Who hasn’t heard of the New York City Marathon? It is inscribed in the global consciousness of our era. Exploding in less than ten years to become the world’s largest marathon, it redefined the relationship between our cities and their people. Since 1970, nearly two million participants have crossed its finish line. As we eagerly await the delayed 50th running of the event on Sunday, Nov. 7, it’s time to ask – how did all that happen? And who made it happen?
It took a city, and it took a world eager to run that city. But it also took vision and creativity from administrators, and runners able to break barriers. Here are a daring dozen movers and shakers from 50 years of history who helped make the New York City Marathon what it is.
Corbitt was the co-founder and first president of New York Road Runners (NYRR), leading the club’s mission to provide post-collegiate opportunities in running. “The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was almost exclusively responsible for organizing races, but it virtually ignored the out-of-school competitor,” he said in 1979. Corbitt, a pioneer in accurate course measurement among many skills, was key in conceiving and planning the new race. He was also a successful and faithful participant. He placed fifth (2:44:15) in the first running in 1970, when he was age 50, and ran the first eleven races, up to 1981. In 1989, he resumed, as a way to celebrate turning 70, and race-walked the race another eleven times up to 1999, when he was aged 80. He paid his entry fee ($7 in 1979) every time. As an African American and an over-50 runner who advocated for age-group results, Corbitt had a double influence on the Marathon’s commitment to inclusivity.
Kuscsik added the other major element to that inclusivity by entering the inaugural race, giving women a presence from the outset, even though she was unwell that day and could not finish. There was no resistance, as co-organizer Vince Chiappetta was a strong advocate for opening the sport to women. A year later, their quality as competitors was proven when Beth Bonner and Kuscsik ran history’s first sub-three-hour performances by women in an official race, 2:55:22 and 2:56:04. Kuscsik won in 1972 (2:58:41) and 1973 (2:57:07). An effective activist for women in the sport nationally, she also joined the sit-down at the start of the 1972 race that protested the AAU ruling that women had to run “separately” from men. She then lobbied for that ill-judged rule to be removed and won, making herself indelibly part of the shaping of the women’s marathon, as well as New York City’s.
Lebow brought the vision, ambition, and promotional chutzpah that dragged an eccentric, ill-organized sport off the dingy backstreets and put it into Central Park, in the very face of the public and the media. A rookie runner, but restless innovator and publicist, Lebow joined Corbitt and race administrator Chiappetta to create a new kind of marathon. Six years later, he recreated it again, as the world’s first urban marathon, taking it (by a masterpiece of persuasion) to the city’s streets, and linking New York’s five boroughs in a never-before-imagined way.
Rodgers made this new urban marathon famous, in its own city and across the world. Suddenly the streets were full of crowds, who could cheer on someone they recognized when “Boston Billy” won four times straight. The floppy hair and startled-rabbit public manner were a novelty in the gritty and flamboyant ethos of New York, where big sports stars were supposed to chew visible gum and whack one fist into a glove. Yet, Rodgers’s winning times were brutally world-class. His first, 2:10:09.6, was second in the 1976 global list to the winning Olympic time, and 2:11:28 (1977), 2:12:11 (1978), and 2:11:42 (1979) all ranked near the year’s best, on a course that is less than record-friendly. By its tenth running in 1979, Rodgers had made New York definitively the world’s top elite marathon. It was also the biggest, the most loudly cheered for, the most widely reported, and the most desired by the world’s runners.
Waitz outdid even Rodgers in both making the Marathon world-class and in her crowd appeal. On her first appearance in 1978, unheralded and unprepared, she broke the world record by more than two minutes (2:32:29.8), lifting women’s marathoning beyond the pioneering era. She won nine times (1978-86), three of those wins in world record-setting times. Each time she outraced many talented men, showing the world that women can be superlative marathoners. As with Rodgers, Waitz’s cool Norwegian composure seemed at variance with the rowdy aggressive city, but its crowds adored her. And she repaid them with affection, loyalty, and service. She raced in New York at every opportunity, and when Lebow was running his cancer-stricken farewell marathon in 1992, it was a tearful Waitz who kept him company. One more long-term contribution came after her retirement, in her highly regarded service as chair of the New York Road Runners children’s foundation (now Rising New York Road Runners). Thus Waitz, once publicly “Queen of New York,” privately led the evolution of the Marathon’s philanthropic identity.
