NEW YORK — New York City Marathon runners can receive a refund of their entry fee after this year's race was canceled because of Superstorm Sandy.
When the event was called off last month, officials said they had a no-refund policy and hadn't decided whether to make an exception. The race organizer, New York Road Runners, informed entrants Thursday that they had three options to choose from – one of them a refund.
If runners do not reclaim their money, they can have a guaranteed spot in the 2013, 2014 or 2015 marathon. They would have to pay the entry fee again, but at the 2012 rate. Getting into the race is extremely competitive, making a guaranteed spot very valuable to runners.
Or they can accept a spot in March's NYC Half, paying the entry fee for the 13.1-mile race – though availability is limited.
NYRR President Mary Wittenberg said "nirvana" would have been to offer both a refund and free entry into a future marathon, but that wasn't affordable. The race had cancellation insurance, and Wittenberg said that once the payout was determined, the first priority was offering a refund.
"We appreciate that people came here trying to support the city, and we appreciate the investment people made," she said. "We never allowed ourselves an option that didn't include a refund."
In the weeks after the cancellation, Wittenberg said, runners had two main messages for NYRR. One was the possibility of a refund.
The other concerned the details of guaranteed entry into future races. Last month, organizers initially said runners could secure a spot into the 2013 event. But many out-of-town entrants feared they couldn't save up enough money or take enough time off work to make it back to New York so soon. They still hoped to run the marathon someday, so now they'll have the option of 2014 or '15.
"It was important to do everything we could possibly do," Wittenberg said.
Spreading out the runners over three years has an added benefit for marathon organizers. If only 2013 had been the option, next year's field likely would have been filled with mostly 2012 runners, leaving few new spots for entrants raising money for charity or just hoping to race New York for the first time. NYRR will stick with the same expected field size as this year, about 47,500 people, Wittenberg said.
Runners who got in by raising money for official race charities will have the same three options and won't be required to meet the fundraising minimum again to secure a guaranteed spot. About 8,000 runners affiliated with official charities were entered this year.
Wittenberg also hopes some spots can be filled by lottery in 2013. For 2012, close to 15,000 runners got in through U.S. and international drawings. Others qualify by meeting certain time standards in previous races or taking part in a designated number of NYRR events.
Sandy devastated neighborhoods across the New York area six days before the marathon was to have been run on Nov. 4. Among the hardest hit by flooding was Staten Island, home to the starting line. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYRR officials initially announced the race would go on. But as criticism mounted, they canceled the marathon less than 48 hours before it would have started.
By then, thousands of out-of-town runners had already arrived in New York, with international entrants often spending several thousand dollars on the trip. They vented that while they supported the ultimate decision, it should have been made days earlier, before they boarded planes.
Wittenberg still defends the initial plan to hold the marathon, which she and others had hoped would inspire the city and raise money for storm victims.
"Suffice to say, if everybody knew Tuesday and Wednesday what we knew Friday, if we knew it would play out like that, it sure would have been a lot better," she said.
Wittenberg insists the lasting legacy of that week will be the relief efforts in which many runners took part on what would have been Marathon Sunday. NYRR has continued to raise money since then, and Wittenberg would like to hold a charity race on Staten Island if borough officials are on board.
The half-marathon ends in lower Manhattan, another hard-hit area, and she expects that race will be a major fundraiser too.
The runners who never made it to the 2012 starting line must pick an option from Jan. 11-25. Wittenberg expects to accept up to 1,000 or so people into the half-marathon, probably on a first come, first served basis.
The refund applies only to runners who had not withdrawn before Oct. 24, when forecasts of a massive storm started to emerge. The refund excludes an $11 processing fee. Entry costs ranged from $216 to $347; they will not increase in 2013.
Once the number of entrants choosing the 2013 marathon is known, NYRR will determine whether enough additional spots exist to hold a lottery, likely making an announcement by the end of February. More than 140,000 people applied for the 2012 marathon, and Wittenberg is optimistic the race will remain as popular despite the discontent this year. Even if it doesn't happen right away.
"I hope everybody ultimately wants to come be a part of running here in one form or another over time," she said.
Dahlia Yoeli, a New Yorker who was set to run her first marathon, was frustrated it took so long for NYRR to complete the policy. But she was pleasantly surprised about the refund option.
"I think it's pretty fair," she said, adding she still hopes to run the race in the future.
Marathon organizers first purchased cancellation insurance after the terrorist attacks of 2001. NYRR also must negotiate financial settlements with sponsors, broadcasters, exhibitors and other partners. Wittenberg said she expected the same sponsors to return in 2013.
After the marathon was canceled, Wittenberg noted that other races had stuck to no-refund policies when runners couldn't make it to the starting line because of extreme weather. Entrants cared most about guaranteed spots in future events, she said then.
In the weeks since, many still focused on how they could run the race another time. But, Wittenberg said Thursday, others sent the message: "I didn't get what I expected." And so the option to receive a refund became a priority.
"It puts the choice in the runner's hands," she said, "which is the important thing."