Why did the runner cross the bridge?
To get to the next borough.
The story of the modern marathon began at a bridge. On March 10, 1896, twelve Greek runners lined up by a little stone bridge in Marathon, Greece, ready for the first selection trial for the coming Olympic Games. With only a few curious villagers watching, the twelve gazed ahead at the dusty Athens road, where in a few moments they would begin to run the first marathon in history.
On November 3, 2019, close to 55,000 women and men from all around the world will gaze ahead at another bridge, the great arc of multi-lane roadway sweeping more than two miles across the Verrazzano Narrows at the head of New York Harbor. They too will be on the start-line of making history, ready to run over that soaring bridge and through the ten-deep ranks of more than a million cheering spectators, eager to acclaim the biggest marathon of all time.
Then they start. It’s a sight we all know, and never cease to be awed by. It has become as familiar, and as defining of our era, as the image of Earth from Apollo 11. It’s evidence of the high place of running in twenty-first century global culture that a unique new art form has been created—unmistakeable images of a vast horde of runners surging across an iconic bridge. Forty years ago, that image had never existed.
Often the photo or film is shot from a helicopter, a view no runner gets. It’s as if the phenomenon of our big city marathons were being observed by an intrigued Martian in a flying saucer, who at very least would have to be impressed by such an amazing act of organized mass movement.
Those of us who have been part of that moving mass are justly proud, as well as awed, to see how it looks from the outside. And we instantly understand what it means. The image’s message is one of participation, purpose, peace, free movement, community, inclusiveness, energy, active health, achievement, the joy of human life at its best. The image perfectly symbolises all that makes modern running so much more than a sport. It’s a movement, one that has created the biggest peaceful participant activity in human history.
No wonder the image is so compelling. Big and historic cities now promote themselves by pictures of their most famed bridges wholly possessed by marathon runners, bridges already as iconic as London’s Tower Bridge, Sydney Harbour Bridge, or the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul that links Europe to Asia. The runners make those bridges even more significant.
And it all began at the Verrazzano Narrows.
It’s not easy to plot a 26.2 mile course that touches each of the scattered five boroughs of New York City. Fred Lebow and other founding fathers who first devised that eccentric tour in 1976 had the idea of checking off the borough of Staten Island in the first steps of the race. Assemble at Fort Wadsworth, line up on the toll plaza, run straight for the bridge, and cross to Brooklyn. That’s Staten Island done.
It was a stroke of genius as well as ingenuity. For marathon runners, our motivating metaphor is that of the journey – a journey that is challenging, purposeful, and significant, like the legend of Pheidippides. Crossing a bridge touches the pulse of all of us. Why did the runner cross the bridge? To get to the other side.
The Verrazzano-Narrows bridge on marathon day is more than a symbol. It’s a hill. The highest point on the course lies at the end of a long uphill drag of almost a mile, and down again. Coming immediately after the start, that makes it tactically critical.
Beware! However fresh you feel, that insidious slope can drain the freshness out of your legs. When start time comes at last, you will be impatient to get into the race, adrenaline pumping, after a long dull morning, sitting jammed in buses or ferries, and being incarcerated at Fort Wadsworth for three hours, dressed in scruffy old tops and garbage bags with nothing to do except line up yet again for the portajohn.
When the big howitzer goes boom, and the “New York, New York” music starts to play, please don’t get too excited. There’s a hill to climb, disguised as a bridge. If you’re not prepared for the first mile of the New York City Marathon to be your slowest of the day, well outside target average pace, you could be in trouble later. Often the TV coverage shows the elites seeming to dawdle that first upward mile, and jog the second mile’s downward grade. In fact, they are reading it right.
Once off the bridge, if you have resisted the temptation to burn out on the long first uphill, and if you saved your calf muscles on the long down, now beware again! The crowds begin in Brooklyn. The excitement of admiring fans goes surging through your veins.
I remember in my first New York, I decided at about three miles that I had to shut it all out, not respond, slap no hands, absorb no urgings, attend to no acclaim. From then on, I ran pretending I was inside a sound-proof plastic sack. Sounds boring, but it worked. There are hills, bridges, and cheering crowds aplenty ahead of you. Don’t give all you have got to the first. Running a good marathon takes both hot passion and cool judgment.
It’s a long straight road on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue. Bells ring, bands play, church choirs sing, if you choose to hear them. Ahead, exactly marking the halfway point, waits the next bridge, which you will cross, and get to the other side—and the next borough.
Roger Robinson won the masters title at the 1980 New York City Marathon, and set an over-50 record of 2:28:01 in 1989. He is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.