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Friday, March 22, 2013
Runners help communities get back on their feet

By Rachel Cooperman

A year ago, in March 2012, Brian Lang underwent major spinal surgery.

And that wasn't the low point of what the 44-year-old calls the toughest year of his life.

But on Sunday, Lang was one of 14,500 runners who took part in the New York City Half, the first major road race in New York City since Hurricane Sandy forced the cancellation of the New York City Marathon in November.

It must seem like a lifetime ago, but it was just May when Lang, the father of two girls -- 9-year-old Rory and 8-year-old Carly -- decided it was time to get his act together and started to run. The electrician foreman hadn't raced in 25 years.

Over the past 10 months, he's done multiple road races, triathlons and half-marathons. He credits his training partner and neighborhood friend, retired firefighter Matt Long, for helping him get back in shape.

"I'm just a normal guy who put on his sneakers to run," he said.

October nightmare

In October, Lang took a trip with some friends to a Giants game in Dallas. When Lang saw the Dallas Half-Marathon was Oct. 27, he registered and ran a personal best: 1 hour, 42 minutes flat.

While in Texas, weather reports of an impending hurricane made Lang nervous. His wife, Tracy, two kids and much of their family was at home in Breezy Point, Queens, and planned to wait out the storm. It was Oct. 28. He will never forget he was supposed to see the Giants-Cowboys game that day.

Lang skipped the game and arrived home at 6:30 p.m. He led his family out of the house and left all their belongings behind. The Wedge section of Breezy Point, where they lived, went down in fires that engulfed more than 100 homes. His sister-in-law and nephew, along with his wife's parents, barely got out alive. They jumped from a second-floor window into neck-deep water and watched as everything crumbled.

Lang got the news from his running buddy, Long.

"It's all gone," Long texted.

Most of the homes in Breezy Point were damaged; Lang's home, Long's home and the homes of family members had burned to the ground. The ones left standing weren't safe or livable.

"There was never time for tears," Lang said. "But there was also a lot of stress -- it was a powder keg."

It was three weeks later when Lang finally got back to running.

He couldn't justify a selfish run, but maybe he could use it to help others?

It didn't matter that it was raining or that there was no house there anymore; Lang just ran. On the main drag into Breezy Point, he heard a car horn honk. It was his neighbors, folks he'd known most of his life. They were glad to see him and get a glimpse of something normal. It was so simple and innocent, yet they later told him it lifted their spirits when nothing else could.

Lang knew his town was in trouble, and he was relieved when he saw the Habitat for Humanity vans pull in -- they needed all the help they could get.

Lang still feels the same way, which is why he ran for Habitat for Humanity of Bergen County in Sunday's race. For him, it wasn't just a run; it was a chance to support his neighborhood, to help his family and to try to find normalcy in all the chaos.

As soon as he announced his plan to run the Half, his friends in Breezy Point and beyond donated; he raised $10,000 in 10 days from private donors, people like him who've been through the worst. He expects to turn over $12,000 to Habitat to help with recovery.

"This race means so much in the healing process for my community," he said.

Lang's family, who lost everything, is still displaced and is living in Brooklyn. His daughters commute 45 minutes to school so they can reconnect with their community and friends. One of Lang's best outlets is running. He finished the Half in 1:52:37, and his friends said they were proud of him, which meant more than any medal.

"l was looking to make changes in my own life by starting to run again," Lang said. "Now I'm helping my community heal through my actions. I can hardly believe it."

Businesses benefit, too

Although miles away from Lang's home, Peter O'Connell, owner of the Open Door Gastropub at Manhattan's South Street Seaport, knows the story all too well. During Sandy, there was 6 feet of water in his restaurant. His other sports café, the Paris Bar and Grill, a few blocks closer to the pier, is still under construction. Eleven feet of water in there caused a lot of damage.

As runners crossed the finish line Sunday and their families left the course looking for food, local businesses benefited.

"We're booked solid for brunch today," O'Connell said. "Events like this morning help us. What we need is the rehabilitation downtown. It needs to be a destination again."

As people move back into this neighborhood and the Seaport is rebuilt, recovery will speed, and events like the New York City Half help. Bars and restaurants like O'Connell's were part of a New York Road Runners' program called Run the City that provided deals and discounts over race weekend.

Runner and Sandy volunteer Jordan Metzl said it was his first time running to the southern tip of Manhattan since he volunteered on Staten Island in November.

"It felt like it was back to normal," he said. "There is no better group of people, generous in spirit, than runners."

Charity support was also a huge component. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training (TNT) had more than 400 charity runners in the race. Many of their spectators, staff, volunteers and runners recounted trips to Staten Island several months ago. The team encouraged runners to replace practice with a day of volunteering. On marathon Sunday, they sent buses filled with more than 150 volunteers. TNT has had two staff trips to Staten Island and Rockaway.

Native New Yorker and TNT staffer Lindsay Vogelman will remember Sandy's damage forever. She lost her cousin, Jacob, when a tree fell on him in Brooklyn. But volunteering was something positive she could do to help.

"Everyone rallied together," she said.

"Volunteering that first weekend [after Sandy] was the most heartbreaking and rewarding thing I've ever done," said Samantha Mann of TNT.

That same sentiment was echoed by many other runners.

Lisa Ewart, a mother of three from Englewood, N.J., collected donations from everyone she knew after Sandy. She also joined a grassroots group called Jersey City Sandy Recovery, which matched families with donations. Her can-do mentality is something that's part of her, just like being a runner. She was one of Lang's teammates, running to support Habitat.

In recent months, she's become a group advocate who coordinates volunteers, manages caseloads and works directly with residents of two New Jersey trailer parks. She feels volunteering is the best way to spend her time.

"It's been humbling," said Ewart, who finished her first half-marathon in 2:30.55 on Sunday. "There will come a time when we can say that residents have recovered as best as they can with the resources available."