Marathoners Aid Staten Island With Help From Social Media

Huffington Post—November 8, 2012

by Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery

Last Sunday, the day of the canceled New York City Marathon, more than 1200 marathoners ran across hurricane-devastated Staten Island, delivering backpacks full of much-needed supplies. Social media, combined with an extraordinary group of committed runners, made it possible. In a matter of hours "New York Runners In Support Of Staten Island" became a globally recognized phenomenon, providing aid, attracting international media attention, and raising awareness of the needs of the stricken borough. The spirit of New York rose from the devastation, as one community came to the aid of another.

It all began on Friday night, November 2nd, soon after a group of running friends and I learned that the New York City Marathon had been canceled. We began exchanging emails and considering what to do. The fundamental idea soon emerged and was laid out in a group email: we'd meet at 8:30 am on Sunday at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Manhattan, wear orange (the Marathon's color), and carry backpacks filled with supplies. But with only a day to organize, communicate, and mobilize, we needed to quickly reach like-minded people whom we didn't know. The plan of redirecting the energies of a bunch of tightly wound, ready-to-run marathoners, by getting a "feet-on-the-ground" project going fast, would require extensive use of social media.

With two friends -- Erol Sarikaya and Stephanie Barlow -- guiding me by phone, I sat in my office at Hospital for Special Surgery, where I specialize in sports medicine, and created a Facebook page for New York Runners In Support Of Staten Island, as well as the Twitter hashtag #supportstatenisland. The Facebook page went live around 10:00 pm. By midnight, it had 200 likes; by 1:30 am, 400.

By the next morning, when our core group of runners, ready to organize the event, met at Le Pain Quotidien near Sheep Meadow in Central Park, there were more than 1,000 likes. The group reflected a cross-section of New Yorkers in fields ranging from media and finance to non-profits and medicine, all bringing their expertise as well as their commitment. Our team included Jeanne Meyer, Daniel Ifcher, Lindsay Meyers, Gambrelle Snyder, and Tim Stockert, in addition to Erol, Stephanie, and me. Other key organizers who joined in later included T.J. Bittel, Marisa D'Adamo, and Alex Hu, among others too many to mention.

The Facebook page became the nerve center of our operation. Through it we enlisted the help of two runners from Staten Island -- Ryan Murphy and John Scott Turco -- who provided on-the-ground intelligence and connected with local relief organizations. With their advice, Daniel and Tim (both sub-three-hour marathoners) designed the routes that we would run -- creating lengths varying from 8 to 16 miles, with each leading to a devastated beachfront community. We later downloaded the maps onto the Facebook page, enabling every participating runner to decide in advance the distance and the route that he or she was interested in running. Erol polled our growing Facebook community to gauge levels of interest, recruit captains who would lead smaller groups of backpack-laden runners, and match the needs of the waterfront communities with the items that the runners could secure and carry.

In just hours, social media had made it possible for us to attract interested people, share logistical details, determine their participation and what they could bring, and let them download the precise routes that they would run. And it enabled our group to grow exponentially.

As I ran to the Ferry Terminal in lower Manhattan on Sunday morning, I was hoping to find two or three hundred runners ready to go. Instead there was a sea of orange -- more than 1200 in all: an "orange army of hope and goodwill" ready to fill two ferries. They each had a backpack loaded with supplies, which I later realized are much harder to run with than I had thought.

On Staten Island, I chose to run to Midland Beach, a six-mile run from the Ferry Terminal and about three miles south of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, where the New York City Marathon would have started. As I crossed Hylan Boulevard, the stunning devastation came into full view. It is like nothing I've ever seen before, and far worse than I had expected.

Virtually every house was severely damaged -- seemingly rotting from the inside, with water, mud, and muck. Destroyed belongings were strewn across the yards, with framed photographs and paintings hung out to dry, in hopes that somehow they could be saved. The scale of the devastation is unbelievable.

We delivered our supplies and pitched in to help residents clear away debris and carry out garbage bags of cherished belongings. It was heart-breaking.

The residents were enormously appreciative -- both of the help and of the increased attention to their plight that we had brought. As we ran back to the Ferry Terminal, the members of our orange army were greeted with waves and honking horns.

It was the most memorable run of my life and means more to me now than a marathon possibly could. The clean-up has not ended, the need continues. We're planning to return on Sunday.

The power of social media enabled us to turn our thoughts into actions, and mobilize an orange army of like-minded runners from around the world looking to make a difference. And all within 36 hours.

Read the full story at huffingtonpost.com.

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