Another marathon for NYC finishes in Central Park

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NEW YORK (AP) -- Marathoners are set to cross the finish line in Central Park on Sunday.

The 26.2-mile race in Manhattan will look and feel very different from the one that takes place every November through the city's five boroughs -- before the most recent edition was canceled almost four months ago because of Superstorm Sandy. What it will resemble, in fact, is the original New York City Marathon from 1970, with a smaller field running loops around the park.

This weekend's inaugural Central Park Marathon held by NYCRUNS is capped at 1,500 participants, a mere fraction of the more than 47,000 who annually show up for the NYC Marathon these days. In a sport as popular as running, one size doesn't fit all.

The NYC Marathon, which launched with 127 starters, has transformed into a sort of bucket list activity for runners of all abilities from around the world. The typical field now has nearly 20,000 international entrants. Organizer New York Road Runners has grown with it, from a local running club to a self-described "global champion of the running movement." Its fields are big for many events, with an aim to draw more people to the sport.

That can leave the modern-day equivalents of the people who started NYRR to feel a bit left out. They were grumbling about how they fit into NYRR long before the organization drew more widespread criticism last fall for its delayed decision to cancel the marathon.

It's those local club runners who are the target audience for the Central Park Marathon - and its accompanying half-marathon - and other NYCRUNS races.

"We're looking at people who define themselves as runners already," NYCRUNS founder Steve Lastoe said. "We can show them what a real running community event looks like."

Brooklyn resident Matt Strawn has done the NYC Marathon, along with five other marathons of various magnitudes. He was signed up for New York for a second time in November before it was called off and will likely try again this year. His reasons are similar to those of the tens of thousands of runners around the world who seek to get into the race: the spectacle of competing amid the iconic sites of the city.

He's willing to forgive NYRR's missteps for a chance to run in a race like that.

"It takes an organization of that size to put on that sort of event," Strawn said.

He's also done the Brooklyn Marathon, NYCRUNS's first foray into hosting a marathon. The race in Prospect Park debuted in 2011.

Strawn liked seeing the camaraderie of all the local running clubs in their matching shirts. He enjoyed the fact that the small field meant there was no rush to clear out from the finish line. Oh, and the post-race cheesecake spread was good, too.

So Strawn, who's friends with Lastoe through the Prospect Park Track Club, is looking forward to a similar vibe at Sunday's race.

He also likes the price. The Central Park Marathon entry fee started at $60 and increased to $100, though Lastoe had some second thoughts on the figure, saying it might have even been a bit high; races that stay in a park are far cheaper to stage than those that venture onto city streets. NYC Marathon entry fees range from $216 to $347.

There are definite advantages to holding a smaller event, Lastoe said. With a field that size, it's feasible to ensure all the bagels are warm - small gestures that can go a long way.

Some signs may even be hand-written at the last minute, though one of Lastoe's main goals for NYCRUNS is to put on completely technically sound events.

Lastoe can't help but chuckle when entrants sometimes say to him: "Road Runners suck; you guys rock." If only they knew that his first reaction when encountering a conundrum is often to wonder: "What would Road Runners do?"

Lastoe models many parts of his organization on NYRR. He believes the two groups can happily coexist while filling different needs.

It's a sentiment echoed by NYRR President Mary Wittenberg.

"You can't be everything to everybody," she said.

Wittenberg said she would have attended Sunday's race if not for her trip to Japan this weekend for the Tokyo Marathon, like New York part of the World Marathon Majors.

Wittenberg sees and likes the similarities between the Central Park Marathon and the early days of the NYC Marathon. She also cautions of the challenges of preserving a grass-roots feel as field sizes grow. Announcements that runners need to move to a different area may feel impersonal, but when thousands of people are involved, that's the only way to ensure safety.

Lastoe would indeed like NYCRUNS's marathons to grow - to accept more entrants and to maybe expand out of the park as the NYC Marathon did in 1976.