NYC Marathon: Charity runners make unofficial marathon a celebration of spirit with volunteerism

A first person account of N.Y.’s Marathon Sunday as thousands of runners ran or volunteered for charity. Photo: Phil Hospod

NEW YORK, November 6, 2012 — Some called it the unofficial New York City marathon, some called it the Run Anyway marathon. But no matter what they called it, thousands of runners spontaneously took to Central Park on what would have been Marathon Sunday, November 4 in New York City.

In the wake of the canceled 2012 ING New York City Marathon, many runners tried to make the best of a terrible situation. In addition to running, thousands of marathoners volunteered on Saturday and Sunday in some of the city’s hardest hit areas. An estimated 1,300 alone went to Staten Island on Sunday to drop supplies and help residents clean up. Others helped out in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, the Rockaways in Queens, Newark in New Jersey, and parks all over the city.

Thousands of other runners took to Central Park, dropping donations for hurricane relief near the “official” finish line and running a flash mob of sorts. It was like a scene out of “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” The Whos of Whoville didn’t need the trappings of Christmas. It seems, neither do marathoners.

International Runners

The majority of the runners in Central Park seemed to be international marathoners, often decked out in their national flag or other regalia. The park was like a roving U.N. I saw runners and wheelers from Germany, France, Denmark, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Spain, Switzerland, Israel, Mexico, and Canada, and that’s just off the top of my head.

Charity Runners

Another large group were the charity runners — folks who made previous commitments to causes all over the world.

In 2011, ING New York City Marathon charity runners raised $34 million for 210 different non-profits. This year 8,000 runners fundraised for more than 300 different charities and aimed to top that number.

I saw runners from Team in Training, Team Fox, Team Continuum, Team Hope For Warriors, Fred’s Team, Team for Kids, Achilles International, and so many other charity teams. People ran for Hurricane Sandy victims, including a few of my New York Harriers teammates who quickly set-up a donation site. Some ran for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, and a number of other causes. Many of them were easily recognizable in their charity garb, others wore the official orange marathon shirt, and others donned their own non-descript running clothes.

One Charity Runner’s Story

On marathon morning, I headed to Central Park to be part of a friend’s pit crew. Seth was a first-time marathoner. As a fellow New Yorker, Seth ran the Staten Island Half Marathon with my husband and me as tune-ups for our respective marathons this fall; my husband and I for the Philadelphia Marathon and Seth for the ING New York City Marathon. When the three of us took the ferry to Staten Island for that race a month ago, we had no idea the island would be ravaged by Hurricane Sandy just a few weeks later.

A Team Hope For The Warriors runner at the finish. Hope For The Warriors is a charity that supports post-9/11 service members and their families. (Photo: Karla Bruning)

Seth lost power during the storm. He used our apartment, which still had power and water, to shower. When the race was canceled, he understood that Sunday in Staten Island wasn’t the best time and place to stage a major marathon.

But like many of the other 8,000 runners registered to race the 2012 ING New York City Marathon on behalf of a charity, he still felt compelled to run for his cause.

Seth was running for the Brain Tumor Foundation, a charity that supports brain tumor patients and their families. And for good reason. His father, Max, died from a brain tumor at the age of 44. Seth was just 11 years old.

Seth raised over $8,500 for the Brain Tumor Foundation as part of his marathon effort. He was heartbroken for all of the Hurricane Sandy victims. But he also didn’t want to forsake the brain tumor victims he pledged to help. He wanted to honor the commitment he made to them, to the foundation, and to the donors who helped his cause. He pledged to run 26.2 miles for all of them.

Seth runs his first marathon in Central Park on Sunday, November 4 on behalf of the Brain Tumor Foundation. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

And so on Sunday morning, Seth ran 26.2 miles in Central Park. It was his first marathon. He was running in his father’s honor.

I know how that feels. I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2009 on the sixth anniversary of my own father’s death, dedicating the race to him. It was an incredibly healing experience, and not something I would want to begrudge anyone.

