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A Seat in the Bleachers: In today's world, safe is better than sorry

Monday, November 11, 2013
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— They just kept coming, like they always do.

And for that, we’re grateful.

One way or another, the 38th annual Gazette Stockade-athon 15k was going to break a record for participation on Sunday.

Based on the number of pre-entries (over 2,000) and a reliably calculable percentage of no-shows (10 percent), the race was in solid position to crush last year’s record of 1,639, and did so.

What no one in the field of 1,863 finishers realized, though, was how close this year’s Stockade-athon came to breaking a different record — for fewest finishers.

The race was established in 1976 as a way for the city to celebrate the Bicentennial, and 80 hardy souls showed up that day.

On Sunday, a few minutes of confusion and concern not far from the finish line, just as men’s champion Mike Fout was getting ready to turn in to Central Park, nearly resulted in what would have been over 99 percent of the runners halted in their tracks by police on Central Parkway with a half-mile left, and sent home.

The Schenectady Police were in the process of determining whether a maroon backpack resting against a tree nearby was any sort of threat, and until they did, there was a very real threat of shutting the race down.

Fout and about a half-dozen other elite runners had already slipped past that spot and were circling Iroquois Lake, but the report of the suspicious bag inconveniently coincided with the cavalcade of runners behind them.

The whole thing ultimately amounted to nothing — a runner simply left his stuff in the middle of a grassy wooded area — but I can’t imagine this would’ve happened last year, before the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon in April.

If you could bottle all the goodwill and community spirit that annually pours forth from the Stockade-athon, you could solve a lot of problems.

But it’s a measure of the reach of one murderous act that an innoc­uous backpack in a cheerful park in November can start a domino effect of fear and dread.

“Obviously, we live in a world where anything, a bag that’s left unattended and looks mysterious and could be potentially dangerous, you have to take precautions, and I understand that,” Stockade-athon race director Vince Juliano said.

Not long before the runners were due to pass through the stone gate next to the rose garden, a woman who saw the bag reported it as suspicious to a firefighter stationed on the course next to the dog park.

Assistant race director Dwight Wilson was there, too, and said, “It was behind a tree, which would’ve taken most of the impact. That leads you to believe it’s probably nothing, but you can’t say, ‘Hey, it’s nothing.’ ”

They walked to the area behind the administration building where the bag was and found it to have a water bottle on top and what appeared to be two six-inch long black wires curving outward from the bag.

“It looked like the bag was sitting on wires that were coming up, or the wires were coming out of the bag, so the firefighter said, ‘Hey, I’m not touching that,’ ” Wilson said. “I said, ‘I don’t blame you.’ So they called the police.”

Fout hadn’t arrived yet when three Schenectady PD cars came flying down the hill from the direction of Central Park Middle School.

The police quickly taped off the area from Iroquois Lake to the parking lot next to the dog park and around behind the administration building.

By then, race official Chris Rush, riding in the lead police vehicle, had heard that something was going on, and by the time they got to the rose garden, the officer in the car was told to stop, instead of continuing to lead Fout, and be prepared to stop the entire race.

“The problem was, at one point, there were two sets of orders,” Rush said. “It was the supervising cop who said, ‘Do not let them through.’ That was the message we got. Somebody overrode it at some point.

“There was no Plan B. But apparently somebody overrode it, and said we’re letting them through.”

That was Sergeant John Moore, who was at the taped-off area and was convinced that the bag was far enough from the course to not be dangerous to the runners.

“They were seriously thinking about stopping the race right there,” Juliano said. “I pleaded with them to talk to the officer [Moore] who was in charge here on site, and a decision was made quickly after a little back and forth to let them go through. I think it was the right call because the runners

really weren’t going anywhere near where it was.”

At this point it should be noted that race officials, the police and the fire department did a terrific, level-headed job of making decisions on the fly in a hectic situation while balancing public safety against disrupting an event for which thousands of people had invested untold hours of sweat and pain over the course of the previous year.

Large groups of people in any number of settings could be vulnerable to a bomb attack. It’s just a raw wound for the running community in particular because of Boston.

“What can you do? You have to be vigilant, you have to keep your eyes open,” Wilson said. “Like that woman coming over telling the fire department. I don’t blame her for doing that. Is it a false alarm? You don’t know.”

“After Boston, you’ve got to do it,” Rush said.

None of the runners knew that anything was going on in the wooded area to their left as they veered right to run the final lap around Iroquois Lake.

Many of the elite Stockade-athon runners, like Scott Mindel, Katie O’Regan and Sasha Varanka, were in Boston for the marathon, and there wasn’t a hint of a shudder when they were told about the bomb scare.

An unattended bag can be an echo to something horrible, but a parade of runners can be a much more powerful echo.

“What happened at Boston hasn’t changed anything,” O’Regan said.

 
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