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A City Affair: The New York City Marathon

Discover the fascinating history of the New York City Marathon, from its humble beginnings to becoming the world's largest marathon.

woman cheering new york city marathon
A woman cheering at the 2001 New York City Marathon edition after 9/11. Image: Getty

When Fred Lebow and Vincent Chiappetta organized the first New York City Marathon in 1970 couldn’t imagine that their event would have expanded outside Central Park to the Five Boroughs and the world. The first Sunday of November means Marathon Weekend for New Yorkers for more than 50 years. Nearly 2 million spectators gather on the course to cheer 40,000 athletes chasing a PB or the dream of running the largest marathon in the world.

Lebow and Chiappetta, members of the New York Road Runners, started the race with a small budget of only $1,000 tracing the course at night after a training session in Central Park. 127 runners, of which only 1 woman, were at the start line on September 13. Gary Muhrcke won the race in 2:31:38. At that time, the most prominent marathons in the US were Boston and Chicago, both of which originated from the 1896 Athens Olympic Games, but New York's popularity would take over quickly.

the six who sat new york marathon
The Six Who Sat at the start line in 1972. Image: Time

The first pivotal moment happened in 1972 when six women, nicknamed the “Six Who Sat”, protested the governing body for marathons, the Amateur Athletic Union, to show the unfairness of having two separate races for men and women. Women ran a different race starting 10 minutes before or after the men. The women embraced signs like “Hey, AAU This is 1972 WAKE UP” that managed to change the rule to have everyone running the same race. In the 60s and 70s gender representation was a common theme across many running events in the US. Politics and sport went hand in hand on this topic. Since then, female presence at the event constantly grew, from 12% of finishers in 1979 to 45% in 2021.

Runners on Verrazzano Bridge
Runners on Verrazzano Bridge. Image: Outside

A lot of what makes the New York City Marathon what is today is the course. Before 1976 the course repeated a loop inside Central Park, but due to the growing popularity of the event and politicians' support the organizers decided to extend the course to the Five Boroughs. It begins on Staten Island, in Fort Wadsworth, near the approach to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. After descending the bridge, the course winds through Brooklyn, mostly along Fourth Avenue and Bedford Avenue. Pulaski Bridge marks the halfway point of the race and the entrance into Long Island City in Queens. Runners cross the East River via the lower level of the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge into Manhattan, then proceeding north on First Avenue, then crossing into The Bronx via the Willis Avenue Bridge. The race is only in The Bronx for one mile before returning to Manhattan as the course follows East 138th St. before crossing the Madison Avenue Bridge. It then proceeds south through Harlem down Fifth Avenue and into Central Park at East 90th St. The finish line is in Central Park after climbing three hills in the Park, which gained a brutal reputation among runners.

runners 1978 new york city marathon
Runners at the start line of the 1978 edition. Image: SI

The new course was responsible for the rise in popularity of the event. Now, the marathon was a city affair. Every neighborhood was involved. Every New Yorker felt the marathon as part of his identity. During the 80s, the number of runners finishers, from 12,512 in 1980 to 24,659 in 1989. Twenty years later, in 2009, the event became the world’s largest marathon with 43,660 finishers and surpassed that record again in 2019 with 53,600 finishers. This is also confirmed by the fact that everyone knows someone who ran the marathon at least once. While, if you speak with a person living in New York they will know someone running this year.

During the first 20 years of its history, the event was also one of the fastest in the world. Beth Bonner set the female world record (2:55:22) in 1971, the first year with female finishers. Between 1978 and 1980, Norway’s Grete Waitz broke the world record three times and became the first woman to run below 2h30. Waitz has the record for most wins, nine throughout eleven editions between 1978 and 1988. In the years after no world records would be broken at the event as the course is not as fast as the other major marathons. By the time we write this article Geoffrey Mutai holds the men's course record (2:05:06 in 2011) and Margaret Okayo the female record (2:22:31 in 2003).

runners start line new york city marathon 2000
New York's Fire fighters and police officers at the start line in early 00s. Image: Hips

How fast is the course doesn’t matter to 99.9% of the runners. They want to feel part of New York and connected with its people. New York is omnipresent in Western culture. It influences how we dress, what we watch, and how we spend our free time. The New York City Marathon has a special place in the dreams of most runners. Seinfeld dedicated 2 episodes to it. How I Met Your Mother’s iconic character Barney Stinson finishes despite the lack of training during the second season’s episode “Lucky Penny”. The Saturday Night Live had a special on it. And many other shows watched by millions of people around the world contributed to creating the fame of the race.


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