For some elite marathoners, concerns over violence hit home

NYC Marathon runners from war-torn countries confront psychic wounds in the wake of Boston bombings

Wesley Korir, who won the fateful 2012 Boston Marathon, is now battling terrorism as a member of Parliament in his native Kenya.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

NEW YORK — The world’s largest marathon will return on Sunday — a year after it was canceled due to the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, and seven months after a bombing struck the Boston Marathon’s finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 260.

As a result of the twin horrors, the 2013 New York City Marathon became one of the more complicated sporting endeavors ever to be organized on U.S. soil.

First, race officials had to figure out how to accommodate 66,109 entrants who didn’t get a chance to run after last year’s marathon was called off for the first time in its 42-year history. Then, there was the urgent issue of guarding 26.2 miles of bridges and roads in a city of 8.3 million people to prevent an attack similar to Boston’s — all while trying to attract an elite field that would create an exciting race. 

In the end, after much debate and considerable cost, this year’s marathon will include 22,000 runners who opted to carry over their entries from last year, and a security network that will incorporate 7,400 surveillance cameras in addition to the hundreds already monitored at NYPD headquarters. Furthermore, cameras in helicopters and vans will record every increment of the race.

To detect explosives, officers walking the route will carry radiation scanners, scuba divers will be deployed under every bridge, and 43 bomb-sniffing dogs will be at the start and finish areas. Also, runners will be barred from wearing masks, backpacks (including popular hydration systems) and bulky costumes.

Although marathon week has gone smoothly, so far, several of the elite runners said the psychic wound of Boston is still so fresh that it’s hard to ignore — including some who have witnessed large-scale civil war and ethnic strife.

'My sport is being violated'

Lopez Lomong.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Two-time U.S. Olympian Lopez Lomong, a professional runner who was invited to New York to run the marathon’s 5K race on Saturday, was kidnapped in a church in Sudan at age 6, forcibly taken from his family, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army subsequently tried to turn him into a child soldier.

“I escaped that horrific moment,” he said of the night he crawled — then ran — for three days to freedom. “I was running to escape from people who wanted to hurt me. I was running for my life.”

After 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, Lomong eventually resettled with a foster family in upstate New York and was one of approximately 3,800 displaced children known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”

When Lomong saw the images of the Boston bombing on the TV at his training base in California, he felt a profound sense of loss.

“To see a celebration of running end up like a target? I was devastated,” he said, “My sport is being violated.”

Lomong will spend marathon Sunday supporting his girlfriend, Brittany, who hopes to break three hours — the same goal shared by many runners who were approaching the Boston finish line on the afternoon of April 15 when two explosions rocked Boylston Street.

But Lomong isn’t fearful.

“This is the United States of America; we can overcome anything,” he said. “We have a lot of people helping us to secure our sport.”

Alex Zanardi won't be seen on a handbike at this year's New York City Marathon.
Alex Grimm/Getty Images

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Italian race-car driver Alex Zanardi is well-acquainted with speed. But the two-time CART champion and former Formula-1 driver is too fast for the 2013 New York City marathon. At least that was message he got from race organizers when he said he wanted to defend his 2011 New York City marathon title in the handcycle division.

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'People need to help'

Wesley Korir has also seen violence up close. In 2007, while attending college in the U.S., Korir went home to visit his native Kenya and was swept up in fighting after a disputed presidential election. While there, he saw three of his friends killed by machete. He was also forced into an armed gang before escaping through Uganda.

Now a member of the Kenyan Parliament, Korir said the civic fighting in Kenya is over but acknowledged, “What we have right now is the terrorism,” citing the Nairobi mall shooting in September in which more than 60 people died.

Korir noticed Kenyans were taking the mall shooting personally and assigning blame, reactions he says are fruitless.

“We cannot personalize terrorism,” he said. “It’s a global thing.

“The first speech I gave in parliament was about security, and one thing I wanted to implement in Kenya is the contributions that come from civilians.”

So Korir passed a bill that makes citizens responsible for their neighborhoods and requires their direct interaction with police. To prove its efficacy, he pointed directly to Boston.

“In Boston, police were there all this time, and they couldn’t get the guys. It took people taking pictures of what they saw for the police to put it together,” Korir said.

And when one of the suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard, he added, “The police closed all the streets, but they couldn’t find him. It took one guy calling the police and saying, ‘He’s here.’ The police or the Army cannot do all the security. People need to help.”

On Sunday, Korir would expect marathon fans to do the same as he attempts to unseat defending New York City Marathon champion Geoffrey Mutai, 32, the fastest man ever to run the Olympic distance (2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds) en route to winning the 2011 Boston Marathon. Reigning Olympic and world champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda is also expected to challenge Mutai and Korir.

The 2009 New York City champion Meb Keflezighi will also compete, but in September, the American favorite partially tore the soleus muscle in his right calf and admitted that his performance on Sunday could be “thumbs up, thumbs medium, or thumbs down.”

The women’s field features a rematch between the athletes who placed first and second the last time the New York City Marathon was held, in 2011. That year, Firehiwot Dado of Ethiopia beat her countrywoman (and Bronx resident) Buzunesh Deba by four seconds in the second-closest women’s finish in New York City Marathon history. The 2010 New York City Marathon champion Edna Kiplagat of Kenya is also returning — just 12 weeks after becoming the first woman to win back-to-back world championship marathon titles.

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