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New York City Marathon 2012 - the race that never was

by Editor
Wednesday 24th April 2013
 
 

The New York City Marathon has been a draw for British runners as soon of its existence filtered back to the UK. It was the NYC Marathon that we have to thank for the development of the London Marathon after a group of runners who ran the race in 1978 came back with stories of the event which then inspired Chris Brasher and John Disley to set up the London Marathon (http://www.virginlondonmarathon.com/marathon-centre/history-london-marathon/in-the-beginning).

Photos © Paul Freary

Set up in 1970 by New York Road Runners Club (NYRR) Presidents Fred Lebow and Vince Chiapetta, the race has grown from 55 entries in year one to the world wide race spectacle we see today with over 35,000 runners taking part. A success from day one, it would take something big to stop a race like this. The atrocities of 911 didn't, with a very emotional race taking place that year, but 2012 saw Superstorm Sandy hit the US which has been described as the "deadliest and most destructive tropical cyclone of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, as well as the second-costliest hurricane in United States history". To give you some figures:

  • Initial estimates assess damage at nearly $75 billion
  • At least 285 people were killed along the path of the storm in seven countries.
  • In the United States, Hurricane Sandy affected 24 states

As always, hindsight makes everything look very clearer, but the race wasn't cancelled until a couple of days after the storm had hit which was just a couple of days before runners were set to run. Lots of reports in the media and press briefings were urging the NYRR to cancel the race and of course the other side wanting the race to go ahead and show how strong a city New York City was.

Photos © Paul Freary

Timeline of events

Wednesday October 24th
Storm is officially updated to hurricane status when its maximum sustained winds reached 74 mph.

Saturday October 27th
All major airlines cancelled all flights into and out of JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark-Liberty airports.

Monday October 29th
At 8pm local time, hurricane Sandy hit the United States near Atlantic City New Jersey with reported winds of 80mph.

Wednesday October 31st

Over six million customers were reported to be still without power in 15 states with around 2,040,195 customers in New Jersey and 1,933,147 in New York effected.
Facebook groups created asking for the race to be cancelled: https://www.facebook.com/LetsGetNYCBackonHerFeet/timeline

Thursday 1st November
Hurricane Sandy dissipates.

Friday 2nd November

Marathon is cancelled on Friday afternoon.

Sunday 4th November

Scheduled day for the New York City Marathon 2012.

Timeline sources:
http://www.livescience.com/24473-timeline-of-hurricane-sandy-s-week-of-destruction-infographic.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Sandy

Run247 wanted to find out more on what happened behind the scenes for the UK runners at this time so we spoke with Brendan Fox, Head of Commercial for Sports Tours International and put some questions to him:

Background to Sports Tours International

How important is running to Sports Tours International?

We are the UK's largest running travel company offering trips to all the major international marathons, including the BMW Berlin Marathon, the ING New York City Marathon, Tokyo Marathon and the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and also handling the international entries for the Virgin London Marathon. We also organise the We Love Manchester 10k and the City of Salford 10k.

How many runners do you take to races each year?

Several thousand!

How long have you been working with the NYC Marathon?

40 years. We were the very first International Travel Partner of New York Road Runners

Over the years how many runners have you taken out to NYC?

30-40,000

New York City Marathon 2012 - Build up

Were you following the weather reports about Hurricane Sandy?

Yes, we're a travel company so we're used to following the weather forecast for our destinations on a regular basis, plus it was the tail end of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, so a hurricane is always a risk, as it was in 2011. A few of us at Sports Tours International have had experienced with other mainstream tour operators who have been involved in hurricanes in the Caribbean in the past, so we know the impact these events have on operations.

What process/plans did you put in place?

Regular monitoring of the situation and we are given regular updates by ABTA, the Foreign Office and the airlines on potential impacts. We do have full operational plans and contingencies for dealing with incidents, so we're always monitoring the situation.

Did you think the event would not happen?

No, all the indications were that the marathon would always take place. The New Yorkers were confident that they would close everything down for 24 hours and then reopen as normal the next day.

How many people did you have going to NYC to run the race?

1000 plus 200 non runners.

Were you getting regular updates from NYRR?

Yes, plenty of reassurance pre Sandy striking.

Superstorm Sandy Hits

Did you follow the news during the storm?

Yes. We had some of our operational team in place in New York to prepare for the arrival of our runners, so they were actually staying in the centre of Manhattan as Sandy hit the City. We had constant dialogue, as we were also concerned about their own personal safety, plus having updates on the likely impact of Sandy on the hotels and transportation infrastructure. We were also receiving updated from the airlines as they had to cancel flights and make arrangements to rebook customers on to later flights in the week.

Did you have any runners/staff out in NYC?

Yes. We also had some runners in Washington at the Marine Corps Marathon, so they were then heading up to NYC for the marathon too. Some of our runners combine work with the running, so travel out to NYC earlier in the week to work on Wall Street then run at the weekend, so they had to rearrange their plans.

