World Marathon Majors

An Eye-Witness History of the New York City Marathon

One personal view of 50 years of the race that did so much to create modern running — as a runner, broadcaster, fan, writer, and human.

It’s the 50th anniversary of the New York City Marathon, first run in Central Park in 1970 with 127 starters, including one woman. What a festive week we would be enjoying right now, if this virus had not forbidden it. Sixty thousand runners, a great city as welcoming host, and a world of supporters and media, with so much to celebrate! That insignificant little footrace around a park was turned into an unprecedented community street carnival that pulsates with positive energy. It led the world in transforming an eccentric fringe sport into an inclusive global social movement.

That big story is made up of myriads of individual stories. The New York City Marathon has given millions of ordinary people some of the most extraordinary experiences of their lives. I’m one of them. Here are some highlights that are engraved in my life narrative, a selection from 40 years of eye-witness, as a runner, broadcaster, fan, writer, and simply as a human.

Runner

1980:  My first marathon. I had always been too busy with cross-country, track and road, but in America in 1980, all the talk was about marathons, and this crazy new must-do, the New York City Marathon. New York’s dense magnetic rock (as Tom Wolfe calls it) drew every runner, and finally drew me.

Talk about the deep end! We used to think 200 was a big field, and we rarely traveled two hours for a race. Now I’m on a start-line eight thousand miles from home with 12 thousand runners, jammed together, men and women, excitedly talking Italian, Spanish, Japanese, American, happy, eager, the air electric with anticipation. And that is nothing to the effervescent energy once we run down off the bridge and hit Brooklyn. Ranks of people cheering, whooping, roaring like a football crowd, acclaiming every one of us as a hero, people with signs and costumes, bells, rattles, drums, kids insatiable for hand-slaps, stirring us on with rock bands, jazz bands, booming ghetto blasters wedged in windows, pumping out Elvis or Beethoven or Chariots of Fire.  Outside a church porch, under the flag of St. Andrew, the entire congregation, preacher, and choir in surplices, sing an anthem as the marathon goes by. First Avenue is a full-volume tunnel of exhortation. Never before have I literally felt sound waves surge against me. Never before, in almost 30 years as a runner, have I been in a race like this.

Roger Robinson finishing the 1980 New York City Marathon as first Masters runner
Roger Robinson finishing the 1980 New York City Marathon as first Masters runner Photo: courtesy Roger Robinson

I was 41, a marathon novice, but too experienced to get carried away by all the vibrant encouragement, or by the strong early tailwind. We paid for that later. I came through the field, even splits, and won the over-40 Masters in 2:22:12. That earned me a nice silver bowl engraved with the words:  “New York City Marathon — Oct 26 1980 — 1st place.” Maybe Alberto Salazar got one that said “Masters.” In my running diary I wrote, “A long-delayed marathon debut, but  this was the right place, and the right way, to do it.”

Photo: courtesy Roger Robinson

Next day I was guest lecturer at a university campus. Some of the English faculty were runners, and were impressed to have a visitor who had placed in the marathon top 50. But their elevator was out of action, and my thighs were so rigid that I couldn’t get downstairs, and had to struggle inelegantly down backwards.

1984:  Hot fog. The skyscrapers were invisible. The streets steamed. The sensation for the runners was enervating enveloping heaviness. At least two thousand dropped out. The last miles through Central Park, as I moved through, they looked like the wounded after a battle, sweat-smeared, shuffling soggily along. The elites were no better. Orlando Pizzolato achieved the astonishing feat of winning New York after stopping eight times. Dave Murphy could not respond.

“I saw him keep stopping. I knew I had to move. But when I picked up the pace, suddenly I felt utterly dead. It was so frustrating. I felt capable of going faster but the humidity meant I simply couldn’t,” Murphy told me years later.  You had to find the line between simmering and boiling. I ended in 2:26, second Master. It was the only race where you did better if you tried less hard.

