The 2012 New York City Marathon may have been canceled following the controversy surrounding its timing in relationship to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, but you wouldn't necessarily have known it by looking at the finish line in Central Park on Saturday.
Sure, the bleachers along the sides of the park that normally hold people cheering the racers on were empty, and workers were dismantling the lines of signposts where advertisements usually hang. But there were runners, too -- and lots of them -- posing for victory photos at the finish line after having gone ahead and run 26.2 miles anyway.
"We winged it," said Michelle Langevin, who is from Atlanta and completed her unofficial marathon in 5 hours and 23 minutes. With three other running partners and the aid of GPS watches, Langevin had looped through the park, gone over the Queensboro Bridge, come back up 1st Avenue to 96th Street and then returned to the park for the final stretch.
The group was not alone: Langevin estimated that they saw hundreds, if not thousands, of similarly-dedicated runners making their way through the park this morning. At one point, the group said they spotted a pack of runners totaling about 70 people.
Still, there was a mix of emotions among these would-be marathoners gathered in the park. Some runners decided to spend Sunday doing a day of service to those in need in the city, instead of running. Some were angry at the city's assurances all week that the marathon would still be on, followed by the eleventh-hour announcement that it was canceled. Two of those runners garnered negative attention for standing under the mile 24 marker and posing for a photo with their middle fingers extended. Others, though, were sympathetic and disappointed at the same time, wondering why the city didn't make a decision sooner and stick with it.
"It's the timing for me," said Janet Harmer, who plans to run her own marathon on Sunday in Central Park.
Harmer and her partner, Michael Busby, came in from Florida to race and had raised $7,000 for cystic fibrosis research. They said they're no strangers to hurricanes, but that they can't understand why decisions about the race were handled the way they were.
"Nobody wins in this at all," said Harmer, who pointed the finger at Mayor Bloomberg for the current position she and the other runners are in. "It almost seems to me, and I know this is being really mean and horrible, it almost seems to me is he did it on purpose so he could get all the runners here to spend the money still."
Eduardo Villareal, 61, was considerably more upbeat about the situation: he and three friends were sporting matching t-shirts, and though they did not speak English, they appeared to be feeling exuberant about having just finished over four loops around the park in four hours (one loop is just over six miles).
With the help of a translator, Villareal and his friends told The Huffington Post that they agreed with the decision to cancel the marathon 100 percent, though it would have been nice to have known before they flew to New York from Argentina.
Not long after Villareal's group finished, three men wearing Union Jack flag one-piece leotards were also in good spirits as they wrapped up a practice run around the park. Matt Thomas, who was among them, said they all planned to race tomorrow because the group had raised £6,000 together for a charity that helps needy children in Africa.
"That's why we want to go the distance," he said, adding that he hoped that the people who agreed to donate money would still honor their commitments.
Still, Thomas said that he felt gutted when he learned of the race's cancellation after being told all week that it would be on.
"Right call, wrong time," said Thomas. "Fair enough to cancel it, but do it on Tuesday when we have time to not fly out."
Sunday's race would have been Malcolm Anson's 30th or so marathon -- he has lost track of how many he's done -- but the Australian, 66, said that by the time he learned of the marathon's cancellation, he was over it. Anson spent the entire week in Los Angeles waiting for the New York airports to open again, and any frustration he felt over the struggle to get here had dissipated over time.
"I might just don my running gear and come down here," said Anson, who was in street clothes but eager to find any information about others who might decide to run on Sunday anyway.
Anson later exchanged email addresses with Ben Hauck, a ten-time marathoner who was in the park checking to make sure that enough water fountains would be operational for the replacement race he is coordinating for Sunday. As soon as Hauck heard of the news of the marathon's cancellation, he took to Twitter to let people know he'd be running anyway and that others were welcome to join him.
Hauck said he was among those who did not see a problem with the marathon still being held despite the hurricane damage, so long as resources weren't being diverted from those in need, which he didn't believe they would be. Hauck felt the city had botched a few things related to the race, he said.
"I ran the 2001 marathon, which was about two months after 9/11," said Hauck. "I remember the spirit of that was, 'We're recovered. We're a city that's recovered.' But that was two months later. This time around, it did almost feel like force-feeding that message, and I can understand why people were offended."
As the day went on, Hauck had about ten runners who he said were committed to racing with him. He also learned that Angie Atkinson, a singer, had agreed to perform the national anthem at the starting line Hauck planned to create at the park's southern 5th Avenue entrance.
Back at the finish line, the flash photography continued. A man got down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend, who was supposed to be among the runners finishing tomorrow. She said yes, through tears.
A volunteer wearing an ING logo looked on as the people continued to shuffle in and out from beneath the finish line banner, taking pictures.
When asked how many people she estimated had finished the race today, she said, with a straight face, "There is no race today."