After 10 NYC marathons, bridge boss is running home

Friday, November 3rd 2006, 12:23 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Bob Tozzi views the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as the world's longest suspension laundry hamper.

Stained sweat shirts. Ancient sweat pants. Torn T-shirts.

By the time the 37,000 runners in the annual New York Marathon clear the bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, they've abandoned enough funky sportswear to fill one immense (and quite pungent) locker room.

``Sweat pants when it's cold, ponchos in the rain,'' said Tozzi, the Verrazano's general manager, about the orphaned gear. ``There are so many clothes, we literally plow them into piles. Cold days are worse _ runners wear something until the cannon goes off to start the race, then they discard it.

``The bridge is just covered with clothes.''

Tozzi, 56, is working his tenth and last marathon, his seventh as the man in charge of making the bridge marathon-ready each November. The Middletown, N.J., resident is retiring 12 days after Sunday's 26.2-mile run, which will start _ as it has for the last 30 years _ on his bridge.

``It's a fun day,'' Tozzi said. ``Every year, there's loads of prep meetings. And in the end, it just happens _ things work out, and everybody rides the wave. Thank God, in seven years, we've had no problems.''

That includes the 2001 marathon, held less than two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. The ruins of lower Manhattan were visible to the runners as they crossed the Verrazano that fall morning.

Tozzi's history with the bridge predates his marathon involvement. He began as a temporary toll collector on Sept. 19, 1969.

The next year, 127 runners paid a $1 entry fee to participate in the first New York Marathon, held within the confines of Central Park. Only 55 finished.

In 1976, for the U.S. bicentennial, the race moved its starting line to the Staten Island side of the Verrazano. The course, as it does today, covered all five boroughs for the first time that year.

Tozzi worked three subsequent marathons before his career took him away from the Verrazano. He returned in 2000 as the bridge's general manager and supervised preparations for each subsequent marathon at the span that was the world's longest suspension bridge when it opened in 1964.

Tozzi's work begins four days before the runners arrive, coordinating everything from network TV workers laying cables to bus drivers assigned to transport runners from Manhattan. On the eve of the race, the New York Road Runners _ the marathon organizers _ arrive to calibrate the start line.

Tozzi and his team of about 70 bridge workers spend the hours before the race filling any potholes and covering up the Verrazano's expansion joints, ensuring none of the participants catch a running shoe along the 4,260-foot main span.

On Sunday morning, the bridge is shut down in stages before the 10:10 a.m. start floods the Verrazano with runners _ and waves of tossed-off clothes. In addition to sweats and shirts, the bridge becomes a repository for hundreds of water bottles and other garbage.

All the debris is swiftly collected in large trash bins and removed. The clothing is ``mostly old and ripped up, and has no significant value,'' Tozzi said. If everything goes well _ and it always has in the past _ traffic is rolling in both directions by about 1 p.m.

Tozzi, like most of the runners, goes through his own pre-race rituals. Unlike the participants, he avoids carbo-loading or 20-mile jogs. ``I try to get to bed early Saturday night, because I have to be in at 5 a.m. Sunday,'' Tozzi said.

When next year's marathon rolls around, what are the soon-to-be retired Tozzi's plans?

``I thought about coming back,'' said Tozzi, his conviction slowly wavering. ``I might. I might.''

He pauses.

``Then again, when Sunday morning comes, I might want to stay in bed,'' he said with a laugh. ``It's an early day.''