It’s a 26.2-mile race through the core of the Big Apple. Since 1970, the thrill of the New York City Marathon has had an impressive history of holding this annual event that featured runners trekking through the five boroughs belonging to the city. What started out as a local event has since become an inspirational world-class marathon that draws in runners and spectators from all over the globe.
The New York City Marathon, along with the Boston Marathon and Chicago Marathon, is among the elite long-distance running events held in the United States. Because this history-rich marathon is so popular, a lottery is held to allow a certain number of qualified competitors to take part in the race. That participation includes a charitable donation that has the proceeds go to programs benefiting young aspiring athletes. As of 2006, there have been over four hundred million dollars raised for charity.
Since 1970, the club known as the New York Road Runners (NYRR) has organized this event each year. Nowadays, it’s scheduled for the first Sunday of November and is now considered a World Marathon Major event. However, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy had it canceled due to the destruction that came with it. In 2020, it was canceled again due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, on November 7, 2021, the marathon was on again with a limit of 33,000 competitors in order to accommodate the pandemic’s precautions. Among them, approximately 25,000 crossed the finish line.
From Start to Finish
On September 13, 1970, the first New York City Marathon was held by the NYRR the racer’s founder, Fred Lebow, along with about forty members of a running club and some volunteers. There were over 120 racers that looped their way around Central Park for a specific number of laps. It was also at that time there were about one hundred spectators who watched Gary Muhrcke become the first winner of this historical race. His finishing time was 2:31:38. He was only one of fifty-five racers that were able to cross the finish line. The rest of them dropped out due to fatigue or injury. This included Nina Kuscsik, the only woman who entered the race.
Two years later, she and a handful of other women protested a ruling made by the Amateur Athletic Union that they had to start their races either ten minutes before or ten minutes after the men. Their protest had them sit with signs until the men were scheduled to start. The point behind this was to start at the same time as them.
On September 29, 1974, Norbert Sander and Kathrine Switzer both made history as the only New York City residents to win this marathon. Sander dethroned four-time New York City Marathon champion Bill Rodgers with a finishing time of 2:26:30 compared to his 2:36:00 finish. As for Switzer, her time was 3:07:29, beating out eight other women who ran the race that year.
However, Bill Rodgers bounced back once the New York City Marathon expanded to include all five boroughs belonging to New York City. He continued to dominate until 1979. This was also the year the race made history by surpassing 10,000 competitors who entered the race.
Over time, the marathon grew larger as its popularity of it increased. In 1976 there was a proposal the race across all five boroughs of New York City as a means to celebrate America’s 200th year as an independent nation. This race was so successful that this new course remained unchanged.
The course of this race begins at Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth from the approach to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. When closed off to accommodate the runners, they can use both sides of the upper level, as well as the lower level’s westbound side. When the race begins, this bridge is loaded with runners that are eager to race their way to the finish line.
When running off the bridge, the course winds its way through Brooklyn for about eleven miles. Most of this stretch has Fourth Avenue and Bedford Avenue loaded with runners as they run through a variety of neighborhoods until they reach the thirteen-mile mark. Once there, they cross over the Pulaski Bridge. This is the halfway point of the race as they head into Long Island City in Queens.
After running for about two and a half miles through Queens, the runners then use the Queensboro Bridge to cross the East River into Manhattan. Often, this is where many runners become too tired to finish as some deem this to be the most difficult part of the race.
Should runners succeed to reach First Avenue, it’s now a matter of crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge into The Bronx. It’s only a one-mile stretch in The Bronx before the runners return to Manhattan from East 138th St. and the Madison Avenue Bridge. The racers keep going south, running through Harlem down Fifth Avenue until they reach Central Park at East 90th St. Once at the southern end of the park, the race heads west along 59th St. This is where thousands of spectators greet the runners with cheers as they venture down the final mile.
The marathon’s finishing line is located at Central Park, via Columbus Circle, right next to Tavern on the Green. When the race begins at 10:10 A.M., runners have eight and a half hours to run through this course.
