OCEAN GROVE, N.J. - Two and a half years ago, Joe Gigas sat in a hotel room and made a decision. His house had just been ripped apart by superstorm Sandy. The homes and lives of his neighbors had also been upended. Chaos reigned. As the race director of the New Jersey Marathon, he knew that there was one thing he could do to bring back some sense of normalcy: pronounce that the 2013 race would go on as planned.
"I didn't have a clue how we were going to do it," he said.
He did it by working with the governments and police departments of eight Shore towns in Monmouth County. He and his team rerouted the course away from flooded streets and houses waiting to be lifted (some of which are still waiting), added twists and turns down residential streets to make up for mileage lost to storm-affected areas, and took the race off boardwalks that no longer existed.
They also worked with public works departments to make sure those roads, some of which Sandy had upended, were safe for runners. It wasn't the course he wanted, but the race still went on.
This year's marathon, to be held April 26 along with the Long Branch Half Marathon, is still not back on the course he would like, but they're getting there, he said. He expects 10,000 runners between both races.
The races start at Monmouth Park and they wind together for 11 miles through Oceanport and Long Branch before the half splits off for a finish by the beach in Long Branch, which is still missing part of its boardwalk. The marathon continues south and turns around in Ocean Grove, sending runners back to Long Branch and the finish line that the half- marathoners also use.
I ran the marathon in 2013, and toured the 2015 course with Gigas this week. At the time, he was still waiting for USA Track & Field to schedule a visit to certify the course. (That way, runners could use times from the race to qualify for other races, such as the Boston Marathon.) Their first date had been postponed because of snow.
Many of the homes along the course affected by Sandy have been repaired and/or raised, but some remain empty, showing how this section of the Jersey Shore is still suffering, more than two years later. A spot leading into Asbury Park that marathon officials had resurfaced to make it safe for runners has since been repaved, but a home on that streetwhose garage had been torn apart has been torn down. Condos were built in its place.
After the storm, the mayor of one town had suggested that the race be canceled - a lot of residents could work on their homes only on the weekends, and closing down so many roads on a Sunday would slow the process, the mayor reasoned.
"I told him to ask people what they wanted," Gigas said. "They overwhelmingly wanted the race to come back that year."
Last year, three blocks of the Asbury Park boardwalk were added back to the marathon course. This year, that stretch will be about a mile long, which let Gigas take out some turns at the beginning of a race that is, in its second half, almost entirely a straight out and back run.
"For the 20th anniversary [in 2017], I hope we're back on the course we envisioned in 2011 and ran in 2012," he said.