This year’s race will mark the 40th anniversary of the marathon’s expansion to all five boroughs (previously it had been run entirely in Manhattan), which gave us more-or-less the route in use today.
The New York Road Runners, which organizes the marathon, estimates that this year over one million spectators will line the 26.2 mile course, marked by billowing royal blue banners and a wide river of trampled Gatorade cups. Millions more will watch live broadcasts on New York’s local ABC affiliate and ESPN2, as well as international media partners bringing the race to countries across the globe.
For New Yorkers, it’s hard to imagine the city without the marathon, which has made the first Sunday in November one of the High Holidays of New York’s civic religion. Yet to those who ran in the first NYC Marathon, back in 1970, the race of today would be unrecognizable.
That race, organized by the Road Runner’s Club and the New York City Parks Department, was run entirely within the confines of Central Park by a small group of runners, most of whom knew each other by first name. (According several participants in the race, there were “some people from out of town” competing as well.) It was announced with little fanfare in a Parks Department press release: “The New York City Marathon has developed from the efforts and enthusiasm of New Yorkers who participated in physical fitness programs and jogging.” No billboards, no TV ads, nothing.
In 1909, C.W. Smith, a major in the National Guard, organized the first edition of the Brooklyn-Sea Gate Marathon, which was held in February on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The original route looked similar to a back-and-forth version of the modern Brooklyn Half Marathon, starting at the Park Slope Armory on 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, circling Prospect Park and continuing down Ocean Parkway and around to the entrance of Sea Gate, where the runners turned around.
Runners gather at the starting line of the first NYC Marathon in Central Park, 1970. (Ruth Orkin/Ruth Orkin Photo Archive)
After a number of racers in the inaugural race passed out from exhaustion, organizers of the race partnered with the Brooklyn Eagle and Italian newspaper Il Progresso to organize a “Great Brooklyn Marathon” on Washington’s birthday, instituting a requirement that participants undergo a physical examination before competing. “Untrained” runners were banned. Il Progresso offered a prize for the first Italian runner to finish. That race was only held once.Reports of the Sea-Gate marathons were grim. In 1913, the Times ran an article headlined “Exhausted Runners Fall in Brooklyn,” describing in graphic terms the misery of the race, which was run in 20 degree weather:
Along along the twenty-five-mile route, starting from the armory at Putnam Avenue and Sumner Avenue to Sea Gate via Coney Island and return, could be seen bare-legged youths caring for their cuts and bruises and being cared for at the various stages where the icy road had caused them to come to grief or the extreme cold had forced them to drop out. … No worse weather conditions have ever prevailed for a Marathon race, and the ten who finished out of the forty-five starters will probably feel the effects of their gruelling contest in more ways than one…There were stretches on the parkway that were covered with ice, and those of the pack that reached these points slipped and fell. They were generally badly cut around the shins and knees, and when they returned to the armory, where the last two miles of the race were completed, their bloody legs presented anything but an inspiring sight.
After single-digit temperatures and more grueling winter ice and slush felled 25 of the 36 runners, four of whom who had to be carried to Coney Island Hospital, race organizers decided that the race would need to be shortened.
A 20-mile version of the race was held the following year, and then again after World War I. The tradition continued annually for another decade. This modified race was the only officially organized “marathon” in the five boroughs until after World War II.
In 1948, the Queens Committee for the Commemoration of the Golden Anniversary of the City of New York held a marathon from Idlewild (now JFK) Airport to the World’s Fair Grounds in Flushing, part of festivities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the consolidation of New York City.
The Road Runner’s Club of New York (forerunner of the NYRR) held its first marathon in 1959. In the tradition of the earlier Brooklyn-Sea Gate marathon, the race was run in February; the Road Runners called it the Cherry Tree Marathon in honor of George Washington’s birthday. The course consisted of three loops of the Harlem River Drive passing by Yankee Stadium in both directions, a path well-known for its potholes and uneven surfaces.
Over the ensuing decade, the club would meet weekly at Macombs Dam Park near Yankee Stadium. Competitions took place along the service road of the Major Deegan Expressway.
“It was a pretty desolate place,” says Gary Muhrcke, winner of the 1970 marathon and former vice president of the club. The races were informal affairs held on Sundays and runners would enter their names at the site of the race. The awards ceremonies were usually held in the men’s locker room of the park’s recreation center.
In the early years of the Road Runners, recreational distance running was still in its infancy in the United States. John O’Neil, president of the National Road Runners club—which in 1968 had 2,500 members—remarked that year, “At first you think everyone is staring at you—and they are. After a while you enjoy jogging so much that you don’t give a damn.”
Gear was simple. Shirts and shorts were made of thin cotton, and most of the runners at the time sported shoes made by Nike or Tiger (now Asics), both of which offered a “Marathon model.” These were nylon shoes with thin soles, a far cry from the heavily R&D’d creations of today.
The sport was not a popular youth activity. Hal Higdon, who placed first among Americans at the 1964 Boston Marathon, wrote in the New York Times in 1968, “Today, the majority of runners—or ‘joggers’ thank you—seem to be securely middle-aged, that great awkward crowd of us too old for LSD and too young for Medicare.”
Tiger Marathon, 1971 edition. (Scott Draper / Photo courtesy of )
In New York City, distance running attracted a distinctly homogenous crowd—mostly white men. But one of the most prominent and influential figures in the sport was a black runner, Ted Corbitt, who co-founded NYRR and served as the organization’s first president. A former Olympian and winner of the 1954 Philadelphia Marathon, Corbitt was a mentor to many of the club’s members. At the 1970 New York Marathon, when he was 51, he would finish fifth. When the Road Runners decided to expand the race to five boroughs, Corbitt designed the course, which he reportedly measured out by hand over the course of a single day.