The more prestigious the race became the tougher the competition. It wasn’t just amateurs running the marathon anymore. Professionals, including Olympic medalists, began to look upon the New York City Marathon as an important race for career athletes. In some cases, how well they finished in the race dictated their ranks among fellow racers during different running seasons.
We Do It Our Way, NYC Style
Starting in 1976, the marathon was held each late October until 1986. It was then moved to November. The latest race date was held November 14, 1993. Two years later, the coldest day of the race was held on November 12, 1995, which had a maximum temperature of forty-three degrees, along with a strong wind chill. That was considerably cooler than the eighty-degree high that was felt on October 21, 1979.
However, smack between 1993 and 1995 was one for the history books as German Silva and Benjamin Paredes raced neck and neck as they ran the final stretch of the race. When Silva accidentally followed a police vehicle off-course just half a mile from the finish line this appeared to be a fatal mistake on Silva’s part. However, it proved to be no big deal as he was not only able to catch up to Paredes but pass him for the win. What a way to make history, Wrong Way Silva!
In 2000, the marathon organizers introduced a handcycle division and a wheelchair division. In 2002, the elite women racers were given a thirty-five-minute head start ahead of the men and the rest of the runners.
As of 2008, the race established a corral system that had professional women runners given a separate start that allowed them to run earlier. After them, it would be the elite male runners and finally the rest of the pack. The official times of each runner are recorded by a computer chip that’s attached to the back of the runner’s bib number. It would calculate the net time it took to run from start to finish.
Along the way, every five kilometers had pass timing mats that would send email notifications to people who were following the progress of specific runners along the track. The timing mats are set as five-kilometer readings in order to accommodate the publishing of splits, as well as entering potential world records for specified distances.
Hall of Famers
Starting on November 4, 2011, the opening ceremony of the New York City Hall of Fame inducted the late Fred Lebow. Not only did he serve as the race’s director, but he was also the president of the New York Road Runners which helped it grow into a world-class marathon event for over twenty years. He, along with Grete Waitz, the female Norweigan immigrant who first broke the women’s world record at 2:27:33 in 1978. She broke it again in 1980 with a finishing time of 2:25:42. After earning a silver medal during the 1984 summer Olympics, she won the marathon in New York again. That winning streak continued in 1985, 1986, and 1988. In total, she won the women’s division of the marathon nine times.
As for Lebow, the visionary behind New York City’s Marathon, he chose to celebrate his sixtieth birthday by running the marathon in 1992. This was two years after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He ran this race with Waitz and the two became good friends over the years. The two ran together at the back of the pack. She stayed by Lebow’s side, coaching him through the race as the two finished it together five and a half hours after running forth from the starting line.
Waitz, who won this marathon nine times, felt her race in 1992 with Lebow was the finest moment she ever experienced as a runner. This was a heartfelt piece of history that became even more profound when she passed also passed away from cancer in April 2011. Before the year was over, the NYRR made sure she and Lebow were honored together as the first inductees into the Hall of Fame.
Year after year, some of the greatest marathon legends ever trek across the five boroughs of New York City continue to grace the NYRR’s Hall of Fame records. This includes Bill Rodgers, Nina Kuscsik, and George Spitz. It was Spitz who changed the running course of the New York City Marathon in 1976. It’s the course that’s still run today.
Today, the marathon has approximately two million spectators that line the course of the race. Until 2013, this was broadcast live by WNBC and Univeral Sports. As of 2013, it’s been covered by WABC-TV and ESPN. In addition to watching the marathon on television, it can also be watched online.
The New York City Marathon has gone a long way since its humble beginnings. Nowadays, an average of fifty thousand racers crossing the finish line can all boast they trekked through the five boroughs of a race that’s been the apple of their eye as a competitor.
According to NYRR, running the race isn’t about who crosses the finish line first. It’s about building communities and life enhancement. Aside from amateurs and professionals, runners enter the race for a variety of reasons. Between cancer survivors, the physically challenged, and world-changers, the main goal is to believe in order to achieve.