Were you getting many runners contacting you for information?

Yes, but we were also proactively contacting runners who have flights booked for the Monday and Tuesday as they needed rebooked on flights later in the week. We put regular updates on our website, Twitter and Facebook.

Post Hurricane

How did the disruption to flights effect getting everyone to NYC?

The airfields at Newark and JFK were under water and some aircraft were out of position. Virgin Atlantic were the first to get their operation back up and running, with BA starting again on the Thursday. It was worse if you were on an American carrier, as their aircraft were all out of position, whereas BA and Virgin had managed to get their places out of the danger zone in time and were positioned to restart operations at the first possible moment.

What effect did the delayed flights have on hotel rooms booked?

We had to work closely with the hotels to tell them when customer were likely to arrive. As some hotels were closed and some NY residents displaced, every hotel room was at a premium and if we needed to keep the hotels updated otherwise they would let out the rooms to someone else.

Upon arrival at JFK, was it obvious that the storm had been or was it business as usual?

When the airport reopened it wasn't obvious to arrivals that there was a problem. Although some airlines did have problems getting their staff to the airports to assist. Some taxis did take advantage and charge people a lot more than they should do to get them around as there were fuel shortages and a lack of cabs generally.

Was it the same when arriving in downtown NYC?

In Times Square things were quieter but in some cases business as usual, however in other areas, such as Downtown, it was a ghost town as electricity was out and come hotels closed. In some other areas the electricity was out, or you could see queues of people at gas stations.

How many hotels did you have runners at?

Six

How many staff did you have looking after the runners at home and in NYC?

25 – we had lots of people on the ground in NYC, but we also had to get them out to the US from the UK and used different routings such as via Philadelphia to get our reps there. We also flew additional staff out as it looked like the situation was worse than expected. Back in the UK, our office moved to a 24 hours operation, and the guys willingly stayed late in the office to help. The pizza delivery boy was kept busy!

Where were you when you found out the race had been cancelled?

Personally, in my kitchen watching Sky News when it flashed up as Breaking News! We then arranged an immediate conference call of Senior Management and our team in New York to discuss next steps.

Who told you the race had been cancelled?

Sky as they had a report from NBC news, but the first official notice was on the NY City Mayor's twitter feed. It was only later that NYRR updated us.

Where were most of the runners and how did you go about telling them?

Bearing in mind that it was 4pm local time when the news broke, we had runners at the expo, at the hotel, out shopping. We even had some people in the air en route to JFK!

Did you have a plan to implement? and if so what was it?

We always have different scenarios for dealing with a variety of situations – our team has so many years of experience in the travel industry dealing with various types of issues, that we are able to draw on their experience to work up back up plans. We had to move to a position to report the actual facts, not speculate on what might or might not happen. As the runners would be hugely disappointed it was a case of trying to give them information about what they could do whilst in New York. Some wanted to still run the route or join in at Central Park or help with the relief effort in Staten Island, which seemed the worst affected place.

Were the hotels the runners were staying in badly affected by the Hurricane? (low of supplies etc or was it business as usual?).

We had one hotel knocked out of action due to it being in Downtown, so we had to find alternative accommodation for them at our other hotels and additional hotels. A couple of the hotels had problem getting their staff to the hotel and also getting new laundry, but they hotel staff and management tried as hard as possible to help the runners, and in most cases the runners were really understanding and helpful.

Did you have to deal with lots of misinformation via the web? Or was it valuable source of info?

In general there was a lack of official information. We had it clear on the Wednesday that the marathon would be on, but for it to cancelled on the Friday shocked many people, including NYRR themselves, although the enormity of what had actually happened in New York really didn't hit people until later in the week, when the City took longer than anyone expected to recover.

Did any of your runners want to help the aid effort?

Yes, lots. So many runners were fantastic and just went to Staten Island as soon as they could to help. Absolutely brilliant they were! Made you proud to be British seeing what they did.

What was the general feeling amongst the runners?

Disappointment, but understanding.

Did runners want to fly straight back home?

A few did, but the majority either wanted to help, still run on the Sunday in Central Park or make more of a holiday out of their time being in New York (many of the tourist sites had reopened)

What was the press coverage of the cancellation of the race with the American media?

There had been a big push from certain quarters of the press all week to have the race cancelled. The final straw seemed to be the front page of one of the daily New York newspapers saying the race shouldn't have the resources used for it when there were people without homes, food and water.

How were the Americans feelings towards tourists at this time?

Fine. Some were pleased that the tourists had still come as it meant money coming into the city – remember the marathon brings $340m into the City area over the period and much of this does go directly to local restaurants, hotel staff, etc.

Back in the UK

How many hours were your staff working over this period?

Some staff nearly 24/7. Our UK head office was open all the time to help with enquiries and people on standby at the end of mobile phones, and also updating runners via the website, facebook and twitter, together with assisting the STI team on the ground in New York to help customers. The team on the ground in New York didn't get much sleep at all, which is why we flew additional staff out to help.

