The New York City Marathon Nov. 4 would have been Colleen Huml's ninth 26.2-mile race. But when she landed in the city two days before to news that the race was canceled, the 24-year-old Wheaton native shifted gears.
Huml joined more than 1,000 people on race day to travel to Staten Island and two other areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy to help those recovering from the storm's Oct. 29 landfall. The group was organized by New York runners through NYC Marathon of Relief Efforts (NYC More) and it gave Huml a chance to see another side to her fellow athletes.
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"There's a certain determination that you see in marathon runners," Huml said. "It's kind of unique. It was so wonderful to see that in a different light Sunday -- putting that determination toward helping others."
Huml chose Staten Island over a couple of other hard-hit areas because the ferry to get there was closest to her hotel. She spent the day bagging debris and handing out food and water rations alongside other runners through makeshift pantries. She saw open space where once stood rows of houses and untouched blocks followed by neighborhoods in utter devastation.
"It was pretty powerful to see everyone come together," Huml said. "Also to realize that the area really was still in a state of emergency."
Huml is getting a master's degree in Global Health from the University of Notre Dame, but trains with the Wheaton branch of the Chicago Area Runners Association while home during the summer.
She was at her gate ready to board a flight to New York Nov. 2 when she heard early reports the race had been canceled. Since she still hadn't heard anything official from race organizers, and her mom was already in New York getting her runner's packet, she boarded the plane anyway.
Tom Spadafora, a veteran runner of 35 years from Aurora, was already in New York when the race was called off. It would have been his 18th marathon, but first in New York.
Spadafora and five others from the Fox River Trail Runners running group started looking for volunteer opportunities right away. They figured since they were in the city anyway, they should find some way to help.
Unfortunately, Spadafora didn't find NYC More. Friday night he and his group ran into a couple who lived in Queens and volunteered in Manhattan, running water and supplies up buildings for people without power. When they got down to Manhattan Saturday morning, though, power was back on and their help wasn't needed.
The Fox Valley runners ended up in Central Park with thousands of people running loops around the park in the absence of the official race. Through that, they raised money and supplies for the relief effort.
Colin O'Donnell, director of content and strategic planning at the Daily Herald and also a member of the Chicago Area Runners Association's Wheaton branch, was in New York when the race was canceled. It would have been his second New York City Marathon and his 26th marathon overall.
Without a race to run, O'Donnell, of Naperville, researched how to help and discovered NYC More, signing up himself and others, including Huml and the group.
O'Donnell spent his day carrying things from a loft for a woman whose house was destroyed in the hurricane's storm surge -- she seemed overwhelmed, but upbeat in the face of such destruction, he said.
He also joined a group clearing debris from one house devastated by the storm. The cleanup effort that took the majority of the day.
During his time there he met runners from Kildeer to Vancouver.
"It was a very positive, uplifting experience," O'Donnell said.
But like Huml noted, the region still needs a lot of help. NYC More continues to organize volunteers to deal with Sandy's destruction, and some parts of the city are reeling again after a nor'easter swept through barely a week after the hurricane.
"It's going to be a long road to recovery," Huml said.