Make day of service a NYC Marathon tradition

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Volunteers work to unload and organize emergency supplies near Midland Beach in Staten Island.

I awoke to a shining sun. I checked my watch and it was time. As I got out of bed, my phone blinked with a final update, courtesy of MapMyRun:

Race: ING New York City Marathon (26.2 miles). This is it -- congratulations on completing the training program.

But Sunday was no longer about the NYC Marathon. Not directly, anyway. It was about the runners -- who had trained and focused on a singular goal for weeks on end -- turning their attention to a greater need. To help people, our neighbors.

I was one of the many runners who met at the Staten Island Ferry in Lower Manhattan to spend our day, and marathon energy, helping with the recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy. Dr. Jordan Metzl, a physician with the Hospital for Special Surgery and an espnW Advisory Panel member, organized a group of runners and friends to help make a difference. What started as a simple email Friday night blossomed into a Facebook page liked by more than 4,000 people and more than 1,000 runners who gathered Sunday morning.

Mehdi Taamallah/Getty Images

A man who was entered to run in the New York City Marathon instead spent the afternoon volunteering in Staten Island.

Staten Island was devastated by the storm. While it was not immediately apparent as we disembarked from the ferry, it sure was once we began running and making our way to the eastern shore. Debris everywhere, homes disfigured, curbs torn apart, trees driven into buildings, cars flung about.

Where to begin? As we got our bearings, unloaded supplies and identified recovery areas, it was clear that individual homes needed the most assistance. We walked the streets of New Dorp Beach and asked families if they needed help. Most everyone said, "Yes."

The streets of Seafoam and Crest Water were two of the hardest hit. My sister Susan and I began cleaning up an elderly man's yard. Helped by firefighters and fellow runners, we cleared away his belongings and some beautiful antiques that were now destroyed. His daughter, who had grown up in that very house, was grateful yet clearly so sad. She thanked us. We reassured her.

We moved throughout the area looking for ways to aid. Some opportunities were obvious: a man whose basement was completely flooded and needed to be completely cleared (from insulation to cherished possessions), to an ad-hoc recovery center assigning us volunteers to specific homes armed with shovels, rakes and brooms.

There were many police officers and sanitation workers on the scene, and a FEMA center set up. But most of the work was being done by citizens -- local students from Monsignor Farrell High School and Wagner College, and other members of the community helping one another. We runners were just one contingent there to lend a hand, and there will be hundreds more of those hands needed. The communities of New Dorp Beach, Oakwood Beach and Tottenville will take months to be restored. While one man invited us back next year to see his home, assuring us it would look even better than it did before (a beautiful house with a surf theme and corner view of the neighborhood), others just shook their heads in despair.

The people of Staten Island were dealt a heavy blow; to lend a hand for a day was the least we could do.

A fact often overlooked amid the controversy of this year's marathon is the $30 million raised by runners for charity each year through the race. Runners are a big-hearted group. Such generosity can continue throughout this year to help us all emerge from this superstorm stronger, more unified and better prepared. What a great outcome it would be if we made service a permanent part of the NYC Marathon's weeklong schedule.

How about ensuring next year's race and all future NYC Marathons include support for our neighbors? I'm convinced it's needed. Let's learn from this experience and add Marathon Monday, a day of service, to the 2013 calendar.

Laura Gentile is the founder of espnW.

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