Marathon a milestone on city's long road to recovery

War against terror: Regeneration
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The Independent US

New Yorkers were dealing yet again with the regular inconvenience of closed bridges and traffic diversions yesterday as police officers put up barricades and redirected drivers down unfamiliar avenues. But it was runners – not bombers – who were responsible for the confusion and nobody was about to complain.

New Yorkers were dealing yet again with the regular inconvenience of closed bridges and traffic diversions yesterday as police officers put up barricades and redirected drivers down unfamiliar avenues. But it was runners – not bombers – who were responsible for the confusion and nobody was about to complain.

Across the city, the mood was as cheerful as could be imagined just two months after terrorists slammed two jets into the towers of the World Trade Centre. Yesterday, it was the 32nd New York Marathon and record numbers of spectators lined the route of the race, which snaked through the five boroughs of the city, all the way from Staten Island to the finishing line in Central Park in Manhattan.

Indeed, there was almost a giddiness in Gotham yesterday. Marathons are always emotional events. Competitors come from every corner of the world. Some run to win. Others run for fun or simply for a sense of once-in-a-lifetime personal achievement. There are running waiters and there are handicapped athletes in wheelchairs. This race was different though. They were also running for the dead.

The skyline told the main story as runners left the crowded starting area on Staten Island and surged onto the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, taking them across the water of New York Harbour into Brooklyn. To the north, under a sparkling November sky, shimmered the buildings of lower Manhattan and the financial district. Everybody looked and saw what was no longer there –the twin towers.

The race ushered in what promised to be an extraordinary 72 hours in the life of this city. Last night, the Yankees, the beloved baseball heroes of the Bronx, were due to face the Arizona Diamondbacks in the seventh – and therefore decisive – game of the World Series. The series has been a thriller with many expecting the Gods to give the championship to the team from the city that suffered so much on 11 September. But the Gods do not always listen, even to hopeful New Yorkers.

Dreamers had also been hoping for celestial intervention in the marathon. An American winner of the marathon would have been nice. It was not to be, however. Instead, Tesfaye Jifar of Ethiopia crossed the line first with a time of 2 hours, seven minutes and forty three seconds. No one has run the New York marathon faster. Britain's John Brown came in fifth.

There is also political sport going on. Tomorrow is polling day in America and few races have garnered more attention than the battle between Michael Bloomberg, the financial news mogul, and his Democrat rival Mark Green to take over as New York's mayor. For months, no one gave Mr Bloomberg much of a chance of winning. But polls now show a tight contest that just may go the Republican's way.

Few mayoral contests in recent times can have been as important as this one. Whoever wins on Tuesday will face the daunting task of overseeing the rebuilding of lower Manhattan at a time when the city's finances are suddenly sliding into a fiscal abyss. And yet, so far, city residents seem to have paid scant attention to the Bloomberg-Green match-up. There has been so much competition for their attention. New Yorkers have been dealing with death and with anthrax and with just trying to live normally.

"New Yorkers are not focused on politics so much as they are focused on daily living," noted political strategist Hank Sheinkopf, citing "the anthrax scare, the terrorist attack and the potential for another terrorist attack".

If New Yorkers awake this morning to find that the Yankees have triumphed in Phoenix – as if almost the entire population was not preparing last night to stay up late to watch the final World Series game on television – the city will have to prepare quickly for another day of outdoors hoopla. Officials said a victory will be marked by a team parade down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan this afternoon.

All these events happening at once bring their own security nightmares, of course. Almost double the usual contingent of 2,300 police officers were deployed to ensure safety at yesterday's marathon, with extra guards provided by private security firms. New York Harbour was closed to all shipping for the day and sniffer dogs were patrolling the five bridges the runners would cross during the course of the marathon. Runners were told to take drinks from official watering stations and not from strangers.

Organisers had feared large numbers of entrants would drop out after the events of 11 September. Many runners had feared the race would be cancelled. In the end, there were only a few withdrawals by nervous competitors and no real thought was given to shelving what remains one of the world's most important and celebrated marathons.

"I was waiting for a phone call saying the race was canceled," conceded Silvio Guerra of Ecuador who was runner-up in the Boston Marathon. "I'm glad it didn't come. I'm here to bring some energy to the city. That's what New York people need now."

Patrice Hutin, before the start, said: "We had to be sure we still wanted to do it." He had travelled from London to take part in the race. Just days before, he and his wife, Regine, were unsure whether it was safe to run. "But here we are. I'm pretty sure everything's going to be OK."

You did not have to search long through the ranks of runners to find personal stories connected to 11 September. Ralph Maerz, 56, was running in the place of his 29-year-old son, Noell, who was among those who perished in New York when the towers collapsed. "This is the best therapy," said Mr Maerz.

Larry Parker, a fireman in the city, was running for the New York Firefighters' Widows' and Children's Fund, with sponsorship from JP Morgan Chase, a banking firm. Mr Parker, who started last in the race, was set to receive $5 (£3.40) from the bank for every runner he overtook before reaching the finishing line at Central Park's Tavern on the Green. "When you get tired, you tell yourself 'I can't get tired'. Running on emotion will definitely help," he said.

For every entrant, the point of running was to reaffirm life and reaffirm a love for New York. "I believe in life," said Russia's Lyudmila Petrova, the woman's champion in 2000. "Living in Russia is stressful too. You cannot just hide in your house. You have to live. Life changes. You have a happiness and you have a sadness. You have to face it. You have to believe in good things".

It may take until Tuesday, after the marathon runners are gone and the fate of the Yankees has been decided, before New Yorkers focus on the race that, ultimately, will matter the most. That is the one between Bloomberg and Green. This weekend, however, most were already aware of the surprising last-minute surge in the polls for Mr Bloomberg, boosted last week by an endorsement from the popular incumbent, Rudolph Giuliani.

"Bloomberg certainly has the momentum going for him," commented Mickey Blum, of the polling organisation Blum and Weprin. "Green has to do something strong, decisive and critical to turn the tide." A poll by Blum and Weprin published by the Daily News yesterday showed Mr Green clinging to a 43 per cent to 39 per cent edge over Mr Bloomberg.

"In large part, the undecided have moved toward Bloomberg rather than a shift from Green but there are still a large number of undecided voters who hold the balance of power," commented Lee Miringoff, a political analyst and polling veteran with the Marist Institute.

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