Chasing New York City's Marathon Sunday
From 127 runners (1970) to 50,000 (2023)
The numbers speak for themselves: 50,000 runners, 5 starting waves, 250 gallons of Gatorade concentrate, and 1,500 portable toilets.
The first Sunday in November is a sight to behold in New York City- a global army of men and women converging on the Staten Island side of the Verrazzano Bridge to pound 26.2 miles through the city’s mosaic neighborhoods.
With helicopters hovering above and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” theme song filling the air, each wave of participants kicks off at the signal of a howitzer canon.
Bill Rodgers, 4-time marathon champion in NYC (1976-79), called it “The most spectacular start in sport.”
Marathons pay homage to the legend of Pheidippedes, a Greek messenger who crunched the distance in 490 BC to inform his fellow Athenians of their victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.
That story has largely been forgotten, but Pheidippedes’ celebrated run has evolved into a universal race with hundreds of marathons taking place each year around the world.
The New York edition is the grandest of them all and one of 6 majors that award at least $500,000 in prize money. The others are Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, and Tokyo.
Splitting his time between Brooklyn and Bologna, Italy, 49-year old Lorenzo Maria Dell-Uva has run the NYC Marathon 10 times. His love for the race led him to write a guidebook, ‘The Never-Ending Run’.
Having participated in other European competitions, Dell-Uva says of the run in Gotham, “It’s simply an unbelievable event. The city is beautiful, the route is challenging and constantly changing, and the people and volunteers are fantastic.”
“Marathon Sunday always seems to showcase some of the best in humanity,” says Kerin Hempel, former CEO of New York Road Runners (NYRR), the club that organizes the chase.
Managing such a large-scale event is a daunting task to say the least. “There are so many complexities, priorities, stakeholders, and important collaborators,” she tells Sports History Weekly.
That was never more the case than in 2021 when Hempel shepherded the 50th anniversary of the NYC Marathon to a triumphant return after the pandemic canceled it in 2020.
“We safely produced dozens of smaller-sized events to help bring people together. It enabled us to pilot various health protocols and build a case to green-light the 2021 marathon.”
The NYC Marathon only got going in 1970 as the brainchild of Fred Lebow, a transplanted Transylvanian and passionate runner whose idea was to race around Central Park.
At the time, the NYRR was an obscure club based in the Bronx. With salesmanship skills that he honed in the garment industry, Lebow convinced NYRR to relocate to Manhattan.
The first race kicked off in Central Park on September 13 with 127 runners who paid $1 for an entry fee. There were no members of the press, no crowds lining the route, and no water stations.
55 marathoners finished the run with local fireman Gary Muhrcke taking first place among the men, clocking 2:31:38. The sole female participant didn’t finish.
Two years later, Lebow left the garment business to assume the helm at NYRR. With limited funds and a group of dedicated volunteers, he managed the organization from his 6th floor walk-up apartment.
The early years were a struggle with only a few hundred runners taking up the challenge. But the event garnered more attention with the national fitness craze and the women’s liberation movement.
In 1976, having outgrown Central Park, Lebow sold local politicians on the idea of a course that would weave through all 5 boroughs of the city and coincide with the Bicentennial celebrations.
Some officials were skeptical of drawing a route through the tough and blighted neighborhoods of Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant and the south Bronx.
Nevertheless, beset by rising crime, social woes, and a fiscal crisis, a city-wide marathon held something hopeful and positive for New York and Lebow’s vision prevailed.
The event drew media attention and saw over 2,000 registrants, including the star-powered presence of Bill Rodgers (1975 Boston Marathon winner) and Frank Shorter (Olympic gold and silver medalist).
The success of that launch exceeded expectations and as one television reporter noted at the end of the day, “Nobody was mugged and nobody was run over by a taxi."
At the finish line, Rodgers set a record of 2:10:10, followed by Shorter in second place at 2:13:12. On the women’s, it was Miki Gorman with a record of 2:39:11.
By the 1980s, charity runs made their debut, NYRR membership soared to 30,000, and the event was televised nationally on ABC.
Sponsor prize money was drawing top international athletes such as Norway’s Grete Waitz (9-time winner) who added cache to the 5-borough extravaganza.
A veteran of some 50 half and full marathons, 83-year old Vince DeFranco from Los Angeles recalls the first of his 7 NYC competitions:
“I ran my first New York Marathon in 1986. The crowds cheering on from the sidelines gave me a tremendous uplift, especially in mile 16 and 17 when I started feeling the effects of the race.”
If Lebow was the mover-and-shaker who put long-distance running on everyone’s doorstep in NYC, then Allan Steinfeld was the brain who modernized the course.
Originally a high-school physics teacher, Steinfeld took over from Lebow in 1993 as NYRR President and held that position until 2005.
Hempel remembers meeting him early in her career. “In contrast to Fred’s big personality, Allan was much more reserved. He was a genius tactician, organizer, and operator who laid the framework for much of current day logistics and operations.”
59-year old Danval Taylor ran his first Big Apple race in 2000. Asked to reflect about the changes he experienced over the past 2 decades, the native New Yorker replies:
“Wow, where do I start? The timing and tracking system, the multiple starting waves, the expanded transportation to the starting line, the addition of the wheelchair category, the on-line registration from the paper mail-ins...I’m sure there is more.”
Not least is the change in running time that was shaved off by successive champions since Muhrcke cleared the finish line in 1970.
Since then, the record time for men has been reduced by 26:32 with Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai currently holding it at 2:05:06 (2011).
The women have shown an even greater improvement of 32:91 since 1971, with Kenya’s Margaret Okayo still the queen at 2:22:31 (2003).
Lebow died in 1994 and Steinfeld in 2017, but their spirit and legacy loom large over Marathon Sunday and the city of New York.
Notes Hempel, “For over 50 years, this iconic event has played an important role in our running industry, and in capturing the imaginations of our global running community.”
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