Ibrahim Hussein and Tegla Loroupe
Hussein (1988) and Loroupe (1994) were, we all knew at the time, the first Africans to win the New York City Marathon. No one could have foreseen in advance the astounding flood of talent that would pour through the gates they opened. Kenyan men have now won on 17 occasions, and other African men eight (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania). Kenyan women have won 12 times, and Ethiopians twice. Before Hussein and Loroupe took out New York, the only Africans to win a major marathon were Ethiopians Abebe Bikila (1960, 1964) and Mamo Wolde (1968) at the Olympics, and Joseph Nzau (Kenya) at Chicago in 1983. They joined another great tradition, that New York winners often put back, helping reshape the sport and the world. Loroupe has established a school, an orphanage, and the Telga Loroupe Peace Foundation, and was named United Nations Person of the Year in 2016; Hussein is a businessman, sponsor of a training program for young runners, and office-holder for Africa with World Athletics. Hussein will be inducted this week into the New York Road Runners Hall of Fame. Loroupe was inducted in 2015.
Gadless was also redefining the Marathon through those early Kenyan years, in a different way and at a much slower pace per mile. He ran New York for the first time at age 85, in 1995, while Loroupe was skimming away to her second victory. He ran or walked it for at least six more years, and became one of the public icons of the race. Spectators riding subways to cheer the leaders made complex variations to also glimpse the ninety-year-old inspiration. Gadless truly was inspiring, a diabetic heavy smoker who transformed his life when his health was falling apart in his mid-seventies. Not a likely candidate to shape the identity of a great marathon, but Gadless was one of the increasing numbers of (much) older runners, led by Corbitt, who proved the event totally inclusive. Though never fast, he does still hold the single-age world record for age 89, at 6:35:38, which isn’t doddering.
Traum ran the 1976 New York City Marathon, way back in the field. By doing so, he enlarged the race’s social significance, as the first amputee anywhere to complete a marathon with a prosthetic leg. He went on to found and lead the Achilles Track Club (now Achilles International), whose athletes annually are the vanguard of the Marathon, eagerly welcomed as they pass hard-working volunteers, early-riser spectators, and admiring cops. Give me your tired, your poor, your aged, your marginalized and your challenged, said the New York City Marathon, in consonance with the best tradition of its host city.
Steinfeld was Lebow’s right-hand man through the early years. His obituary said that if Lebow was the visionary Columbus of the modern city marathon, it was Steinfeld who designed, built, navigated and eventually updated the ship, even as it crossed unknown seas. In 2001, when he had succeeded Lebow as race director, known in that role more for efficiency than vision, Steinfeld steered the ship through its greatest crisis and brought it through stronger than it had ever been. That year’s Marathon was scheduled, disastrously it seemed, eight weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the city and destruction of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Steinfeld spent those eight fraught weeks negotiating and disputing, persuading and planning, and it was the quality of his work that enabled the authorities to make the decision that the Marathon would go ahead. The Marathon took on new meanings that day transcending the sport of running. The event established the Marathon’s role as a new kind of catharsis, a communal rite of grief, resilience, unity and recovery. Steinfeld made that possible, working with those who ensured that there would be snipers and frogmen and helicopter observers as well as the typical time-keepers and marshals.
Meb Keflezighi and Shalane Flanagan
Keflezighi (2009) and Flanagan (2017) gave New York its first American winners after a very long drought — 17 years for the men (Alberto Salazar, 1982), 40 years for the women (Miki Gorman, 1977). American runners, they proved, were once again on par with the best in dedication, the intensity of training, and tactical smarts. Meb and Shalane also showed that Americans can be the best in the deep-down resolve it takes to break from a glittering New York City field in the final miles of that arduous five-boroughs course.
How will the New York City Marathon develop through the next 50 years? One thing we can bet is that it’s likely to maintain its record as one of the most exciting, enlightened, and groundbreaking events in the world.