Thousands of runners will converge on New York City to race the New York City Marathon on Sunday. Here’s everything you need to know about Gotham’s most iconic road race.
1. THE RACE'S MASTERMIND JUST WANTED TO IMPROVE HIS TENNIS GAME.
When Fred Lebow first laced up his shoes, he didn’t set out to help turn distance running into a national craze. He just wanted to up his stamina when he played tennis. He fell in love with running, though, and in 1970 he organized a marathon in Central Park. With a total budget of $1000—$300 of which came out of Lebow’s own pocket—Lebow gathered a small pack of runners to pound 26.2 miles’ worth of loops in the park on September 13, 1970.
2. THAT FIRST GROUP STRUGGLED A BIT.
Lebow’s first race featured a field of 127 runners, but only 55 of them managed to complete the course. Gary Muhrcke won the first race with a time of 2:31:39. Muhrcke’s feat is all the more impressive because he had worked the previous night as a firefighter in Far Rockaway, Queens. In 2009 he told Runner’s World that he was tired and nearly bagged the race entirely: “I had called my wife at about 8:30 in the morning and said, ‘You know, I don't really want to go [to Central Park], I think I'm going to come home and take it easy.’ I don't want to run a marathon on September 13 [with] 85 degrees possible. I heard a disappointment in her voice, because we had three little children. I said, ‘Alright, we'll go, let's go, pick me up, we'll go.’"
3. ONLY ONE WOMAN COMPETED IN THE FIRST EVENT.
The vast majority of those first 127 runners were men. In fact, there was only one woman in the race! She became ill during the run and never crossed the finish line.
4. A REVOLUTION BEGAN TWO YEARS LATER.
Why were there so few women in that first race? Blame running’s old governing body, the Amateur Athletic Union. The AAU had long banned women from running marathons; Runner’s World noted that part of the justification for this ban came from junk science that indicated female distance runners were prone to infertility. In 1971, the AAU agree to allow women to run the distance if their race start was staggered 10 minutes away from the men’s race or from a different line.
The plan for the 1972 race was to have the six women in the field take off from the starting line 10 minutes before their male counterparts. However, when the women’s gun sounded, instead of taking off, the six runners—led by Boston Marathon champ Nina Kuscsik—sat down on the starting line. For 10 minutes, they held signs jeering the AAU with slogans like “Hey AAU, this is 1972. Wake up.”
When the gun sounded for the men’s race to begin, the women got up and ran. The protest cost them a 10-minute penalty, but it was a major victory in women’s effort to run the same races as men and changed running forever. Last year, more than 21,000 women finished the New York City Marathon.
5. THE RACE VENTURED OUT OF CENTRAL PARK IN 1976.
The United States celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, and everyone was looking for a way to ride the national wave of patriotic sentiment, including local runner George Spitz. Spitz thought that taking the race out of its looping course in Central Park and running it through all five of the city’s boroughs would be a great way to harness some local pride. He had run the Boston Marathon, and he reportedly asked his friends, “If Boston can have a marathon on the city roads, why not New York?”
Spitz doggedly worked to get the support of Mayor Abraham D. Beame and raised the funds necessary to close down the streets. That first cross-city race was a smashing success, and the course has passed through all five boroughs ever since.
6. IT'S GOTTEN QUITE A BIT MORE EXPENSIVE.
The entry fee for the 1970 marathon was just $1. It’s safe to say the price has outpaced inflation in the last several decades. U.S. residents running in the 2017 marathon paid an entry fee of $295 apiece, while non-residents paid $358.
7. THE SPOILS HAVE GOTTEN BETTER, TOO.
When your entry fee is just a buck, you can’t afford to be too lavish with the race prizes. According to race organizers, the top runners in 1970 received “inexpensive wristwatches and recycled baseball and bowling trophies.” It’s gotten a little richer since then. For this year’s race, the total prize purse is $825,000, with the fastest man and woman running away with $100,000 apiece.
8. WHEELCHAIR RACERS GOT THEIR OWN DIVISION IN 2000.
The 2000 race marked the first year that wheelchair racers had their own formal, competitive division following 20 years of racing as an exhibition event. That first formal race went to Kamel Ayari in a time of 1:53:50, and the division has only gotten faster since then. The current course record belongs to Australian Kurt Fearnley, who roared through all five boroughs in 1:29:22 in 2007.
9. THE FIELD HAS GROWN OVER THE YEARS.
Lebow only found 127 runners for the 1970 race, but the 2017 edition of the marathon will include about 50,000 racers.
10. RUNNERS RAISE A SERIOUS PILE OF MONEY FOR CHARITY.
Many runners are doing more than just getting in a good workout—they’re also raising money for a good cause. The 2014 running of the marathon helped raise a record $34.5 million for various charitable causes. One of these charities is named for Lebow, who passed away in 1994 following a fight with cancer. Since 1995, the charity that bears his name, Fred’s Team, has raised more than $70 million for New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
11. THE RACE HAS ONLY BEEN CANCELED ONCE.
Since 1970, the only marathon that didn’t go off as planned was the 2012 running. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially insisted that the race would go on as planned before pressure from other local leaders led him to cancel the marathon. Some disappointed runners gathered in Central Park to run their own unsanctioned race, while others volunteered to visit hard-hit Staten Island to lend a hand to recovery efforts.