Superstorm Sandy pummeled the New York City area on October 29, six days before the NYC marathon was scheduled to begin. While the storm left almost 100,000 homes damaged or destroyed and 2.2 million residents without power, it did not prompt an immediate cancellation of the race.
The scathing criticism started immediately. Runners and the public accused the New York Road Runners, which organizes the race, of being tone-deaf to the suffering throughout the city, and especially on Staten Island, where the marathon starts. Less than 40 hours before the start, Mayor Michael Bloomberg canceled the event.
Runners were furious (an estimated 40,000 were already in the city or the tri-state area). The NYRR then made no meaningful public statements in the more than six weeks between the cancellation and its announcement regarding options for 2012 registrants. The move came off as clueless in an age when runners are used to constant communication with races via social media.
Here, NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg acknowledges where the NYRR fell short and how this year's race will be different.
Mary Wittenberg: To constantly communicate with runners and media, even if it means saying, "We're working on it." We need to overcommunicate with our runners through social media and e-mail. Both before and after the race was canceled, we didn't update enough. We were always waiting until we knew what to share. We went really quiet in a way that's not like us, and when our runners needed us most, they didn't have that flow of conversation.
RW: In what ways do you plan to upgrade communication?
MW: For anything requiring specific attention, we'll send out e-mails, social media posts, and digital alerts. For race day, we'll have an Event Alert System. Color-coded flags at the start, finish, and medical stations along the course will communicate course conditions based on weather and other factors (low: green, moderate: yellow, high: red, extreme: black). All runners should remain alert for directions from race officials.
We'll have a hotline number printed on bibs and credentials, and we've deployed an Interactive Response System—when you call and enter a bib number, you'll be informed if your runner passed the finish or is in a medical facility. If it's the latter, you'll be transferred to a person who will direct you to the correct hospital.
RW: Does NYRR plan to communicate more frequently during the year?
We've made great strides. We've hired a Director of Digital and Social Media, a Social Media Manager, and a Director of Runner and Member Services. Our new communication initiatives include the launch of MyNYRR (an online tool that helps runners register for races, find volunteer opportunities, and join classes), a feedback panel for runners to comment on NYRR policies and potential plans, a reinvigorated Facebook community, and improved engagement with club teams.
RW: What type of community outreach has the NYRR done this year to support those affected by Sandy?
MW: In December, we helped runners at the NYRR Ted Corbitt Classic 15K donate to several Sandy-related charities, and we facilitated donations to Toys for Tots and the NY Cares Coat Drive. In March during the NYC Half weekend, our Run the City program offered discounts to 40 establishments in the Seaport area and lower Manhattan; at the Brooklyn Half in May, we did the same for the Coney Island area.
In July, Major League Baseball partnered with us for the MLB All-Star 5-K in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. All net proceeds from that event were donated to charities supporting Sandy relief efforts. And on October 13, NYRR partnered with Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro to support Staten Island Day; the event included the SI Half-Marathon, and NYRR donated net proceeds from the race to Staten Island recovery programs—at least $100,000 [estimated at press time].
RW: Given the Boston bombings, will there be more security this year?
MW: Many pre-race events -- including the Expo, Opening Ceremony, and Marathon Eve Dinner -- will feature bag screening, metal detector screening, and increased video surveillance. There will be explosive-detector dogs at all race-related public events and at bag checkpoints in the Family Reunion and VIP areas. At the start, finish, and across the course, we'll have more private security resources and use explosive-detector canine units.
RW: Can runners access the same areas?
MW: Yes, but runners should expect additional bag inspections and enforcement of prohibited items like hydration backpacks, weight vests, or vests with pockets when accessing the starting village and corrals. Any bags other than the clear, plastic Start Village bag (for items left at the start) and UPS bag (for items transported to the finish) are also prohibited.
RW: Are family meeting areas the same?
Same location, yes. NYRR is working to finalize access procedures.
RW: Are there any restrictions on what spectators in certain areas near the course can carry?
MW: As always, VIPs and spectators can view the marathon finish from the bleachers in Central Park and in Columbus Circle, although all attendees will be subject to bag inspection and limitations on large items (e.g., strollers, luggage, large packages) in those areas.
RW: Are trash cans along the course and in the park going to be modified?
MW: We're addressing this on a case-by-case basis, and implementing the use of transparent receptacles and waste-collection methods where possible.
RW: Will there be specific events held addressing Sandy and Boston?
MW: Yes, but we aren't ready to share details of these plans yet.