Security not a distraction for athletes
NEW YORK -- This has been a year like no other in the marathon world, and yet on the eve of Sunday's New York City Marathon, there is a sense of business as usual because intensity is simply part of business here.
This is the city that hosted a marathon two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and it's not as if organizers or public safety officials have stood down since then. Operations and techniques have been tweaked and re-tweaked. This week, spokespeople from the city and New York Road Runners said what one would expect them to say, on and off the record. There will be more plainclothes police, more mobile surveillance cameras, more checkpoints and metal detectors and bag checks and bomb-sniffing dogs, more hoops to jump through to get a credential that allows access to the start and finish lines and the medical areas.
None of the elite athletes find this particularly oppressive, least of all Wesley Korir, the charismatic Kenyan recently elected to his country's parliament.
Korir, 30, won the 2012 Boston Marathon in sweltering heat and came back to finish fifth overall this year on a day when the bombings erased any interest in that result. Perhaps more than anyone in the field, he understands how to balance the joy of competition and the need to be prudent.
Back home, he trains with two bodyguards -- one in a car and one on foot, a former Kenyan distance runner named Charles Seronei.
"The government was good enough to look for me a 2:06 marathoner," Korir said, referring to Seronei's personal-best time set in Rotterdam in 2006. "He's the one that runs, make sure cars coming behind, cars coming in front. He runs in front of me to block the car. If a car's coming back, he's behind me to tell the cars slow down."
Korir will be running for the first time in New York City, an event that resumes Sunday after the natural disaster of Hurricane Sandy forced its cancellation last year. He said the horrible man-made event at the Boston Marathon has made him more vigilant about his surroundings at the start and finish lines, "who is next to you, what they're carrying." But he doesn't expect those concerns to distract him out on the course.
He's also realistic about how much officials can prevent. "The police or the army cannot do all the security," Korir said. "People [civilians] are the ones that need to help with security.
"Think about the day after [Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] was caught and he was hiding in a boat. The police, they closed all of the streets, but they couldn't find him. But it took one guy calling the police and saying, 'He's here.' So that's the importance of civilians being part of it. That's one thing that I took a lot from the Boston Marathon."
Boston-area native Shalane Flanagan was deeply affected by the violence at the event she has attended since she was a little girl, but six months later, she does not feel like extra precautions at big races have altered their spirit.
"I think [the tragedy] just gives everyone a sense of purpose and passion that's elevating," said Flanagan, who is running in Saturday's New York Road Runners 5K. "I don't think it's changing the sport for any worse. If anything, it's bringing people closer together and sharing their stories.
"I don't think it affects things in a negative way," she said of the added security, noting that she had to pass through a metal detector on her way into the media tent, a new feature this year. "I think it just makes people on their toes and appreciate when things run smoothly."
Elite steeplechaser Delilah DiCrescenzo, who is leaving that specialty behind, said she is making her marathon debut in New York partly because her drive to run on the road has been "fortified" by the losses caused by the hurricane and bombings.
"You hear about things that happen overseas and things that have a political agenda, terrible things, but at a marathon where everybody is coming together in a positive way to achieve their goals and to run for somebody else, it really hit close to home," she said of Boston.
"It made me want to be a part [of it], like to be really proud of being a part of this community and want to take part in this. I know that the New York Road Runners are going to do everything they can to make sure we're well taken care of on Sunday. I have absolutely no trepidations there."
This year it will undoubtedly be harder for anyone on or alongside the course to relax until the last amateur runners trudge over the finish line. The last 400 meters, starting at Columbus Circle, will bear a tangible reminder of what has changed. A yellow stripe is being painted alongside the race's traditional blue one so the colors of the Boston Athletic Association will be what finishers see down the center of the road in the homestretch.
"It is something that's a wake-up call that we live in a world that is going somewhere that we don't like it," Korir said. "But as runners, all I can say is terrorists are doing the wrong thing to try to attack the runners because we will run more and run more and more and more to prove them wrong. They will never defeat us. They will never intimidate us. They are targeting the wrong group of people."