Since 1970, the race has become a monolith moment for both running and New York City. Here are 45 reasons why, after 45 years, the event remains a significant part of the city.
With more than 50,000 competitors annually, the New York City Marathon is the largest in the world. Last year, the average finish time was 4:34:45. All told, more than 1.3 million miles will be run across the five boroughs on marathon morning.
Before founder Fred Lebow died of cancer in 1994, he ran 69 marathons in 30 countries, including an emotional finish in this race in 1992 after he was diagnosed with cancer. He also organized the Empire State Building Run Up and is immortalized in a statue in Central Park near the marathon’s finish line.
Even when the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy derailed the race in 2012, thousands showed up at Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn and decided to run 26.2 miles anyway. Other runners donated time, effort and goods to hurricane relief.
The marathon has been progressive in its treatment of women. The race is one of only a handful of events that has long offered equal prize money for male and female winners. The longtime chief executive officer of New York Road Runners, Mary Wittenberg, was the first female director of an international major marathon and one of the few female executives in sports. (Wittenberg is now the global chief executive of Richard Branson’s Virgin Sports.)
The race inspires a humorous flurry of cheaters. More than 30 years after Rosie Ruiz famously fused running with subway riding in Boston, an investigation by The New York Times found that in a single year, several dozen runners still circumvented marathon rules and skipped parts of the course, either by sneaking into Central Park or handing off their electronic tracking sensors to faster runners.
The Wheelchair Division
Since it started in 2000, born out of a lawsuit from disabled athletes, the wheelchair competition at the marathon has grown to become one of the best in the world. “You race New York and they don’t see us as any different,” says Tatyana McFadden, a serial winner of the wheelchair race.
The millionth finisher, Katherine Slingluff, crossed the line last year and didn’t realize at the time she was the lucky competitor. Unintentionally inspirational, the Brooklyn resident completed the race as a 40-year-old mother of two.
Running lore has it that the first-ever finisher of the race in 1970, Gary Muhrcke, received a recycled bowling trophy for his efforts. His time was 2:31:38.
The New York City Marathon also inspires some of the greatest signage in sports. Runners are treated to an array of puns (“May the course be with you”), crass gags (“If a marathon was easy, it would be called your mother”) and a stream of Ryan Gosling faces.
The New York City Marathon is one of the few moments that track and field geeks dominate airwaves outside of the Olympics. Watching the elites pour into the finish line goes well with…sleeping in and eating a decadent brunch.
The course is the ultimate humblebrag, incorporating all five boroughs since 1976. (The original course was entirely staged inside Central Park.) Some New Yorkers live in the city for years and don’t even make it to neighborhoods that marathoners conquer in a single morning. Finishing the race at least once will solidify a high five at any New York City bar for years to come.
After losing both of his legs to a mortar mine, Bob Wieland competed the New York City Marathon in 1987. Walking on his hands, completing the course took Wieland just under 100 hours, according to Newsday.
A few daring runners try to complete the NYC Marathon in “5 Boroughs, 5 Beers” fashion by drinking at least one beer in each of the boroughs. The record, according to legend, is held by Jesse Williams, who ran 3:26 in 2007.
David Babcock, a professor at the University of Central Missouri, currently holds the Guinness World Record for longest scarf knitted while running a marathon. Last year, while jogging and creating a scarf, Babcock beat his personal record by almost a minute and raised money for Alzheimer’s research.
There is also a case to be made for the New York City Marathon being one of the loudest. The entire course is lined with musicians—full bands, deejays, steel drummers, violinists—official and unofficial. Many racers who bring earbuds never end up putting them on.
Americans can still win it. In 2009, Meb Keflezighi became the first American in 27 years to win the race since Alberto Salazar in 1982. However, no American woman has won the race since Miki Gorman’s second-consecutive win in 1977.
Diddy ran it. In 2003, rapper/businessman Sean “P. Diddy” Combs completed the race with a time of 4:14:54 and said he raised $2 million for charity along the way.
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It’s a great closet cleaner. Tradition has it that runners wear their old sweatshirts at the start of a race, then shed their gear into donation bins as they heat up along the course. Another trend, particularly among the recently single, is to wear an ex’s clothing, then discard it. Annually, more than 200,000 pounds of clothing is collected and donated to Goodwill.
The Photo Finishes
There are nail-biting finishes. In 1983, Geoff Smith held the lead through the second half of the race, but Rod Dixon caught up with him around the 26-mile mark and ultimately defeated him in one of the greatest marathon finishes ever.
The volunteers are comically kind, rebutting the stereotype that New Yorkers are cold, brash and rude. Whether it’s the physicians in the medical tents, the dispensers of Gatorade or those on the cleanup crew, thousands of locals and visitors donate an incredible amount of time to make the race logistics happen.
