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Decision To Run NYC Marathon After Sandy Stirs Debate

2011 NYC Marathon (credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

2011 NYC Marathon (credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

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Superstorm Sandy

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Inspiring or inappropriate? New Yorkers and runners from around the world debated whether a marathon should be run with disaster for a backdrop.

The New York City Marathon is a go for Sunday, with many logistical questions to be answered.

“To us the marathon really epitomizes the spirit of New York City, the vitality, the tenacity, the determination of New Yorkers,” New York Road Runners President Mary Wittenberg said Wednesday shortly before Mayor Michael Bloomberg confirmed that the race was on. “Now our every effort is to once again tell the world that New York City, as the mayor would say, is open for business, and we welcome the support of the world at this trying time.”

Bloomberg insisted on Thursday that the marathon won’t divert resources from victims of Sandy’s devastation.

The mayor responded to criticism of his decision to hold the race at a news briefing. He noted that electricity is expected to be back on in downtown Manhattan by Sunday, freeing up an “enormous number of police.”

He said the sanitation workers and fire fighters who are aiding storm victims are not involved in the marathon.

“This city is a city where we have to go on,” said Bloomberg.

Race organizers were trying to assess how the widespread damage from Sandy might affect plans, including getting runners into the city and transporting them to the start line on Staten Island. Easing their worries a bit was news that 14 of the city’s 23 subway lines were operating by Thursday morning — though none below 34th Street, an area that includes the terminal for the ferries that go to the island.

“I think some people said you shouldn’t run the marathon,” Bloomberg said Wednesday. “There’s an awful lot of small businesses that depend on these people. We have to have an economy. There’s lots of people that have come here. It’s a great event for New York, and I think for those who were lost, you’ve got to believe they would want us to have an economy and have a city go on for those that they left behind.”

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Bloomberg said he may ask officials to enforce a time limit so “stragglers” wouldn’t have to run in darkness through areas that could possibly remain without power.

Runners like Josh Maio felt torn about whether the race should go on.

“It pulls resources and focus away from people in need,” said Maio, who dropped out due to an injury but is coaching about 75 runners.

He agrees the race is a boost to local businesses hurt by the storm — it brings an estimated $340 million to the city — but is uncomfortable with devoting so much attention to an “extracurricular” event.

City officials said that economic boost is exactly why the whole city is counting on the marathon.

“I think we need it. I’ve been all over the city, I’ve seen how hard-hit we are but I also know a lot of businesses are out of action, a lot of people are losing their jobs because of this. We need the business in the city, we need work for people, we need money flowing through our economy. For us to afford all the things we have to do for people, we need the revenue to come in so I think the marathon, $340 million impact on our economy – we can’t just let that go,” New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio told WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond.

Top American Meb Keflezighi, the 2009 men’s champion, regards the marathon as “something positive … because it will be motivation to say, ‘Look what happened, and we’ll put on the race, and we’ll give them a good show.'”

Wittenberg said organizers planned to use more private contractors than in past years to reduce the strain on city services. Many people have offered to work as volunteers and could fill in gaps, and many runners and fans plan to raise money to help victims of the storm.

She compared this year’s race to the 2001 marathon, held seven weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as a way to inspire residents and show the world the city’s resilience.

Jonathan Cane ran in that race, working for the Police Department at the time as a fitness instructor, and says it was “an amazing experience.” But like Maio, he had mixed feelings about holding this year’s marathon.

“I think if they do pull it off, the city will get behind it,” said Cane, who is coaching more than 200 runners signed up for the race. “It’s already a unique event, and this will make it more so.”

As for those who think running the race so shortly after the devastation of Sandy is disrespectful to those who were affected, de Blasio said it’s all about perspective.

“The most respectful thing we can do is help people get what they need and we’ve got to have a functioning economy to do it. I understand what people are feeling, I really do, I’ve seen how bad it is. But we’ve got to get our economy going,” de Blasio said.

Wittenberg expects the field will be smaller than the 47,500 who ran last year because some entrants can’t make it to New York, but said so far organizers hadn’t received more cancellations than normal. New York’s three major airports were expected to be open Thursday morning with limited flights, leaving the nearly 30,000 out-of-town runners with hope that they can fly in.

Race organizers were rescheduling the elite runners’ flights to get them into New York on schedule, with many rerouted to Boston. Number pickup for entrants is scheduled to open Thursday morning at the Javits Center.

Meanwhile, traffic choked city streets as residents tried to return to work and limited commuter rail service resumed. Utility companies say it could be days before power is fully restored in the city and on Long Island.

The course mostly avoids areas hit hardest by flooding. Getting everyone to the start on Staten Island could be the biggest challenge if the two usual methods — the ferry and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel — are still closed. Organizers are working on contingency plans.

Runners always had to rise in the wee hours of the morning to make it to the start in time, and now they may need to get going even earlier.

Once under way, runners will cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn. The route then winds through the borough and over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. The Queensboro Bridge will bring the runners into Manhattan’s East Side. After a brief swing through the Bronx, they finish in Central Park, which was closed Wednesday. Some 250 mature trees inside the park were felled by the storm.

The 43rd edition of the marathon is set to include three Olympic medalists and the reigning women’s world champion.

Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang won bronze in the Olympic men’s marathon. His challengers include 2011 Chicago Marathon champ Moses Mosop of Kenya and 2010 New York winner Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana won gold and Russia’s Tatyana Arkhipova was third in the women’s race in London. Edna Kiplagat of Kenya won a world title a year earlier.

Do you plan to be there as a runner or spectator? Tell us about it in the comments below…

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)