1989: Winning the over-50 in 2:28 put me gleefully among the young lead women. On Fifth Avenue in Harlem, I was alongside a friend, Kim Jones, who was running second. On television, my wife Kathrine Switzer analysed Kim’s performance, and added, “And alongside Kim, in the all black, is the remarkable top 50-year-old, Roger Robinson from New Zealand.”

“Thanks, Kathrine,” said anchor Jim McKay, on air. “Marty Liquori, isn’t Kathrine married to a New Zealander?”

“Yes, Jim – to that one!” grunted Marty.

To make sure I didn’t get self-important, a man leaned out from the crowd by the Plaza Hotel, saw me in the top hundred, and cried in protest, “Hey! There goes an OLD guy!”

Roger Robinson New York City Marathon 1989
Roger Robinson in the New York City Marathon 1989 Photo: courtesy Roger Robinson

1990:  Another thing about the New York City Marathon is that it’s really hard to drop out. With my worn-out knee and minimal training, I tried to stop in downtown Brooklyn, but the crowd simply wouldn’t let me. “You can do it! Be tough! You’ll make it!” they urged and shamed me onward. I skulked off at some remote spot in Queens.

Broadcaster

1981: For the first time, the race was on network television, live, wire to wire, and available worldwide. In those three hours, big city marathons became major sports entertainment. Television New Zealand took the broadcast, and I got the lucky job of in-studio commentary as our own Allison Roe ran like a warrior goddess to take the world record. In New Zealand, it was early morning on a public holiday Monday, and with no work to hurry to, our viewing metrics rocketed up as Allison powered away from the injured Grete Waitz. When she won, the whole nation danced on their breakfast tables. So smooth and strong in movement, Roe that day defined a new kind of female beauty, one of motion and power instead of old stereotypes of female appeal as weak, passive, and static. A picture of her in mid-race action featured on page 3 of the Auckland Sunday News, displacing the page’s customary topless sun-bathing image. The (female) editor later described it as “a blow for feminism.”

1983: “Rod Dixon is from Nelson, he can run hills, he’s got an Olympic medal at 1500 meters, he can finish fast!” I’m yelling hopefully into the TVNZ microphone as Geoff Smith stubbornly holds his lead on the hills by the Metropolitan Museum, and the long incline up Central Park South. At 400m to go, on the West Side drive, Dixon finally proves me right, winning one of New York’s most dramatic races. Dixon relishing his triumph as Smith sprawls is one of the marathon’s most recognizable images.

Rod Dixon standing victoriously with arms to the sky after crossing the NYC Marathon finish line in first as the second place finisher is collapsed behind him.
New Zealander Rod Dixon wins the NY Marathon, New York, New York, October 23, 1983. Photo: Allan Tannenbaum / Getty Images

1993:  At an up-market lunch to announce the fund for a Fred Lebow statue, I was sitting one place away from 1992 winner Willie Mtolo (South Africa), enjoying his company. The seat between us was empty, and the lunch placed there remained uneaten. Willie and I were both in full training. We agreed to share the laden plate. Minutes later, the star guest arrived, and moved smoothly across the room to take his place between us. My shameful fate is to go down in history as The Man Who Ate Carl Lewis’s Lunch.

Fan

1986:  Another of its innovations in the culture of running is that the New York City Marathon belongs in large part to its exuberant, omnipresent, infinitely various spectators. I added something new. New Zealand’s Ambassador, Sir Bill Rowling, was running, and I led a gang of diplomatic staff to cheer and wave flags for him at points around the course.

For the only time in history, the Māori haka (war-chant) was performed at the New York Marathon: “Ka mate Ka mate! Ka ora Ka ora!” (“It is death! It is life!”) Bill spared us a smile and ran just over four hours. Formerly Prime Minister, Sir Bill was a highly distinguished man, yet at his funeral, his son told mourners that his father believed running the New York City Marathon was one of the most worthwhile accomplishments of his life.

