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For Sandy Rescuer, A Different Kind of Marathon

October 28, 2013 at 7:30pm EST | by Barbara Huebner, Marathon News Service

Last year, Brian Wilton spent this week sleepless and up to his chest in water, rescuing frightened residents from their homes on the devastated Jersey Shore in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

This year, the surfer, runner, and triathlete will spend the week tapering before running his first ING New York City Marathon.

Wilton, the council president of the borough of Lake Como, NJ, and a volunteer on the neighboring Belmar Water Rescue Team, was on duty the night of October 29, when Sandy’s storm surge flooded 75 percent of the beachfront community of Belmar, leaving it awash in debris and without power for weeks.

For the 38-year-old attorney, who is often on the rebuilt boardwalk by 5:00 a.m. to train, running and triathlon serve a two-fold purpose: not only keeping him “healthy and happy and stress-free,” but also keeping him in shape for the rescue team.

“It not only helps me,” he said, “it helps other people.”

The Water Rescue Team, which has about 25 members, was formed in 1995 after a number of swimmers drowned after lifeguard hours. The on-call response team can be activated for any water-related emergency, and they safely evacuated more than 200 people between Monday night and Thursday.

On the night Sandy hit, at about 8:00 p.m., the team was immediately activated, and its first emergency was to relocate after the first storm surge took out the First Aid building. For four days, Wilton barely slept as the team was dispatched to the home of one frantic resident after another.

“I didn’t stop for the first 36 hours, when I finally caught a nap,” Wilton said, although he was too keyed up to really sleep. “I kissed my family and changed my clothes.”

The worst moments, he recalled in a telephone interview last week, came just before dawn on October 30, as people awoke to discover the magnitude of the destruction and realized the peril of their situation. Even the rescue team, given the pitch black of the power-less night, did not begin to appreciate the damage until the submerged cars and marooned houses were illuminated by the first slivers of light.

“When we went out and saw the destruction and the huge chunks of boardwalk a mile inland, the sheer power of nature was frightening,” Wilton recalled. “We had to literally crawl under huge downed trees and debris, and making [a turn] to get to one of the houses, the dark water was over my head and I had to swim.

“[Residents] were just terrified,” he said. “At first, having been through a couple of hurricanes, they figured they could wait it out, but when they woke up the next morning and saw that the water was at their front door, they were flabbergasted, and helpless. People would shine flashlights and yell ‘Help, come get us!’”

His rescue partner at the time was Lake Como councilwomen Ginny Kropac, with whom he plans to run the marathon on Sunday.

It took about a week for Wilton to get out for his first post-Sandy run. With the boardwalks pulverized and the oceanfront shut down by the National Guard, he took to Main Street on a sunny, cold day, the town still without power, for a run to clear his head. At one point he met up with Matt Doherty, the mayor of Belmar, and they ran together to decompress.

Nine months later, with the waterfront largely back to life, Wilton and Doherty would compete on Ocean Avenue in the Belmar Chase 5K’s “Celebrity Chase,” in which local officials squared off for the second year in a handicap race to win funds for their respective recreation departments. The August 10th race was won by Steve Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City. Wilton finished second and Doherty took fourth. The race was particularly fitting for Wilton, who is Lake Como’s representative to the Mayors Wellness Campaign, a New Jersey initiative in which towns promote health and wellness in their communities.

“It was bittersweet,” said Wilton of the Belmar Chase. “On one hand, so many people were still not in their homes, and rebuilding wasn’t complete, but Ocean Avenue in Belmar looked great compared to less than a year before, and the whole community came out to cheer us on.”

On Sunday, Wilton will take to the streets of NYC a year after Sandy forced the marathon’s cancellation. Last week, he tweeted: “Last long run before the @INGNYCMarathon, 20 miles along the Jersey Shore at sunrise. 2 weeks!”

At least that’s the plan.

“It’s coming close to the anniversary,” he said, “so you just kind of hold your breath that we get through free and clear this hurricane season.”