This week marks the 40th anniversary of the first New York City Marathon. On 13 September 1970 a motley crew lined up to run in the inaugural race. This is not to say that New Yorkers weren’t running marathons before 1970; indeed the long history of NYC marathoning dates back to 1908 with a flurry of races inspired by the Olympic games. The current NYC Marathon is the descendent of the February Cherry Tree Marathon celebrating Washington’s birthday, infused by the vision and tireless efforts of founder Fred Lebow. An avid road racer, “Fred ran in the inaugural NYC marathon in 1970, finishing 45th out of 55 runners with a time of 4:12:09. He ran his last NYC Marathon in 1992, in celebration of his 60th birthday, after being diagnosed with brain cancer in early 1990. His time was 5:32:35. (source: Wikipedia)”.
The original 127 runners paid $1 each to run four loops around Central Park. Central Park is lovely, but Race Director Fred Lebow imagined a race that brought all of New York together and showcased the diversity of the city. In 1976, in celebration of the US bicentennial year, his five borough marathon dream came true. No one was really sure what would happen that day, but history, as they say, speaks for itself. The multi-borough race was a smash hit and city-style marathoning was changed forever. In 2009 I entered a lottery and paid the princely sum of $250 for the opportunity to run the 34-year-old route through the five famed boroughs from Staten Island to Brooklyn to Queens to The Bronx to Manhattan.
In 1970 about a sparse “crowd” of 100 spectators watched Gary Muhrcke, a New York City fireman, win the race in 2.31.38. In 2008 Marilson Gomes Dos Santos from Brazil won in 2.08.42. In 1970 the ten fastest runners received a new wristwatch (purchased by Fred Lebow, not from race proceeds), today the winner will receive at least $130,000 in prize money. That’s a lot of wristwatches for 23 minutes less work.
In 1970 only 55 of the 127 runners completed the race and there were no women among the finishers (one lone female started). In 1976 over 2000 runners navigated their way around the new citywide course to the finish in Central Park. On 1 November 2009 just under 40,000 runners are expected to cross the famous Central Park finish line. The original mega-marathon, New York City hosts the largest starting field in the world. Two million screaming fans will help get all those runners to the finish (a staggering 315 million cheer from afar as they watch the event unfold on TV).
The beginnings were humble and the event today bears little resemblance to the race that started it all. In 40 years the price has increased 24,900%, the number of runners by 31,396%, and the number of cheering spectators by 1,999,900%. Assuming a watch cost around $50 in 1970, the prize money has increased 259,900% (although the finish times only decreased 15.23%, talk about diminishing returns) in the same 40 year period. If only my investments showed such mind-boggling growth.
p.s. Sad, but true – I used an online calculator to calculate % increase. In my defense, I can calculate split times when glycogen deprived.
Title Reference: Sam Cooke – Wonderful World. From the album Wonderful World. 1960.