 Writer

2000-2019:  I have had opportunity to report at the New York City Marathon every year this century. It never disappoints. In the Media Center, I’ve interviewed (or conversed with, as I prefer to think of it) some of the most interesting and admirable people I’ll ever meet – Paula Radcliffe, Hendrick Ramaala, Jelena Protopcuka, Meb Keflezighi, all winners, as well as others who didn’t win but talked unforgettably, like runner-politician-activist Wesley Korir, or Tsegaye Kebede, so wryly comical about his rise from abject poverty to VIP runner.  I’ve reported races that had the hard-boiled Media Center on our feet and yelling like kids – Radcliffe beating Susan Chepkemei by four seconds in 2004, Ramaala losing by one desperate second to Paul Tergat in 2005, Meb outthinking them all in 2009, Shalane Flanagan reaching into the  deepest reserves of will-power in 2017.

Tergat beats Ramaala New York City Marathon 2005
Paul Tergat (L) of Kenya breaks the tape as he wins the New York City Marathon as Hendrick Ramaala (R) of South Africa falls at the finish 06 November 2005 in New York. Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

There have been tough things to write about, too, like the ugly sub-text of doping, or  the cancellation of the 2012 Marathon after Superstorm Sandy, or the obituaries of friends and New York icons like Miki Gorman, Grete Waitz, Allan Steinfeld, or Tom Fleming. In 50 positive years, there must also be losses.

For writers, New York led the world in stimulating a new literary form, the first-person marathon race narrative. Now every writer who runs and every runner who writes has crafted their impressions of a marathon from the inside. New York is unmatched for the mind-blowing extravagance of external material that bombards your mind as you run. When British Olympic gold medalist and journalist Chris Brasher ran in 1979, his article so powerfully evoked “the fun and kindness of an entire city,” that it led directly to the creation of London’s own great marathon.

Photographic images of the huge field surging across Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge began another new art form. It’s standard now to see images of runners against iconic backgrounds (Tower Bridge, the Coliseum, Arc de Triomphe) but the New York Marathon only invented it about 1977.

overhead shot of Verrazano Bridge
Photo: NYRR

Human

 2001: Eight weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York, the marathon was the single most important communal response. To hold such a complex and vulnerable event at that fraught time was an act of courage that symbolized the resilient continuing life of New York, America, and Western global culture. The little footrace that began in 1970 became that day a mass affirmation of our essential values, our peaceful crowds, the equality women have, our freedom of movement and speech, our acceptance of foreigners and difference, our religious tolerance, and the non-judgmental inclusiveness of our sport. It was also, for everyone running, watching or reporting, an unforgettable personal experience.

We were resident in Manhattan in those heart-rending weeks of grief, drifting dust, and suppressed anxiety. At the marathon, my own anxiety emerged, as I waited in Brooklyn to see if the race, the runners, and my wife (on a TV motorcycle sidecar) had survived the exposed photo-op of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. As they came in sight, the relief flowed. “It is,” I thought, “only another race.”

It’s hard to define why a mass marathon can bring catharsis or closure to one individual, but perhaps the closest is E. B. White writing about New York before it even had a marathon:

“It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible…The city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with…a sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.”

Memory makes us human, and a 50th anniversary is a time for memories, especially when we have to get by without an actual jubilee race. One year, I watched the New York City Marathon with Myles, the lively nine-year-old son of an old friend, who was running. As we hopped from subway to sidewalk, I shared my marathon memories with him. I became aware of the contrast between how I saw the race, filtered through layers of years, and his clear-eyed directness.

In “Watching the Marathon with Myles” (a spectator narrative was another new literary idea sparked by the marathon) I ended with a conclusion that again seems right, this anniversary year:

“A nine-year-old looks forward and sees freshly. Myles saw this year’s race more clearly than I did, his head uncluttered with all my fragments of old marathons. With the big-city marathon, our generation is handing over to his something truly remarkable, a cultural event the like of which the world has never seen. Yet its heart is still in the old deep human impulse to achieve, and in the simple old love of running.”