2 million spectators lining the 42-kilometer route ahead, they go charging off, stumbling over each other as they cross the bridge towards Brooklyn and onwards through Queens and the Bronx on their way toward the finish line in Manhattan’s Central Park: Proud participants in one of the world’s biggest, best known, and most beloved marathons.

This year it wasn't quite so smooth. Not for Staten Island, where it all usually begins, nor for the approximately 47,000 runners from far and wide who were trained up, psyched up and ready for the 2012 race through these five boroughs.
Last week’s monster storm Sandy claimed the lives of more than 100 people in 10 states and left massive destruction and misery in its wake. New York was hit particularly hard, with Staten Island suffering terribly. Twenty-one people were killed here, including two young boys who were snatched right out of their mother’s arms by the waves as she tried to evacuate. Homes were washed away, trees fell onto cars, and tens of thousands among the half a million residents were left shivering and scared without power, gas, fuel or much comfort.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg originally announced that, despite the chaos, the marathon would take place as planned – serving, much like it did in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as a symbol of the city’s resilience. But mounting charges of insensitivity and concern that the race would divert badly needed rescue resources forced Bloomberg to belatedly backpedal. He cancelled the race late Friday afternoon, long after most out-of-towners – who make up over half the runners – had already arrived in the city, spending large sums of money along the way.

“Everyone was disappointed, but everyone also got it,” says Metzl, who started emailing back and forth Friday evening with a small group of his running friends, bouncing around ideas for something alternative to do Sunday. “I’m thinking, ‘how do we put all these healthy legs and spirits to good use?’” he recalls.

“We tossed out all sorts of ideas, like running in the park and collecting money to donate to the relief efforts, or holding some sort of fundraiser,” says Lindsay Meyers, one of Metzl’s friends. A school psychologist who also grew up going to Jewish day school – in her case on Long Island – Meyers once spent a semester of college at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, starring on the girls' basketball team there.

“Finally,” she says, “we were like, 'how about running to Staten Island with provisions and distributing them. You know, running and helping out at the same time’?”

“A Jewish angle?” laughs Metzl, “Well, it takes a good Jew to organize this whole thing,” he says, giving his younger brother Jamie, who is just walking by, a bear hug.

“It’s tikkun olam,” chimes in Jamie, 44, who says all the Metzl brothers (there are four – Jordan, Jamie, Jonathan and Josh) were brought up believing in the importance of this principle. “It’s what we were taught at home. It’s about contributing to your community and giving back.”

The elder Metzls set the bar high when it came to giving and contributing, Jamie says. Dad Kurt is a pediatrician and mom Marilyn, a psychiatrist. In fact, Jamie, a financier who worked in the Clinton White House and once ran for Congress, is the only Metzl in the family not to have a medical degree. But, his Jewish mother need not panic, for he is a doctor nonetheless with a PhD from Oxford and a law degree from Harvard. Whew.

Dedicating oneself to helping others was not the only lesson passed down along the generations in this Missouri family. So, too, was the idea of healthy, sporty living. All the sons, with the exception of eldest brother Jonathan, who, says Jamie, is great runner, but just not as crazy into it as the others – are avid competitive sportsmen with dozens of triathlons, Ironmans, marathons and ultra-marathons between them. Mom and Dad Metzl, more the ballroom dancing types, are their sons' biggest supporters, often riding alongside races on bicycles to cheer.

Neither Jordan, for whom Sunday’s race would have been his 30th marathon, nor Jamie have ever competed in a marathon in Israel, but Jamie, on holiday there last year, did compete in three shorter races in the country, coming in first in his age group in the Jerusalem 10km night run. “Maybe next year,” says Jordan.

Back to Friday night: Jordan’s emails about what to do Sunday were getting forwarded around, soon landing where all things do nowadays – Facebook. At that point, it was only a matter of hours before hundreds, and then thousands, were “liking” the freshly minted “New York Runners in Support of Staten Island” group, asking how they too could participate and help out.

There were volunteers to collect food, clothes and cleaning materials and volunteers to buy phone cards, batteries, flashlights, and medicine. There was a volunteer that set up a bank account for donations and dozens who offered to help coordinate with the existing relief centers on the island. “We wanted people to just show up and say ‘What can we do?’ says Meyers, “but we also wanted to have a clue as to what was needed and where.”

Cut to Sunday morning at 8 A.M. at the Staten Island ferry terminal at the tip of Manhattan, now back in operation and jam-packed with runners and supplies. Jordan, in an orange baseball cap, was there with a bullhorn directing the action. Jamie was shifting through thousands of donated power bars and Meyers was handing out maps and giving team leaders arm bands and instructions. Over 1000 would-be marathoners showed up – most wearing their orange marathon shirts, and many with their numbers proudly pinned on too.

As the ferry motored by the Statue of Liberty, a continuous stream of runners approached Jordan to high-five him, shake his hand and chat. “Great job organizing this!” said one Brit, who was celebrating his 60thbirthday that very day. “I only want to say thank you,” said a runner who had come in from India. ““Do you know where the ferry toilets are?” asked a girl from Pennsylvania. A group of runners from Australia snapped photos of themselves. A marathoner from Italy did some flirting with an attractive runner from Argentina. “Want a Power Bar?” was his line.

Once on Staten Island, with the temperatures plummeting down to about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and teeth chattering, the runners were off, heading toward New Dorp Beach, Oakwood and Great Kills, schlepping everything from diapers to cans of tuna fish to leftover Halloween candy, all stuffed in knapsacks and slug across on their backs. A few runners ran pulling carry on suitcases filled with water bottles or toiletries behind them. Others showed up pushing baby carriages loaded with warm clothes and construction tools.

Mary Wittenberg, president of the New York Road Runners, which organizes the marathon, who has been a lightning rod for criticism all week – both when she pushed for the race to go on, and then when she supported the cancellation, was among the runners out on Staten Island, looking almost as harried as those she had come to help. She gamely handed out blankets and food. “It was not an easy week for anyone,” she allowed.

A few passersby cheered. A driver or two, half asleep in cars stuck in long lines to refuel looked up and honked. Marines, who had been sent in to go house to house along the eastern shore and survey the damage, nodded.

Residents mostly looked confused. “The marathon's cancelled! Haven’t you heard, fools?” called out a restaurant owner whose establishment was completely flooded. Informed that the runners were there to help out, he raised an eyebrow. Did anyone have a flashlight for him? “Yes” Batteries? “Of course.” He pushed his luck. “Any chance I could get some of you strong folks to help me?” Sure, said Jordan. “Bevakasha” he added, and grinned.

New York City Marathon runners help clear debris from the homes of a damaged neighborhood in the Staten Island borough of New York November 4, 2012.Credit: Reuters
Runners participating in fun runs in and around Central Park after the New York Road Runners cancelled the 2012 New York Marathon due to the impact of Hurricane Sandy, Nov 4, 2012.Credit: Reuters