At 10:05 a.m., when Seth’s official marathon wave would have been leaving Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, my husband and I saw him off near 85th Street on the park’s East Drive. Four laps of Central Park, plus another two miles would bring him to 26.2 right at 67th Street on the park’s West Drive, where the official marathon finish line stood behind a row of barricades.

I ran 10 miles as part of my own Philadelphia Marathon training, while my husband was Seth’s mile 6 water stop—the park’s recreation path is a 6.03-mile loop. Then I took over at the “water station,” while my husband jumped in to run the last 14 miles with Seth. They are close childhood friends. My husband’s father died too early as well when my husband was just 15.

The Spirit of the Marathon

Many runners raised money for Sandy victims, donated goods at the marathon finish line and volunteered during the weekend. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

As I waited for the two of them to round the park again, I cheered for all the other runners out there — shouting out names, countries and charities written on their shirts, along with words of encouragement. I wasn’t alone. There were a surprising number of spectators around the park —largely friends and families of runners, but some strangers too. Many people asked me what was going on, if this was an official race, who had organized it, and many other questions. Not one person I spoke to had a negative thing to say. The uniform reaction was, “Good for them!”

Other spectators set up makeshift water and aid stations. Some had signs, some rang cowbells, and others simply shouted and cheered like me. The smiles we received in return were telling. Runners shouted out what mile they were on, since it seemed that everyone hopped into the park at a different time and a different place along the path. Many thanked us for being out there to support them.

After all the angriness of the prior week, it was heartening to see such a swell of togetherness. The spirit of the marathon was alive and well. I almost started crying; my eyes began to well, and I had to sniff back tears. It had been such an emotional week for so many people.

As a New Yorker with power and water, I housed multiple friends who were displaced. My own family had been evacuated from their home in another state, and so many people in Staten Island, Queens, New Jersey, and elsewhere had it far worse. Somehow, it brought out the worst in so many people as the tone of the marathon debate became increasingly nasty and political. Yet here we were — Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Americans and foreigners, running side-by-side. It restored my faith in the power of running.

The Unofficial NYC Marathon

When Seth and my husband passed by, going into the fourth loop, I swapped out their empty water bottles for full ones. When they passed again with just four miles to go, Seth’s wife and another friend had joined them on bicycles. I cut across the park to catch them at the finish.

Seth raised $8,500 for the Brain Tumor Foundation as part of his NYC Marathon effort. (Photo: Karla Bruning)

Seth crossed his invisible finish line with his arms raised above his head. He ran 26.2 miles like the first few New York City Marathons were run back in the early 1970s — a bare bones and seemingly endless loop around Central Park.

Seth’s first marathon would certainly be more memorable than most. Race organizers and the city wanted this year’s marathon to be a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit, about resilience, and about hope. (Incidentally, an exhibit at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago called Spirit of the Marathon is about that very topic.) For a while, it looked like the race would symbolize the exact opposite.

But the runners who volunteered their time to hurricane relief and the ones who honored the commitments they’d already made to other charities, helped make the unofficial New York City Marathon somehow exactly that — a testament to the spirit of the marathon, the spirit of runners and the spirit of New York.

Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runner’s weekly lifestyle web show about running. She has completed four marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.

All Photos by Phil Hospod and Karla Bruning.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Karla Bruning

Karla Bruning is the host of On The Run, a TV and web show from New York Road Runners. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, American Athlete Magazine,,, The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Orlando Sentinel, and two dozen other outlets including ESPN2, Universal Sports and ABC in New York. She and her work have also received mentions from The New York Times, Runner's World, Fox Sports, Canadian Running, The Baltimore Sun, and PBS among others. She also covered the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for The Washington Times.


A former Newsweek reporter, Karla has won a Fulbright scholarship for American journalists and reporting grants from the Scripps Howard, Carnegie and Knight Foundations. Karla holds degrees from Amherst College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.


When not pounding the pavement as a reporter, Karla is pounding the pavement as a runner. She has completed seven marathons, four triathlons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. She is a writer, editor, and on-camera reporter dedicated to covering the sport of running from a runner’s perspective. Find Karla on, Twitter@KBruning, Facebook and Google+.

Contact Karla Bruning


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