The Making of Today’s Iconic 5-Borough NYC Marathon
Before it was the iconic race it is today, the five-borough NYC Marathon was considered an impossible idea. Now it's one of the biggest marathons in the world.
At first, the idea of a 26.2 mile race through all five boroughs of New York City seemed impossible. The wild suggestion unsurprisingly came from the quirky George Spitz, a local runner, government gadfly and guy known to call his friends at 2 a.m. just to chat.
“I was like, ‘Oh gosh. This is some idea of George’s. How in the world are we going to close down the city of New York?’” recalls 84-year-old George Hirsch, one of the founders of the five-borough New York City Marathon and the former publisher of Runner’s World.
Fred Lebow, the creator of the original NYC Marathon, was also unenthusiastic about the idea. In 1970, Lebow had organized the city’s first 26.2-mile footrace, a ho-hum event with just 55 finishers—all men—on a four-lap course around Central Park. The marathon was held with little fanfare in every year between 1971 and 1975.
To take the race outside the park and across the city would require money that the New York Road Runners—at the time, a small club—simply did not have, argued Lebow, the club’s president at the time. But Spitz’ seemingly absurd idea grew legs when city officials looked at it as a way to boost the financially-struggling city and mark the country’s bicentennial in 1976.
So with financial backing from real estate developer Jack Rudin and support from Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton and NYC Mayor Abraham Beame, the five-borough footrace became a reality on October 24, 1976. With 2,000 runners and no major glitches, the event was considered a huge success. Bill Rodgers, a rising distance star, won the race, beating Frank Shorter, a two-time Olympic marathon medalist. Hirsch also ran the first five-borough race, finishing in 2:49.
Things after the race didn’t go quite as smoothly, Hirsch recalls. When Shorter and Hirsch left Central Park together, they realized neither had any money for a cab back to Hirsch’s apartment. So they hitchhiked. “These two guys picked us up and we got in the back, and they said they came up from Philadelphia to watch the marathon,” Hirsch remembers. “The one guy looked in the rear mirror and said, ‘Oh my God. Frank Shorter.’’
Meanwhile, Bill Rodgers was dealing with his own transportation woes. He had just cruised to victory over an Olympic champion, only to get tripped up by parking regulations. As the comical story goes, Rodgers had driven himself to the marathon from Boston and parked on the Upper West Side. When he returned to where he left his car—his winner’s trophy tucked under his arm in a Tiffany’s box—it wasn’t there. “It had been towed,” Hirsch says. “He had to jog back to the finish and Fred [Lebow] gave him money to get his car.”
At a party at Hirsch’s apartment that night, everyone was happy about how the event went. Without a question, there would be another, recalls Hirsch. The following year, Rodgers returned to the Big Apple and successfully defended his title. He would ultimately win the NYC marathon a total of four times between 1976 and 1979.
Women marathoners would also deliver remarkable performances for the history books. In 1978, Norway’s Grete Waitz, who had never run more than 12 miles before the NYC Marathon, stunned the world and finished first in a world record time of 2:32.30. Waitz would go on to become a nine-time NYC marathon champion, including securing five consecutive titles from 1982 to 1986. By 1986, the race had grown to 20,000 participants, 4,000 more than in 1985. Not only that, an impressive 98 percent of those runners crossed the finish line.
The 1990s began with a devastating brain cancer diagnosis for Lebow, the marathon’s longtime and tireless director. While in remission in 1992, Lebow, by then an iconic leader in the running world, ran the five-borough marathon for the first time, finishing with good friend Grete Waitz at his side. Just a month before the 1994 marathon, Lebow died at age 62.
“Crossing the finish line with Fred in 1992 meant more to me than a possible 10th victory,” she told The New York Times shortly after his death. Lebow was remembered at the marathon finish line that year with a memorial service. Tegla Loroupe, a 21-year-old from Kenya, won the women’s race, becoming the first African woman to win a major marathon.
The decade ended with a record number of finishers at the 1999 marathon: 31,807. The following year, race organizers boosted recognition for athletes in wheelchairs and created the race’s first official wheelchair division. A year later, the marathon was held less than two months after the September 11 terror attacks and united a city and nation in mourning. Many participants wore photos and tributes to loved ones they lost, and the line marking the final miles in Central Park was painted red, white and blue.
In 2003, the marathon partnered with its first title sponsor, ING, a financial services company. With more than 34,000 finishers, the event was the largest marathon in the United States for the second consecutive year.
The 40th anniversary of the marathon in 2009 was indeed a celebration as American Meb Keflezighi took the men’s title, making him the first American man to win the NYC Marathon since Alberto Salazar in 1982. That year was also the last time Hirsch, then 75, ran the NYC Marathon. He ended his marathoning career on a high note and won his age group.
In 2012, for the first time in its history, the marathon wasn’t held. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, city officials canceled the race, arguing that the city and region were too devastated to host the event. The race made a big return in 2013, with more than 50,000 crossing the finish line, setting a world record for the most finishers in a marathon. In 2014, the marathon got a new title sponsor and was re-named the TCS New York City Marathon.
The 2017 race showcased the strength of American female distance runners as Shalane Flanagan became the first elite American woman to win the race in 40 years. Three more American women finished in the top 10. “Last year was thrilling to have Shalane win—this wonderful, brave champion,” says Hirsch, who currently serves as the board chairman of NYRR. “It was very special.”
Four decades after he sat in the mayor’s office to discuss launching a 26.2 mile race across the vast city, Hirsch maintains a strong presence at the event. “I can honestly say the New York City Marathon is the best footrace in the world,” he says. On marathon Sunday, he can usually be found along the finish line with friends and colleagues, tracking runners on his phone and eagerly awaiting their arrival.