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Drama Class: How The NYC Marathon Builds An Elite Field

The Big Apple knows how to put on a road show.

The Big Apple knows how to put on a road show.

Remember South African Hendrick Ramaala laying down a spleen-melting 4:22 mile on First Avenue to drop Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya, only to have to go to the well again with Paul Tergat and Meb Keflezighi? Grimacing, struggling, one last surge. And then another. And another.

Or Paula Radcliffe of Great Britan with tenacious Kenyan Susan Chepkemei covering every move over the rolling Central Park road, past the grand hotels on the south end, pulled forward as much by the barely contained energy of the crowds as their shredded legs?

Maybe Broadway has rubbed off on them, but regardless, the New York City Marathon knows how to put on a show. Their 26.2-mile theater of competition is largely the result of consciously building a deep, diverse elite field.

“New York is a challenging course — we are not overly concerned with fast times,” said Richard Finn, spokesperson for the New York Road Runners. “Rather we look to build a dramatic narrative of mano o mano competition. Getting the very best runners from many countries helps us show the world what the marathon is all about.”

New York is unique in this regard. London, Chicago and Berlin trade on their flat, fast courses, often building an elite field around one or two runners with the best chance of setting a world record. They enlist pacers and training partners, all geared toward enabling a blazing time. It’s not unusual to see fifteen or twenty east Africans, like Himalayan sherpas, boosting one of their number to the summit. “You won’t see that at New York,” said Finn.

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Instead you get a pack of twenty runners from Japan, Brazil, Portugal, Italy, Germany, the U.S., Great Britain, Kenya and Ethiopia sweeping off the Queensboro bridge and onto First Avenue, fittingly only a few blocks from the United Nations headquarters. The NYRR works off the Olympic model, says Finn, eschewing pacers and letting the largest, most diverse group they can recruit have at it, bare-knuckled. This year’s elite fields are comprised of 45 men from 12 countries and 45 women from 16 countries. To promote and encourage U.S. distance running, NYRR made room for 25 U.S. men and 20 women in their coterie and introduced a separate $100,000 prize purse for U.S. citizens.

New York’s sizable elite fields allow for last-minute changes, like Firehiwot Dado’s recent withdrawal: They did not rush to fill her spot because the field remains robust.

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Spreading the elite wealth worldwide makes for difficult decisions. “We look at an athlete with an unusual story or fantastic personality, even if she is not the fastest,” said Finn. “That athlete is more interesting to a general audience, and helps us promote our marathon and the sport.” Not that Haile Gebrselassie, Tergat, Grete Waitz and Tegla Loroupe were exactly pedestrian, but they’re representative of the sort of multi-talented, larger-than-life personality NYRR seeks. Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai, for example, was passed over for the Kenyan Olympic marathon team, despite winning New York last year in course-record time.

National diversity being a focus, a World Cross Country medalist from, say, Portugal may be more attractive than a similarly credentialed Kenyan runner.  It also helps to have placed high in a major marathon, be a world championship or Olympic medalist, a national champion or a world-record holder.

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Elite women at New York start ahead of the elite men and the other 47,000 competitors, requiring critical mass just for body warmth over the first eight miles or so. For that reason, there’s more leeway in standards for the women’s field. “Not all of them are contenders,” said Finn. But many are: This year’s women’s field features nine who have gone under 2:25, nineteen sub-2:30 standouts.

So, no pacers, tough course (until last year, when Mutai ran 2:05:06, the record was 2:07:14), and they’re competing for top runners with other major fall marathons like Chicago and Berlin — what is NYRR offering? “Three words,” said Finn. “New York City.”  He’s referring to the heart-pounding energy of 2.5 million spectators, three-and-a-half hours of live coverage on ESPN2 (which makes shoe and clothing sponsors happy), and the bucket list appeal — as Gebrselassie famously said, “My career would not be complete [without running New York].”

Oh, and then there’s the $850,000 guaranteed prize purse, while course and world records receive extra financial recognition. Mutai earned an additional $70,000 for breaking the decade-old course record, bringing his total earnings for the day to $200,000. Or at least, the part that’s public record.

New York, like all major marathons, recruits talent with behind-the-scenes appearance fees. “We’re talking about  their livelihood so, like applying for a job, there are compensation negotiations,” said Finn. He did not discuss the total budget nor individual offers, but said, “We must be doing something right. There aren’t many top runners who haven’t run New York.”

Even in the thick of putting on this year’s race, pro athlete consultants Sam Grotewold and David Monti are working on story lines for 2013 and beyond. Recreating the Olympic trifecta of Shalane, Kara and Desire Davila would be pretty sweet, according to Finn, as would luring 10,000-meter star Galen Rupp up to the 42K distance. For some of those yet-to-be-signed athletes, NYRR has those three words and a free ride in this year’s lead vehicle.


About The Author:

Sarah Barker runs and writes in St. Paul, MN.