Nina Kuscsik, one of the early female club members, described some of the obstacles she faced in an era when the idea that a woman would run for sport was peculiar to most New Yorkers. People would gawk at her on training runs, particularly at night. “I would get stopped by police officers on my daily runs,” she said. “They’d ask: ‘Are you alright?’ I’d say, ‘Of course I’m alright.’ ‘Well, then who are you running from?'”
Kuscsik recalled how at the early awards ceremonies at the Macombs Dam Park rec center, “Us women would line up with our backs to the wall of the men’s locker room, listening to the ceremonies, sneaking in to grab the awards when our names were called.”
Fortunately, as the club grew, it found other, more inclusive venues for awards presentations.
Kuscsik ran the Boston Marathon in 1969, though her time wasn’t recorded since the race officially forbade female entrants. She would be the only woman to run in the 1970 New York Marathon.
Fred Lebow, an early Road Runners club leader whom co-organizers likened to a circus promoter, was also credited by many of his fellow runners as being one of the driving forces behind organizing the race. In drumming up support for a potentially ho-hum course confined to Central Park Drive, he argued that “the marathon will be more exciting than a regular course, because spectators will be able to keep track of the runners.”
(There weren’t exactly a ton of spectators. George Hirsch, chairman of the board of NYRR and one of the organizers of the 1976 race, said the early marathons went largely unacknowledged by the public. “When we used to race through Central Park, people in the park were pretty unaware of what was going on,” he said.)
With permission from the Parks Department, race day was set for September 13th, 1970. Participants would start in front of Tavern On The Green and make roughly four and a half loops around the park drive, which was closed to traffic during the race. (Once the race moved out of the park, logistics became significantly more complex: today, NYRR organizes the race in partnership with the police, fire, sanitation and parks departments; the Central Park Conservancy and City Parks Foundation; and the MTA.)
The morning of the race, runners were required to a pass a brief physical at the West Side YMCA before proceeding to the starting line and paying the dollar entry fee. At 11 a.m., the marathoners set off.
Gary Muhrcke recalled preparing for the race with daily runs between his home in Freeport on Long Island and Far Rockaway, where he worked as a firefighter with Engine Co. 328. “Commuting time was very precious to me, so I didn’t waste it,” he said. “I knew there were other guys in the club running 50 miles a week, so I had to run 60.”
The night before the race, Muhrcke’s shift was unusually busy, with numerous 911 calls coming out of ordinarily sleepy Rockaway. The firemen on duty didn’t get much rest and Muhrcke wasn’t certain he’d be running the race until the morning of.
“I called my wife from the station the next morning and said, ‘They have this race, in the city, I don’t really need to go.’ I was pretty tired,” he said. “We had three small kids, and I could sense that she wanted to get them out of the house, so we decided to drive into the city.”
As Muhrcke reminisced about the race, I had to periodically stop him, as he referred to the other runners only by their first names. “I decided to hang with this guy I knew, Pat [Bostick], who was in pretty decent shape. After the second loop, out of nowhere, he decided to quit. We must have been in sixth place at that point. I thought, ‘What? What am I going to do now?'” Muhrcke said.
Runners cross Grand Avenue in Brooklyn during the 2015 NYC Marathon. (Scott Lynch/Gothamist)
He said he wasn’t bothered by sweltering temperatures that reached neared 80 degrees, which proved to be too much for some of the runners. He recalled, “With two miles to go I caught up with Moses [Mayfield] on the hill at the north end of the park. Moses had started the race like a bat out of hell, and he was slowing down. There were a bunch of cyclists around him leading the race at that point, who look confused when I passed him. They didn’t think I was part of the race. At that point, I was just lucky to finish.”
Mayfield later remarked to the Times: “This is a nice, easy course, I don’t know why I got dizzy. I’m in very good shape. I’m going to a doctor to check it out.”
Of the 126 runners who started that first marathon, only 55 managed to finish. (Compare that completion rate of 43 percent to last year’s rate of around 99 percent.) Kuscsik dropped out after experiencing digestive problems.
Muhrcke said he received an Elgin Watch as a prize, as did the other top finishers. Everyone received a can of soda. The organizers forgot to bring an opener for the cans—this was before pull tabs—delaying the awards ceremony until they managed to scrounge one up on the Upper West Side.
The following year, Muhrcke’s wife Jane brought hand-woven laurel wreaths to adorn the heads of the winners, a nod to the marathon’s roots in Ancient Greece. (She continued this tradition for more than three decades).
For this year’s race, NYRR will pay out $803,000 in guaranteed prize money, as well as separate time bonus awards.
The organization can afford it: Entrance fees are $255 if you’re not a member and more if you’re not from the U.S. NYRR has also branded everything in the race that can be branded. The Indian IT company Tata Consultancy Services is the current title sponsor; other major sponsors include AirBnB, Asics and United Airlines. Michelob Ultra, PowerBar, Fitbit, the Hospital for Special Surgery and Hanover’s Pretzels are on board, as is Hilton, the New York State Apple Association and Scotland (the country).
Still, beyond all the logos and glitz and glam, the branded cups and helicopters and motorcycles with TV cameras and teeming crowds, traces of the very first race remain. There’s still that sense of camaraderie, even if participants no longer all know each other; they still run 26.2 miles; and there’s still the spirit that celebrates every finisher, not just the winner.
I asked Gary for his advice for a first-time marathoner. He replied: “Eat a lot of food, you’re going to get hungry.”
Simon Glenn-Gregg is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, data visualizer and long-distance runner. He is currently interactive lead at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.