Thursday, November 3, 2011

New York City Marathon growing larger, may become a two-day event

Under a new proposal, it's possible the Verrazano Bridge could be closed for two days as organizers toy with the idea of turning the New York City Marathon into a two-day event.

 	Participants run across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the start of the New York City Marathon Sunday, Nov. 5, 2000. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)

Participants run across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the start of the New York City Marathon Sunday, Nov. 5, 2000.

It's big, and getting bigger. There is no halting the manifest destiny of the New York City Marathon, a spectacle of unprecedented proportion with no intention of slowing its exponential growth.

The race that began in 1970 with 127 starters will set another record on Sunday in the 47,000-runner range - a mobile city of aching, sneaker-clad residents running 26.2 miles, meandering inside a bigger city of gawkers. Race director Mary Wittenberg says the event’s population will only continue to increase, and she foresees a day when the marathon may expand to a two-day event that accepts as many as 100,000 applicants.

“We could run on Saturday and Sunday,” Wittenberg said. “The demand is there. When I started, there was a feeling that the marathon absolutely can’t grow anymore. But I don’t think growth is capped. People desperately want to run this race.”

Should the marathon expand to two days - and it can only do so if city advisers agree to such a traffic-altering plan - then same-gender, elite runners would still all race on the same day, so that different weather conditions did not skew results.

 There are already more people in the race than there are spectators at an average Yankee game. This kind of mega-event isn’t for everyone, of course. Crowds are a hassle and can reduce the feeling of individual accomplishment. Some marathoners still revel in the loneliness of the long-distance runner, and prefer not to line up for Porta-Potties in Fort Wadsworth before jostling shoulders at the start on the Verrazano Bridge.


Community-oriented runners, who gain inspiration from numbers - and there were about 140,000 applicants for this Sunday’s race, vying in the lottery to pay entry fees close to $200 - will enjoy even more company in 2011 and into the future.

Logistics and safety are always concerns, yet marathon organizers are convinced they’ve conquered most of the problems that limited participation in the past. Wittenberg took over as director in time to organize the 1999 race, which featured 32,503 runners. Since then, she has installed several innovations to ease human congestion and increase race efficiency.

The marathon now has three separate, staggered starts, two waves on the upper deck of the bridge and one on the lower.

“It’s like three races of 16,000 each,” Wittenberg said. Nearly half the runners are transported to the start by the Staten Island ferry, instead of requiring buses or private transportation, creating traffic and people jams.

Before 1999, marathoners in the back of the Verrazano pack were often cheated on their official times, because they required many seconds, or even minutes, to work their way to the start. Now all runners are assigned computer chips that record the exact moment they pass the start and reach the finish.

Wittenberg says the number of complaints she receives from runners, on all matters, has decreased sharply over the past few years. “I used to hear it, and now I don’t hear it,” Wittenberg said.

And, really, these people ought to know what they’re getting themselves into, anyway. This isn’t Maui.

The overall race route through the five boroughs has proved surprisingly durable, even as the volume of bodies pressed roadways to their capacity. The one trouble spot recently has been the post-finish area, which has become scarily crowded due to the narrowness of the roadway in Central Park. This year, for the first time, finishers will be siphoned onto Central Park West for more space.

If this works effectively, there may be no limit to the numbers. The marathon likely will reach 50,000 by next year, perhaps 100,000 by the next decade.

The algorithm used by race organizers is much like a selective college admissions process. The New York Marathon accepted 60,000 applicants this year, while expecting that about 13,000 would not follow through. By this measure, nearly all current applicants might be accepted for a 100,000-member race.

“We can grow until we run out of hotel capacity,” Wittenberg said. “There’s no rush. We won’t ever have more than we can handle. We want to put on the best possible race. This is a joint venture with the city, and it is always a cooperative decision.”

New York welcomes all comers, at $200 per chip. 

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