A runner can go the wrong way on the course and still win. In 1994, German Silva and Benjamin Paredes were about even until Silva followed a police vehicle off the course with only a half-mile left. Silva realized his folly and was able to catch up with Paredes and defeat him. The nickname Wrong Way Silva, however, stuck.
The Pinball Machines!
Free pinball! Sunshine Laundry, a Greenpoint favorite on Manhattan Avenue, offers free usage of its pinball machines for the duration of the marathon. Sunshine’s impressive collection includes AC/DC, Monster Bash, and Twilight Zone machines, among others. (Socks can be cleaned, as well.)
Marriage proposals are inevitable. There have been several throughout the years, covered by local media and not. (The response rate has been overwhelmingly positive.)
The Famous Faces
The 2006 race included both Lance Armstrong finishing in 2:59:28 (before his fall from grace) and Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee reaching the finish line in 5:33.
There is no place to carbo load like New York City. Whether it’s a slice of pizza, a plate of pasta, burger, a hot dog or a barbecue binge, New York City offers a wide array of options to those seeking to effectively cancel out the calories burned during race day.
It’s the United Nations of sporting events, with 40 percent of the runners hailing from abroad, from Albania to Zimbabwe.
The World Marathon Majors add to the drama of New York’s finish. The series, which started in 2006, aims to take six annual marathons (Tokyo, Boston, London, Chicago, Berlin and New York) and reward elites who receive the most points overall for competing in the series over a two-year period. The winning man and woman each get $500,000.
The Fountain of Youth
Last year, 255 finishers were over 70 years old, including one finisher who represented the 90 to 99 age bracket.
The race can be a total tearjerker. Thanks in part to the boom in charity running, there’s no shortage of runners either raising money for noble organizations or running in spite of their own medical ailments, personal struggles or in memory of loved ones.
It’s one of the largest mobilizations of portable toilets in the world. Roughly 1,800 will be mobilized at the start of the race, along with a few hundred along the course.
Local runners still soar in the race. One in five finishers are New Yorkers. Buzunesh Deba, an Ethiopian based in the Bronx, consistently lands in the front of the pack, having participated three times and landing in the top 10 each time. She placed ninth last year with a time of 2:31:40.
New York is a fashion mecca and has a strong tradition of runners in tutus, animal costumes, and just about any costume imaginable. This year’s race will take place the morning after a Saturday Halloween, making the likelihood of wacky wear (and chafing) even greater.
The Medical Support
The doctors who work in the medical tents hail from some of the best hospitals in the world. Whether one needs a Band-Aid or ice for a broken limb, the medical care at the marathon consistently ranks among the best in sports medicine.
The marathon is the only official race that encompasses all five of New York’s boroughs. For most visiting runners (and even some locals), it’s likely the only time they’ll ever set foot in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan in a single day—or even maybe in their lifetime.
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The Guide Runners
The Achilles International guide running team helps start off the race. The group, recognizable for their bright yellow running gear, has consistently led blind runners and their guides to exhilarating finishes. The New York groups regularly train in Central Park, including their excellent Saturday morning workouts.
There are plenty of great places to watch runners go by. While the finish line in Central Park is where much of the panache is, Mayor de Blasio has said the 4th Avenue portion of the course near his old home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is his favorite viewing spot. The stretch along the Upper East Side is bedecked with bars and restaurants offering specials for runners and those who cheer. In the more residential parts of the Bronx and Queens, the course has a tendency to turn into a large-scale block party.
The First Responders
In addition to the thousands of police, fire and emergency personnel who work on marathon day, there’s a solid contingent of local cops, fire experts and EMTs who run the race as well.
The race inspires some of the best playlists ever. Andrew W.K.’s “I Love New York City,” Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and the
Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach” are just a handful of the obvious jams for training or running the course.
You can be a full-time lawyer and still run with the elites. Last year, Annie Bersagel, a 31-year-old American who worked full-time as a lawyer in Norway, competed among the elite women in the race. In addition to being a graduate of Stanford Law School and a Fulbright scholar, she finished in 10th place with a time of 2:33:02.
It’s a great way to find a love connection. Craigslist Missed Connections brims the day after the marathon with postings from spectators, runners and volunteers who crossed paths but neglected to get each others’ numbers.
Heavy drinking is encouraged. More than 62,000 gallons of water, 32,000 gallons of Gatorade and 2 million paper cups will be utilized on race day.
Americans still dominate the victory tally with 28 total wins between the men’s and women’s open and wheelchair divisions. Kenya is second with 20 wins, followed by Norway, Mexico and the United Kingdom.
The marathon has become far greener, with the bulk of runners relying on 725 buses and four ferries to get to the starting line, and 19,300 pounds of food from the finish line donated to City Harvest. Portable toilets utilize recycled rainwater before and after their usage on race day.
New York boasts a plethora of spa and massage options for Monday morning. Book early to beat the rush.
It simply couldn’t happen anywhere else.