Reflections on not running the New York Marathon

Hundreds of displaced runners helped with the clean-up and distributed supplies instead of running in the marathon yesterday.

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Staten Island, New York

Six months of marathon training prepares for you most eventualities. But there was nothing I could say to console Kulib Abbas as he stared at his daughter's room that had been ripped from its house and dumped on the beach nearly a mile away. Sifting through the wreckage, the 67-year-old taxi driver who arrived in America three years ago, insisted all that he wanted to find were some old photos of the family. Everything else was just possessions. "Look, it's my Vitamin B12," he said, crouching down as if claiming treasure.

Scenes like this were not untypical in the Oakwood district of Staten Island where I spent yesterday with hundreds of displaced marathon runners distributing supplies and helping with the clean-up. It may not have burned the 2,800 calories of a 26 mile run, but the endorphin hit came from something not always typical of runners: coming out a quest for glory in a bid to help others.

That help was needed on Staten Island yesterday. It has already been labelled the "forgotten borough" of Manhattan. Criticism has levied that New York and New Jersey has received the bulk of the relief efforts, while others have been left behind.

Many did not hide their frustration at the delay in relief efforts. Lorraine Medina, a 46-year-old bookkeeper, was rescued on Monday after her house was submerged in more than three metres of water. "We call ourselves the ugly step-children of New York City. And you know what? We're OK with that," she said. "We can take care of ourselves."

It's no wonder. With neither the social glamour of the East Village nor the financial prowess of Wall Street, Staten Island is a middle and working class borough still reeling after the storm. Swathes of the borough remain without heat, light or water while some houses have been reduced to rubble. 

Until the marathon was scrapped on Friday evening, it would have been where more 40,000 runners descended. It is an irony not lost on residents, who have been craving help - not runners - for over a week. "Before Mayor Bloomberg cancelled the marathon, the runners were saying its their entitlement and we weren't getting a good feeling at all," Medina said. "Now the outpouring of people willing to help is making me feel a bit better again."

Down the road I met Nancy Hamer, a displaced medic who lives with her daughter. She could not hold back tears as volunteers emptied her home of its property. "Yes, it's all just stuff but it's also my life," she said. "I raised my daughter from just six-months-old here. This house was my crowning glory for years of suffering and now it's all gone."

As New York returns to its feet, parts of Staten Island remain left behind. The streets of Oakwood yesterday resembled a jumble sale, with widescreen televisions, CDs, exercise bikes and Lego among the items left out to dry. With so many belongings strewn everywhere, there are questions over ownership rights and insurance claims. "Obama has insisted there will be no bureaucracy or red-tape yet 90 per cent of people here have no idea what they're meant to do now," said Jose Torrerez, a disabled plumber, who lost half his possessions in the storm.

Runners may be miffed that the event was cancelled. Some think the decision could have been handled better. In the end it makes no difference. Last week the President said America truly "rises and falls as one nation". But it's more than that. The very idea of those in distress being met by lycra-clad runners eager to get off the island as fast as humanly possible would be a stain on any conscience. Not least my own.

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