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10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans Running Community Stronger Than Ever

The Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon & 1/2 Marathon serves as an annual celebration of the Crescent City.

When she evacuated her New Orleans home before Hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury on the Crescent City, Betsy Boudreaux didn’t take much with her. One item she did grab was her medal from the 2005 Mardi Gras Marathon.

Even if she had left it behind, Boudreaux still would have carried a reminder of the race. The medal is tattooed on the inside of her left ankle.

“That’s how much it means to me,” says Boudreaux, a former member of the New Orleans Track Club’s board of directors.

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was responsible for at least 1,245 deaths and more than $108 billion in property damage. The New Orleans running community demonstrated its resiliency in the hurricane’s aftermath.

In early November 2005, barely two months after Katrina, the New Orleans Track Club put on an informal 5K run.

“No timing chips,” recalls Brandan Minihan, a longtime New Orleans runner who says about 150 people showed up for the run. “It just showed everyone we were back, that we were going to keep putting on races.”

On Thanksgiving Day, the club staged its annual 8K Turkey Day run, which dates back to 1907.

Then, on February 5, 2006, the city staged the Mardi Gras Marathon. Some 2,148 runners finished the race in what is believed to be the first major sports event in the city after Katrina.

“It was important for the running community,” Boudreaux says of the Mardi Gras Marathon. “It was important for the city. It was important just to show some sort of normal. We had to get back to something that felt right, that could take your mind off of everything you were dealing with, whether it was rebuilding your house, insurance. It was something to take you back to the way it used to be.”

Minihan, now 40 years old, won the 2006 Mardi Gras Marathon in 2:36:44.

“To have won that race,” says Minihan, who grew up and still lives in New Orleans, “it was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

More than five months after Katrina’s destruction, Minihan remembers the marathon course showed many of the city’s scars.

“You could see water lines on houses, dead trees,” he recalls. “It was scenic, in a kind of dark, morbid way.”

During the weekend, Minihan took time to thank people from out of town for coming to New Orleans for the race.

“It was like we were opening up our city to the running world,” says Minihan. “I was also proud of all the locals who showed up to represent the running community. It meant we were strong. We were going to be as strong or stronger.”

One of Minihan’s friends, Tom Sawyer, finished second in 2:39:05.

Sawyer evacuated New Orleans before Katrina struck and didn’t return for five weeks. Upon returning, he remembers running over piles of rubble, tree limbs and furniture in the city.

“It was almost like we weren’t going to take no for an answer,” says Sawyer. “We were going to do what we wanted to do, no matter what barriers you put in front of us.”

“Our city is so unique. We use every opportunity to celebrate. We celebrate funerals. We have a tomato festival. We use celebrations as a common expression,” Boudreaux adds.

In 2010, the Mardi Gras Marathon was rebranded as part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. The Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon & 1/2 Marathon attracted more than 10,000 finishers last year, nearly a 500 percent growth from the 2006 Mardi Gras Marathon and Half Marathon.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll has allowed the marathon to reach people we would never have reached before,” Boudreaux says. “It definitely has afforded us the opportunity to grow and showcase the New Orleans running community in a way we never would have been able to on a local level.”