The route didn’t include running over the Verrazano or Brooklyn bridges – and it ended in Delaware Park, not Central Park – but Julia Burke nonetheless crossed the finish line Sunday to hoots, hollers and applause.
She did it in 4½ hours, after circling Delaware Park’s Meadow Drive 15 times – a distance slightly longer than the 26.2-mile New York City marathon.
And as it turned out, she was never alone.
A total of 144 other runners joined Burke at various times as the 26-year-old Buffalo woman brought a slice of the canceled New York City marathon to Buffalo to raise money and support for the victims of Superstorm Sandy. Most of the 144 did a few laps, but six ran the entire marathon distance with Burke. Five of those six, like Burke, had planned to race in the New York City Marathon.
“This was a great idea; very emotional,” said Dave Kozlowsky of Cheektowaga, who was among those who completed the 15 laps with Burke.
“You are a Buffalo inspiration,” Lori Morreale, who ran twice around the park, told Burke after the run ended.
Burke trained for months for her first New York City marathon and was looking forward to running through the five boroughs in a race that includes some of the city’s famous bridges and ends in Central Park. But once the deadly storm ravaged New York City last week, Burke decided – even before New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg cancelled the race Friday – that it wouldn’t be right to participate in the event at a time when so many there were suffering.
So Burke floated an idea on her Facebook page: If she ran 26.2 miles in Delaware Park, would anyone join her? Any money raised, she explained, would go to the Red Cross to help victims of Superstorm Sandy.
The answer to Burke’s question turned out to be a resounding yes.
The scene at Delaware Park on Sunday morning was a mini-version of an official marathon.
Friends, family and people Burke had never before met arrived at the park to either run or help out the athletes and their cause.
Kozlowsky and three local doctors – Courtenay Watt, Linda Theotokatos and Anthony Buscaglia, who planned to run in New York on behalf of the Autism Speaks Foundation – were among the runners in Delaware Park. Buscaglia and his wife, Theotokatos, have a 6-year-old son, Lorenzo, who has autism.
Jennifer Wray from Buffalo also planned to run in New York City. She and her boyfriend were on their way downstate Friday when they learned the race was cancelled. Wray ran in Delaware Park instead. Her boyfriend, John Rachuna, isn’t a marathon runner, but he designed a racing bib for the Delaware park run. A local Fed Ex store donated about 100 of them for the run. Rachuna then distributed the bibs to the first 100 runners who signed up Sunday.
Wray, Kozlowsky and the three doctors were among the six who finished the race with Burke. The sixth marathon runner to go the distance was Christine Couvutsakis of Buffalo, a Sweet Home schoolteacher who ran with her dog, Mina. Couvutsakis is an accomplished marathon runner, but she said she hadn’t planned to run the full 15 laps Sunday. Her dog kept going, however, so she did, too.
Meanwhile, in New York City, hundreds of runners wearing marathon shirts and backpacks full of supplies took the ferry to hard-hit Staten Island and ran to stricken neighborhoods to help. Thousands of others poured into Central Park to put in 26.2 miles after the last-minute cancellation of the world’s largest marathon because of Superstorm Sandy.
“A lot of people just wanted to finish what they started,” said Lance Svendsen, who organized an alternative marathon called Run Anyway. By 8:45 a.m., his group had sent off five waves of runners from the marathon’s official finish line, which had not yet been taken down. “It is amazing. My guess is about 600 people have left so far.”
Instead of running his first marathon, Akil Defour of Brooklyn climbed 20 flights of stairs in a building without power or heat in Far Rockaway, Queens, to deliver water, blankets and peanut butter sandwiches.
On Staten Island, where the marathon course begins, the runners with backpacks emerged from the ferry for a quick, emotional briefing.
“The devastation and damage you are about to wander into,” said Staten Island resident Jonscott Turco, who paused, almost teary. “It’s pretty extraordinary. The only thing I can prepare you for is they’re still finding people, remains.”
Mary Wittenberg, the president of the New York Road Runners, which organizes the marathon, helped deliver food to a Staten Island family whose house was heavily damaged.
“There are so many more suffering in our community who need our collective, undivided attention and all the resources we can muster,” the organization said in a statement Sunday.
Back in Buffalo, others in Delaware Park included city resident Christina Mercurio, who had registered for the New York City Marathon. It was going to be her first marathon since she lost 100 pounds. But Mercurio had lived in New York City for 10 years before moving back to Buffalo last year. Once the storm hit and she became aware of the devastation, Mercurio dropped out of the race. She didn’t run in Delaware Park, either, but she was among those on hand Sunday to help out – cheering on the runners, offering drinks and snacks, and taking donations.
There were, at various times, as many as 50 people at the makeshift finish line near the Meadow Drive-Meadow Road intersection helping out in similar ways.
Among them were Robert and Suzie Burke, who couldn’t be more proud of their daughter.
The Burkes live in Clarence but have been staying recently in Ohio, where Robert Burke is temporarily working. They surprised their daughter and came back for Sunday’s run.
“We are really proud of her,” Robert Burke said. “She’s always been noblesse oblige. This is her essence.”
Julia Burke, in fact, was humble as she crossed the finish line, with plenty of energy left to address the crowd.
“Hi, everybody,” she said. “Thank you to everyone who came out. This is one of the best things in my life. This has been amazing. It puts the word out to the victims [that] ‘We are with you here in Buffalo.’ ”
And Buffalo was there Sunday for Julia Burke – the athletes who ran with her, the supporters who cheered the runners on, the many who donated what is expected to be thousands of dollars to storm victims and one other person, a man from South Buffalo who came and went before the race ended.
It was just 10 minutes before Julia Burke crossed the finish line, several in the park said, that a man who identified himself as Tom Caulfield from South Buffalo came to the park, carrying a medallion attached to a ribbon. Caulfield handed it to Robert Burke, asked that it be given to Julia and then, apparently, left.
It was the medallion Caulfield received for running the 1985 New York City marathon. He wanted Julia to have it, said Robert Burke, who proudly placed the medallion around his daughter’s neck after she thanked the crowd for their support.
The Associated Press contributed to this story