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Will of the common runner flourishes at back of New York City Marathon

Photo: Courtesy of Ken Derry

Volunteer Roger Bennorth rides the sweep bus, which picks up runners who can't finish the marathon.

NEW YORK -- They crested the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and appeared as small dots in the gray light like a caravan, 50,740 strong. They were a mix of serious athletes, costumed characters and every walk of life in between. They continued en masse through the streets and boroughs of New York, progressing one step at a time under an ever-changing sky until they reached the end, 26.2 miles away in Central Park, where 50,294 runners, walkers and wheelchair athletes were awarded medals.

This was the 2013 ING New York City Marathon on Sunday, and after the tragedies of Superstorm Sandy last fall and the Boston Marathon bombing in April, this was a race to reclaim the celebrated achievement of a marathon.

The day began with a temperature of 46 degrees, overcast skies and gusty winds.

The wheelchair athletes left, the elite runners were soon gone, and 30 minutes after the final wave, the sweep vehicles entered at Mile 2 and began the slow roll to the finish, helping runners in need along the way and picking up those who could not manage another step.

After all, with the men's winner, Geoffrey Mutai, completing the course in just 2:08:24, redemption might better come from those in the back of the pack, those who are out there the longest, fighting with the will of the common runner.

The New York City Marathon boasts an impressive -- almost impossible -- completion rate. The race consistently welcomes the largest field in the world, and in most years all but a few hundred finish.

But the events of the last year have taught New York Road Runners president and chief operating officer Mary Wittenberg one important lesson.

"None of this is a given," she said three days before this year's marathon, "the privilege to run our streets, the privilege to take time out from our busy lives and all that goes on in the world to actually celebrate the coming together of New Yorkers and runners going after these big goals. That's an 8-hour break from day-to-day life. That is a unique privilege."

***

Fully appreciating this privilege sometimes requires a push from the rear. At the New York City marathon, that push has been coming from longtime NYRR volunteer Pat Hynes and his crew in the sweep vehicles. Hynes is something of a legend in the community, having been affiliated with Road Runners since the days of Fred Lebow, who founded the marathon in 1970.

Lebow dies in 1994, but his spirit lives on, as Hynes keeps an eight-inch, custom-made bobblehead of his old friend on the dashboard of the 15-seat sweep van. He rides in the van with a few other volunteers and radio support and keeps tabs on the course from there.

Hynes worked for various oil companies running data centers, a job that took him to Europe and the Far East. In the 1960s, he settled down in New York and began teaching information technology at Fordham University until he retired 10 years ago.

Behind the sweep bus on race day is a 40-seat bus that represents the official end of the race, but runners are not moved to the sidewalk until the end of the day closer to dark. More buses are spotted at miles eight, 16 and 20, and runners can wait there until Hynes arrives, at which point the bus will be dispatched directly to the park with all the runners, while Hynes will continue on the course.

Hynes is reluctant to say how long, exactly, he's been leading the sweep vehicles except to say that Allan Steinfeld, Lebow's right-hand man, recruited him to do the job. Steinfeld was hired in 1978.

Hynes brings a regular crew of six volunteers for the race. These are friends he met in France during his Army days, friends he met in the running community and friends he met at Fordham. The main job of the crew is to cheer up the runners who dropped out.

The night before the race this year, the crew gathered in the living room of Hynes' Upper West Side apartment, ate cheese, drank red wine and talked about their favorite memories from years past: the women in sports bras, the man who wore full scuba gear, the inspiring wheelchair racers. Collectively, they tried to figure out how long they've been volunteering, but they came to no conclusion.

"You should go look through your old T-shirts," Hynes said.

They went to the pasta party in Central Park that night because, Hynes said affectionately, "They can sleep at my place, but I won't feed them."

***

Jonathan Mendes had a window seat on the sweep bus. The bus was idling between miles seven and eight, and the gray sky had dissolved now into full blue. Mendes, a retired colonel in the United States Marine Corp, said his back had given out, and he sat wrapped in a foil blanket, his ball cap covering his eyes. He smiled as if he knew something the other runners hadn't figured out yet.

"They're doing it wrong," he said aloud as he watched runners move down the road. "This is the best way to see a marathon."

On the bus with him was Jay Talman, 59, from Virginia Beach, Va., who caught a bug two days ago. He knew at mile one he wasn't going to get far. Wendy Kozak, 43, from Ledgewood, N.J., realized her right shin wouldn't to cooperate at mile four. They both expressed disappointment, but they were composed, even comfortable as they sat on the bus.

A man sat in the seat next to Mendes, and the two began to talk. Mendes said it was his birthday. He had turned 93. Someone from the back quizzed him about his birthdate, and he answered: Nov. 3, 1920, at Lennox Hill Hospital on the East Side of Manhattan.

Mendes began to tell stories of his days in the Marines. He said he was a fighter pilot who flew in World War II and the Korean War. He talked about flying half a dozen missions with Ted Williams and John Glenn.

"In Korea, he took a big hit," Mendes said of Williams. "His plane was on fire, and instead of punching out, he elected to try to get back, and he pancaked into one of our fields. He got out just before it burst completely into flames. Real lucky. Understandably, his performance wasn't real great afterwards."

More runners had entered the bus, and Hynes had given the order to send them back to Central Park. For these athletes, the day was over.

***

Shortly after Mile 8, in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, a man and woman flagged down the bus. Volunteers Roger and Barbara Bennorth, who met Hynes in France in 1960, and Elaine Lincoln, who studied under Hynes at Fordham while completing her MBA in the 1980s, welcomed the couple on board.

