Posted by: Joe English | October 25, 2007

Races: History of the New York City Marathon

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

With the ING New York City Marathon coming up next week, you’ll be seeing a number of articles appear here about its history, course and the elite race line-up. Check back as we approach the biggest marathon of the season on November 4th, 2007!

The ING New York City Marathon is the largest marathon in the world. It is considered the “father” of the urban marathon. But, how did it get that way? It isn’t just because it’s located in the biggest city in the United States. There have been rich stories that have emerged from this race over it’s relatively short history that have elevated the game of marathon running to new heights.

Historically speaking the New York Marathon is young, entering its 37th year in 2007. First run in 1970 on a multi-loop course in Central Park, the established course has been run only since 1976. Compare that with the Boston Marathon, which was run first on April 19th, 1897 and is celebrating its 112th birthday next April. It took 73 more years for the marathon to take root in New York.

The first New York Marathon course was a difficult four lap course around Central Park, which generally kept it out of the way of busy New York streets. The race was small as well. 127 runners paid $1 to enter the race, with fifty-five of them finishing. An American named Gary Muhrcke won the race in 2:31:38.

It was 1976 that proved to be the breakout year for the event. The race was moved onto city streets, famously traversing the five boroughs of New York. But also that year, the first major stand-out performance was delivered at New York as Bill Rodgers ran the fastest time in the world of the year on the new course. Rodgers would go on to win the race three more times in a row. In the period from 1976 to 1980, Rogers would win New York four times and Boston four times, setting American Records twice in Boston.

The man that knocked Rodgers from the top was another American racing legend named Alberto Salazar. Salazar won the race three times in 1980, 1981 and 1982. Rogers fastest time at New York had come in 1976 when he ran 2:10:10. Salazar ran to all three of his victories in faster times, running a 2:08:13 in 1981. Only four performances have been faster than this mark in the 25 years since, with the first and only sub 2:07 performance not coming until 2001, when Tesfaye Jafar of Ethopia ran a 2:07:43.

Considering that the women’s marathon didn’t debut in the Olympics until 1984, New York saw women competitors starting early in its history, in just the second year of the event. In 1971, Beth Bonner ran a 2:55:22 to take the first honors. No women ran in the inaugural 1970 event.

It was another amazing string of performances that attached Norwegian Grete Waitz to the New York City Marathon. Although already an experienced competitive runner, she won New York in her debut at the marathon distance in 1978 in 2:32:30. She came back to win the event a total of nine times between 1978 and 1988. Only twice in that ten year period was she beaten. In dominating the race so heavily, she lowered the world record three times in 1978, 1979 and 1980. Her time of 2:25:42 in 1980 has only been bettered at New York eight times since. Waitz would later win the silver medal in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles.

The women’s course record was posted by Margaret Okayo of Kenya in 2001. Her time was a blazing 2:22:31, which is one of only two times when 2:24:00 has been broken on the course. The other sub-2:24:00 time was by none other than women’s world record holder Paula Radcliffe, in the 2004 running of the event (2:23:10).

In addition to the amazing performances at the front of the pack, New York has also grown in size over the course of it’s history to become the world’s largest marathon. In 2006, over 38,000 runners crossed the finish-line and according to race organizers over 93,000 applied to run in the event.

With so many people coursing through the city, it is no wonder the city of New York turns out by the millions to watch the event. As one New Yorker quoted in the book Marathon by Timothy Collins and Stuart Sykes described, “You’re either in it or you’re supporting it. You can’t ignore it.”

And marathon runners around the world don’t ignore it. Perhaps only the Boston Marathon, with its rich history and qualified entry, has more cache with marathon runners. Not Athens nor London nor Chicago – New York is almost universally seen as the one to run at least once.

With that historical backdrop, I open my coverage of the 2007 ING New York City Marathon. There will be much more in the coming week leading up to the race and then post-race coverage afterward.

Marathon, Timothy Collins and Stuart Sykes (Virgin Books, 2004)
New York City Marathon web-site
Boston Marathon web-site
Wikipedia articles on Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and Grete Waitz

Related article:
World’s largest marathons

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News



  1. […] Running Wild with Coach Joe Training: How do I deal with the post-marathon blues?Races: Marine Corps Marathon 2007Coach Debate: Marathon pacing by Coach JoeCoach Debate: Marathon Pacing Counter-point by Coach DeanRaces: History of the New York City Marathon […]

  2. […] you’re wondering why New York is such a big deal, you may want to start by reading a brief history of the New York City Marathon. Although the race hasn’t been around for as many years as some, it has been steeped in history […]

  3. […] In the mean-time here are some articles you might find useful: History of the New York City Marathon […]

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