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NYC Marathon Reflects Lessons Learned From Sandy, Boston Bombing

Kate Gallagher wants her second attempt at running the New York City Marathon to be less embarrassing than her first. Race organizers do, too.

Gallagher, a health-care researcher at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, was scheduled to run the five-borough race a year ago and volunteered to work three days earlier at the marathon’s Health and Fitness Expo, handing out T-shirts and assuring participants that the New York Road Runners would stage the race even after Hurricane Sandy. The event was canceled the next day when the club and the city reversed course amid overwhelming criticism after at least 41 people died and 4.8 million in the region lost power because of the storm. Gallagher said she learned of the cancellation by reading a friend’s Facebook post.

“It made me feel like a little bit of a jackass,” Gallagher, 34, said in a telephone interview. “It’s not as if they even e-mailed everybody. It was really disjointed.”

A year later, with clear skies forecast and about 21,000 entrants from 2012 registered to return for the race in two days as part of an expected field of 45,000 to 47,000, NYRR is trying to recover from its public-relations nightmare while confronting a renewed threat of terrorism. Three people died and more than 260 were injured in dual bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April, a reminder of how difficult it is to keep a 26.2 mile (42.2 kilometer) race secure.

Watch Carefully

“They know all eyes are on them,” Andrew Gilman, chief operating officer of the Washington-based CommCore Consulting Group, which deals with crisis communication, said in a telephone interview. “There’s increased scrutiny one year after. How did they learn and recover from last year’s debacle with Sandy? Add in Boston and now you have two pressure points. Sure, there’s pressure.”

NYRR said it incurred a $4 million deficit in fiscal 2013, which included the 2012 marathon. Among the costs were refunds to runners and a $1 million donation to Sandy relief efforts.

At stake in this year’s race and the current fiscal year is the confidence and trust of both New Yorkers and an international field of runners, Gilman said.

The day before the 2012 race was canceled, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it would go on because “there are an awful lot of small businesses that depend on these people.”

The objections continued, particularly after the New York Post published a photo of portable emergency power generators being used for a Central Park marathon tent as city residents went without electricity. Bloomberg, who is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, said later that day that the race was off.

Storm Recovery

“We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event -- even one as meaningful as this -- to distract attention away from all the critically important work being done to recover from the storm,” he said at a news conference.

A study commissioned by NYRR in 2010 found that the economic impact of the race on the city was $340 million. The effect of canceling the race on the economy was undetermined. NYRR has spent about an additional $1 million on this year’s race, half toward increased security and half to increase cancellation insurance. In the aftermath of Sandy and the Boston bombings, it’s also re-examined communications, which Chief Executive Officer Mary Wittenberg said was the club’s biggest misstep a year ago.

“We almost froze in communicating,” Wittenberg said in an interview. “They were in the middle of the same storm, whether it’s writers or runners, they all needed information, too, and while we were always aware of trying to get to them, we today will be much more communicative, more organized.”

Chasing Rumors

The race officially was canceled in a late Friday afternoon joint statement from the city and NYRR. Speculation regarding the decision began earlier in the day when “it wasn’t even true yet,” making it hard for race organizers to communicate with their own staff members and volunteers, Wittenberg said.

NYRR instituted daily press briefings in the run-up to this year’s race, with instructions from Wittenberg to “say as much as you can, even if you say the same thing.”

On course, runners will have visual cues in case of an emergency. Using a plan instituted at the Chicago Marathon after a runner’s heat-related death in 2007, New York runners will see colored-coded flags at each fluid station along the course: green will signal that conditions are good, yellow to use caution, red to convey extreme caution and black that the race is over.

“We’ve been working hard to communicate with the runners that this is what you’re going to see,” said Chris Weiller, an NYRR spokesman.

Boston Scene

Wittenberg spent part of the Boston Marathon in bleachers near the finish line on Boylston Street. She was on a train to New York when she learned of the bombings, which occurred about three hours after the winners had finished. NYRR had 22 employees at the race, none of whom were injured.

“The first text I got was from somebody in the industry who said, ‘Our greatest nightmare: Bombs at the finish,’’ Wittenberg said.

That night, Wittenberg spoke with New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. She said she wanted a reassessment of the marathon’s security plan, put into place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, to ‘‘look at everything through the filter of what just happened.’’

NYRR brought in a new firm, MSA Security, to review past protocols and assist on race day.

N.Y. ‘Feel’

‘‘We got very high marks on everything we were doing but we wanted to focus on what else we could do,’’ Wittenberg said. ‘‘The hope and goal is that it feels like the New York that everyone’s used to feeling on marathon day, but there will be a significant presence.’’

There will be more police and more bomb-sniffing dogs, she said. Mail boxes and trash cans probably would be removed from around the course, she added, though details of the security plan are determined by the police.

NYRR plans to honor the victims of the Boston bombings throughout the race, giving each entrant a blue and yellow ribbon, the colors of the Boston Athletic Association.

After thousands of last year’s would-be runners devoted their time instead to helping Sandy relief efforts, NYRR this year joined with NYC Service, the city’s charitable initiative, to provide volunteer opportunities during race week.

New Sponsor

With its ING U.S. Inc. title sponsorship of the marathon ending after this year, NYRR said on Oct. 1 that it had signed an eight-year deal with Mumbai-based Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Asia’s largest computer-services exporter by market value. The partnership will look to improve NYRR’s technological capabilities to further improve communication with runners throughout the year.

Wittenberg said NYRR prepares for all types and sizes of potential problems, from terrorism and extreme weather to missing manhole covers or water-main breaks.

‘‘It sounds like they’ve tried to learn from their mistakes and improve,” said CommCore’s Gilman, who has run the NYC Marathon twice. “They need to know that the public and news media will always compare and contrast. There is extra pressure because it’s the first year afterwards.”

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