They were from Paris and, through broken English and French, explained that the wife was injured and could not continue. The bus began accepting passengers more quickly now as the miles ticked away. A man entered, took a seat and promptly made a phone call. There was another man and then a woman, both wrapped in gray blankets. They took window seats and fell asleep against the glass.

After the 15k checkpoint, a woman wearing blue sweatpants and a blue long-sleeve T-shirt stepped onto the bus and said, "Je suis fatigue."

She made her way to the back and smiled at the couple from Paris.

"Francais?" she asked.

"Oui."

"D'accord!"

They began talking as though they were long-lost relatives.

CAZENEUVE: Mutai, Jeptoo victorious at New York City Marathon that marked healing

Photo: Courtesy of Ken Derry

The spirit of Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon, continues to show in the custom bobblehead that rides in the sweep van and the thick beards many of the male volunteers grow.

The bus slowly covered the course. The runners were lively and frustrated, hopeful and humbled. Some slept the whole way. At the top of a small climb, the bus stopped. The doors opened, and Hynes went back and forth between the van and the bus. The half-way marker was 20 feet ahead.

A woman wearing a pink long-sleeve T-shirt and black stretch pants ran up to the bus and paused at the door.

"Can I cross the line and come back?" she asked. "I can't go any further, but I want to cross the line."

"Of course," Roger Bennorth said.

She ran over the line, 13.1 miles completed. She trotted back to the bus, and when she stepped on, there was an eruption of applause.

Her name was Linda Wise, 42, from San Diego. She had completed three previous marathons, including New York City in 2009, and was registered to run last year. She said she was in prime shape to compete then. When the race was cancelled, she opted to run this year.

"I didn't put my heart into it this time," Wise said.

As she sat in the front of the bus, she was at peace. She said she had not run since April, and she told her friends that if she ran farther than five miles, it would be a miracle.

"The crowd in New York can carry you for the first eight miles," she said. "But you have to be brave enough to start."

In the last year, Wise lost her mother, an aunt, an uncle and a cousin, so simply getting to the start was a victory.

"If you don't finish a race, it's OK," she said. "There are bigger things in life. Even though I love running and this marathon in particular, it keeps life in perspective."

***

Wise's bus was near capacity by the time it reached Mile 16 for the second transfer. The bus stopped at a medical tent before continuing straight to Central Park, and an empty bus resumed the course.

At this stage in the race, the sweep bus is more like a trolley of temptation. Runners look at the bus, perhaps longingly. They look for a long time. Thoughts dance across their faces, and they smile at the Bennorths, who look so warm and comfortable inside. But if the runners are still moving at this point, they do not flag down the bus, and they do not board.

"To offer a ride back at this point would be an insult," Roger said.

A few runners with non-emergency injuries got on at medical stations, but no one was pulled from the course, and at Mile 20 in the Bronx, the final transfer sent runners back to Central Park.

It was getting dark now as the bus returned to Manhattan, and runners were on the sidewalk heading down Fifth Avenue.

When the course entered Central Park, the sweep van and bus stopped one last time. This was the end of the road. With around three miles to go and medical stations still operating inside the park, Hynes' thinking was that the runners were in more capable hands than his for medical emergencies.

Hynes and his crew said goodbye to those who were leaving separately, and all disappeared into the traffic heading downtown.

For the athletes, the race continued. The field had thinned, but onward they marched.

In a heated trailer adjacent to the finish line, Chad Palmer sat in front of an array of computer monitors. Palmer, 25, is the eyes and ears of finish line scoring, and this was his first marathon on the job.

He wore the standard orange New York Road Runners staff jacket and black pants, but he did not wear a watch. All day he had been studying the monitors that provided him with live scoring data from more than 50 scoring locations across the course. He knew what time it was.

Various New York Road Runners employees came in and out of the trailer to beat the chill, bringing with them the dance beats still echoing through the park.

Most of the men, including Palmer, had grown thick beards. They had a saying: "Let it grow for Lebow," an homage to the founder of the marathon who sported profuse facial hair.

As Hynes kept Lebow's spirit alive in the sweep van with the bobblehead, the men did the same at the finish with their beards.

The phone call that Palmer had been expecting came; the clocks were about to be turned off along the route. Palmer left the trailer and walked to the finish line. He looked down the course.

The music had stopped, and the DJ was gone. A construction crew was breaking down the signage along the edges of the road. A Penske truck shifted into reverse, beeping as it backed away. The large videoboard at the finish was now playing the evening football game. The digital thermometer far away above 3 Columbus Circle read 41 degrees.

A few moments later, a woman emerged from the darkness. The piping of her athletic clothing reflected under the street lamps.

"I'm going to walk with her across the finish line," Palmer said as he jogged out to meet her. Others joined, but when the woman crossed the line, she did it herself, arms raised, yelling, then bursting into tears.

Palmer ran back to the side of the road and disconnected the scoring apparatus. The race was officially over at 7:25 p.m.

Athletes continued to cross the line well into the night, and they received medals for as long as the volunteers stayed.

The last person to cross the line officially was Diane Sokoloff, 47, from East Haven, Conn. This was her first marathon, and she set the goal when she was in her twenties.

"I've had things in life -- like everybody's had -- that try to break you, but you need to develop coping skills along the way," she said. "This is one of my coping skills. I feel empowered."

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