New Orleans -- The 41st Mardi Gras Marathon wasn't the biggest sports story in America yesterday. The Super Bowl probably gets the nod, by more than the nose of a pigskin. It wasn't even the biggest story in New Orleans, a city preoccupied with levee reconstruction and the latest shipments of Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers.
Still, for the 2,000 runners, including the author and five running friends from Baltimore, who set out on a sobering 26.2-mile course through city neighborhoods, some as desolate as Wild West ghost towns, the significance of the race was easy to recognize. In their way, each was helping to bring back something essential to New Orleans: its sports identity.
Almost nothing is the way it used to be since Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in late August. Sports is one of many daily pleasures that have disappeared from New Orleans, where more than 70 percent of pre-Katrina residents have yet to come home. The running of the Mardi Gras Marathon signals at least some things are back to normal or will be someday.
"Living here, you wonder if people have forgotten New Orleans. Will they ever come back to a city they are hearing is under water, a disaster?" said Derek Lejeune, a New Orleans local who ran in yesterday's half-marathon.
For the Mardi Gras Marathon, they did. The New Orleans race, the fourth oldest in the U.S., drew runners from 50 states and 18 countries, including Slovakia and Micronesia. About 65 percent of the racers were from outside Louisiana. That was as expected as most New Orleans residents have yet to return to the city. "The ones who have - they're not training for a marathon," said Bill Burke, the Mardi Gras Marathon's race director.
After Katrina struck, Burke refused to cancel the race. He bridled at even a one-year suspension of an event that ranks with New York and Boston as a constant in marathon racing. Logistics clearly would be a challenge. Where do you find hundreds of volunteers to man water stations on the course when 80 percent of the city has moved away? But Burke insisted it could happen, and pledged all race profits - $50,000 from yesterday's event - to hurricane relief. "We didn't need a stadium. We didn't need an arena. All we needed was streets cleared of debris."
The city of New Orleans delivered - barely. A day before the race, the director counted nine FEMA crews on the course clearing the route.
The course was flat, fast for some and, in many places, surreal in its desolation. The first 13 miles of the course, starting at the Superdome, skirting the French Quarter and then cutting a wandering path into the neighborhood of small ornate homes called Mid City, was mostly deserted. "Looters Shot" read the spray-painted message on one home.
At Mile 6 on the course, a sign approximated the high water mark: seven feet above the street. In City Park, one of the city's largest public parks, weeds and debris have claimed the golf course, Occasionally, the gloom gave way to humor. In Mid City, three revelers were rooting on runners next to a handwritten sign that read: "Rebuilding New Orleans, One Drink at a Time." At Mile 19, another verged on political satire: "Keep Running ... FEMA won't help you." Then there was a simple New Orleans encouragement to runners: "Geaux."
The Baltimore runners, members of the Pacemakers, an informal group whose runners often compete in marathons around the country, put the New Orleans race on their schedule back in September. Sam Kosoff, an Upper School English teacher at McDonogh School, was immediately intrigued, seeing the marathon as "an interesting opportunity to help New Orleans in an interested way." It was Kosoff's third marathon, and, he said, perhaps his most memorable. "I had no idea what to expect" of the city, course and race organization, he said. "People were wonderful."
Jon Docs, a Tampa, Fla., environmental scientist who finished 10th among male runners in 2005, was undecided about returning until last week. "Part of it was curiosity," he said.
Whatever their reasons, the runners offered hope that sports in New Orleans is on the road back. Sports has always been important to the city and a major economic driver. The city has hosted nine of the 40 Super Bowls, more than Miami, Pasadena, Calif., or any other host city.
And they have never been more missed than in the five months since Katrina hit. Within weeks of the horrific storm, the NFL Saints and NBA Hornets had escaped the city for temporary homes in Texas and Oklahoma, the Arena Football League's Voodoo opted to Voo-don't, canceling its season.
The games have been slow to return. On Dec. 18, Tulane University's women's basketball team became the first local team to find its way back to New Orleans, playing at its home gym in front of a gathering of 829. About twice that number showed up Dec. 27 when the Green Wave's men's basketball team, under new coach Dave Dickerson, a former Maryland Terps player and assistant coach, played on campus for the first time since the storm.
For some, the games were a precious refuge from the havoc wreaked by the storm. "It was a little island of something that was normal. People finally could come together and begin to feel a sense of community again," said Donna Turner, a Tulane athletics department spokeswoman.
More opportunities are coming soon. The Hornets, whose home schedule (minus a few dates) was shifted to Oklahoma City by the NBA, play the first of three games at the New Orleans Arena in March - against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, speaking Friday at his annual state-of-the-league news conference, pledged again to return the Saints to New Orleans next season - and yesterday the league announced that the Saints will play the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 24 at the Superdome.
Beyond that, the fate of sports in New Orleans is uncertain. On Jan. 31, the NBA announced that the Hornets, happily transplanted to Oklahoma City, will play only six games in New Orleans next season. Fixing the arena apparently did little to reassure Hornets owner George Shinn and commissioner David Stern that fans and corporate sponsors would be waiting for the team with their credit cards and expense accounts.
"New Orleans is a very passionate sports town. This city has loved its teams and supported its teams even when there hasn't been a lot happening on the field to support," said Burke, the Mardi Gras Marathon race director. "But you have to understand that right now and for the next six to eight months, people in New Orleans are asking: 'Where am I going to live? Where is my FEMA trailer going to be?' That is the mood of the city."
One road race, even a feel-good one like the marathon that Burke and others pulled off yesterday, doesn't make things the way they used to be. But yesterday, New Orleans seemed about 26.2 miles closer.
Mark Hyman, a former Sun reporter, is contributing editor for sports business for BusinessWeek.