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Grandpa Page would be proud

River Falls native Gretchen Page stands in front of the official finish line for the New York City Marathon Sunday, Nov. 4, in Central Park. After the cancelation of the marathon due to Hurricane Sandy, Page joined over 10,000 runners for what was billed as the Run Anyway Marathon to help raise money and supplies for hurricane victims. <i>Photo courtesy of Lorah Haskins</i>

What started as a simple tribute to her late grandfather turned into a life-changing event for River Falls' native Gretchen Page when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.

Page, a 2002 graduate of River Falls High School, has lived in New York City for nearly four years, working as a fundraiser and financial developer for an Off-Broadway theater company while finishing her masters at Columbia University. She decided over two years ago she wanted to run the New York City Marathon as a way to honor her grandfather, former UW-River Falls athletic director and local icon Don Page, who died in 2010 at the age of 83.

After joining the New York Road Runners, organizers of the annual event, and fulfilling all the necessary qualifying requirements, she was all set to run her very first marathon Nov. 4.

All that changed when Sandy barreled into the New York City metropolitan area earlier that week.

Seeking a bond

Page moved to New York after graduating from UW-Madison in 2006 with a major in theater and minor in business. Always active in theater as a high school and college student, she said she took up running as a way to relieve stress after her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer.

"I was never the athlete in a family of athletes," she said. "And grandpa never went to the theater because he was too tall for the theater seats. Grandma Jo would try and take him to the Guthrie, which has notoriously small seats, and he'd have to fold himself into those tiny seats. I felt like we had very little in common. "Everyone else could talk baseball and basketball with Grandpa but not me," she added.

Page said she felt isolated living in New York while the rest of the family huddled around Don Page in River Falls.

"I started running, more as a means of stress relief," she said. "I was never a runner; in fact I'd joke with people that I didn't run unless I was being chased, and then the guy chasing me had to be pretty big."

After Don Page died Gretchen kept running, eventually getting up to six miles a day.

"So I decided I was going to run an event -- and that event was going to be the New York City Marathon," she said.

Page said she never really understood the importance of athletics to her grandfather, but training for a marathon helped open her eyes.

"I thought, if I could do this I could understand him a little better," she said. "And I think it worked. I understand his dedication to the athletic community better now; why he loved it so much."

Race week

Gretchen Page's parents, David and Alison Page, were all set to fly into New York the Wednesday before the marathon to watch their daughter run. The aftermath of the hurricane caused them to get into town a day later, and less than 48 hours before start time the race was still scheduled to go on as planned. But public pressure forced New York City Mayor David Bloomberg to cancel the event late Friday afternoon.

"I was torn about whether to do it or not," Page said about going on with the marathon. "Mayor Bloomberg is a reasonable guy. He's a huge supporter of the city, even privately. He generally doesn't allow public opinion to sway him. But I think there was a lot of misinformation out there. The big story was about the generators the marathon was using. It was bad reporting by the New York Post and it spread nationally."

Page said she heard about a 25 year-old youth pastor in New Jersey who had planned to run the marathon to raise money for ALS research to honor his uncle.

"He decided to run anyway and started a Facebook page," Page said. "He went to the movies with some friends and when he got back he had 500 likes on his page. It kept growing and Sunday morning 10,000 people showed up in Central Park."

Among them was Page. She said the unofficial marathon used the official finish line in the park as its starting point and runners ran the six-mile perimeter of the park as the course.

"It's a more hilly course than they usually run; the route was much more physically tasking," she said. "But the first three New York City Marathons were run in Central Park, so it was kind of cool; we got to run the original marathon course."

Page said people came out to offer food and water to the runners, and even New York City police were there to pass out water at the foot of one of the park's hills. The impromptu fundraiser collected over $20,000 in donations, and later that day five SUV's full of supplies left the park for some of the hardest hit areas on Staten Island.

The effort goes on

Page said her neighborhood on the Upper West side of Manhattan near 72nd St. was hit by heavy wind and rain during the storm, but other than fallen branches escaped the brunt of the storms' fury.

"The lights flickered a few times but never went out," she said. "The biggest thing was my office was closed for a week. It's down in Chelsea, below where the power grid went out, so I couldn't work. But there was no transportation anyway."

Page said she decided to continue the effort to help storm victims, and through her involvement with the Big Apple/Big Ten Alumni Association, spent this past weekend ripping out flood-damaged drywall and hauling away other debris on one of the hardest hit areas on the east coast of Staten Island.

"I felt like I needed to go volunteer," she said. "This whole things was something I spent two years working towards."

Page said one of the things she loves about living in New York, much like River Falls, is the sense of community. And she said she's willing to help out as long as help is needed.

"As long as the community organizers express a need, I'll stay involved," she said.

Her grandfather couldn't have said it any better.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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