Was there frequent updates from NYRR on the next steps?

We had a little information, but not a huge amount. NYRR had to try and find a resolution to the cancellation for the runners. In some ways, they couldn't say much publicly as they had to work with many of the stakeholders in the marathon such as the City, the Police Department the sponsors, the insurance company to see what could be done for the runners who had spent all the money getting to New York for the marathon. NYRR got a lot of negative press at the time for the lack of information, but I know they wanted to say more, but couldn't. At the end of the day they had to balance their desire to help the runners with the human suffering that was happening all around the NY area due to Sandy. Looking back, now that the runners are receiving the refund of the entry fee, hopefully the runners will see that NYRR always had the runners at heart and wanted to help as much as possible

Did most runners want a refund of their race entry?

Yes.

Did you have any runners who wanted a full refund of the trip?

Not many. Obviously some felt that they had gone to New York just for the marathon, but at the end of the day, the airlines got them there, the hotels accommodated them and the airlines got them back, so it was the marathon that was missing from the trip.

Legally where does a travel operator stand when things like this happen?

Our liability is to deliver the travel package. That's why we tried as hard as we could to rebook the few runners on the Monday and Tuesday flights onto later flights that week. The race entry is the responsibility of the marathon organiser, so we have to work with the marathon organiser to try and obtain refunds of the race entry for the runners.

Did you have any discussions with other countries travel operators?

Yes. All countries were affected and over 20,000 runners come from outside of the USA for the NYC marathon, so it's important for us all to rally around and see if there's anything we can do to help each other. The international element of the NYC Marathon is the thing that adds an amazing flavour to the event and one which makes it so special.

Did many runners look to rebook another marathon with you? rebook NYC 2013?

We had some looking to rebook to run in another marathon soon afterwards, but not many had places available, but we did get some into the San Sebastian marathon a couple of weeks later. Many others have subsequently rebooked NYC for 2103.

You did a Facebook competition around the relief effort, how did that work?

Super. We asked runners to send in pictures of the weekend and what it meant to them. The winner was a lad who helped out with the relief operation in Staten Island, so he won £1,000 for his favoured charity.

New York City marathon 2013

If you wanted to run the 2013 race can you?

Right now, yes.

Have you seen a similar amount of demand for places?

Demand is higher as many people from 2012 are going back in 2013. NYC doesn't usually have a high repeat run rate, as it's one people want to tick off and move on to another marathon to do, plus the relatively high cost puts people off. But 2013 is different and many have already rebooked, so there are not as many places available as there usually are.

How many who booked in 2012 want to run in 2013?

We're in the process of rebooking them now, but we expect it to be nearly 50%.

New York City Marathon 2014 and onwards.

Is it business as normal for entry in 2014?

Some people took the option of non-complimentary guaranteed entry for 2014, and I know some countries were already sold out for 2013, therefore the pressure went on to 2014 places.

Are you using the same hotels etc?

Yes.

Overall

What lessons has sports tours learnt from the experience?

We learned that our staff are fantastic. It's when the **** hits the fan that their real character and substance shines through. Nobody needed to be asked to work extra hours, they just did. We care about the customer and we think about what it would be like if we were in the customer's shoes, so we do our best to help people.

Looking back what if anything would you have done differently?

No. We did what we could do to help. There's some things we would change about other parties though if we could.

What was your lowest moment?

The five minutes after seeing the news on Sky….your brain goes into overdrive trying to work out what to do best for the runners.

What was your best moment?

On the Sunday evening seeing the photos of the runners doing the unofficial New York marathon and the pictures of those who went to help in Staten Island. Staten Island put the cancellation of the marathon into perspective.

What is your advice to anyone looking to run New York or any overseas marathon?

Carry on as normal. Unexpected things will happen wherever you are, so just get on with it. I'd also say, remember it's a run. Life itself it more important. Everyone reacts to something like the cancellation of the marathon in his or her own way – some are upset that months of training may have been in vain; some are angry as they don't know if they're getting their entry fee back (so thankfully they did); some take it on the chin and head to the pub! There's no right and wrong way of reacting, it's all down to the individual.

You can find out more about Sports Tours here: www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk
Facebook: www.facebook.com/sportstoursinternational
Twitter: twitter.com/sportstoursint

 

Vince Regan

Since interviewing Brendan we have heard the sad news that Vince Regan, the founder of Sports Tours Intentional, has passed away losing his battle with Cancer. Upon setting up Sports Tours International, Vince helped thousands of runners to achieve their dreams of not only running the New York City Marathon but marathons all over the world. We were lucky to travel a couple of times to New York with Vince, not only were we well looked after, we got to spend some time with a generous and very entertaining man who will be sorely missed. Vince worked right up to the end and was involved in helping runners after the cancellation of the 2012 race. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, RIP Vince Regan.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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