If we’re going to start at the beginning then we need to go back 2,506 years to when Greek soldier, and part time runner, Pheidippides ran all the way from Marathon to Athens to declare the defeat of the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. He thereby gave us the name of an event that still attracts both professional and amateur participants in the very same race.
Of course these days if you’re competing as a ‘fun’ runner in the New York Marathon you might start at the back of the queue half a mile before the beginning of the race. New York 2015 saw the biggest field ever in a marathon thus far when more than 50,000 runners took part and only 300 or so failed to finish.
But back to Pheidippides and his inaugural one-man race where he faced both positive and negative challenges compared to runners who will take the challenge in this year’s New Yorker. On the plus side he didn’t have a 1000cc motorbike in front of him spewing exhaust fumes into his lungs. On the negative side he couldn’t rely on any water stations along his route although he would be spared the 2.3 million discarded paper cups that will have to be picked up from the streets of New York.
Nor indeed would Pheidippides be able to enjoy any of the 100 plus music-bands that spur the New York runners on their way playing anything from jazz to rock at the beginning and perhaps blues and gospel at the end. One high school band has played the Rocky theme over and over again for more than 35 years (pausing of course between marathons).
Pheidippides would almost certainly have run naked and free during his race. A state of undress mercifully not allowed on the streets of the Big Apple. It was only in subsequent years when fun runners began to tackle the 26.2 mile race that the ancient Greeks turned up dressed as Pythagoras or Helen of Troy or wearing a unicorn or a centaur suit (well they may have done).
Arguably the biggest positive that Pheidippides had in his favour was the lack of a professional $200 runners watch which he could have used to feed his obsession with pace, distance, heart rate, calorie burn and the amount of hot dogs he would be entitled to at the end of the race and for the next six months (until training started again). On the negative side he didn’t have a PB to set his sights on or to spur him on. His finishing target always remained the same, BSS, Before Sun Set. Apart from these facts there isn’t much more that we know about Pheidippides and his inspiring race all those years ago. Today, however, we do know rather more about the New York Marathon.
When did it start?
In 1970 Fred Lebow and Vince Chiappetta, two of the city’s road running club presidents, organised the very first New York Marathon which was held entirely in Central Park and saw a starting line up of 127 people. The sole female entrant did not finish the race due to illness. Today, as we saw above, more than 50,000 people take part across all five boroughs starting in Staten Island and crossing the East River three times before finishing in Central Park.
Winners and losers
For the first 13 years the winners of the men’s race were all Americans including Bill Rodgers who won it four times between 1976 and 1979 and still holds the record for the most wins. New Zealander Rod Dixon became the first non-American winner in 1983.
Greta Waiz, the outstanding Norwegian Olympic silver medallist won the women’s race a record breaking and surely unbeatable nine times, setting a then course record in 1980 of 2 hours and 25 minutes, 42 seconds. In 1992 she completed her last New York Marathon running with her friend and course co-founder Fred Lebow who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. They both finished in a time of 5 hours, 32 minutes and 35 seconds. Lebow died two years later.
Other popular winners have included Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, American Alberto Salazar and most notably German ‘wrong-way’ Silva, a Mexican runner who won twice in 1994 and 95. Famously in 94 he took a wrong turn less than a mile from the finish which put him 40 yards behind his rival countryman Benjamin Paredes. Silva sprinted for the line and overtook Paredes to win by two seconds.
Possibly the most famous winner turned out to be Hurricane Sandy who blew across the finish line on her own when the race was cancelled in 2012 because of her.
2016 and onward
The race will take place again this November and who knows if the record for those taking part will be beaten. However, here’s a caveat for those who might wish to join the ranks of those inspired by Pheidippides the Greek all those years ago. Of all those who put their names in the hat to take part in the record breaking 50,000 and more in 2015, only 18% were successful. And the $1 entry fee that they charged to take part in 1970 has risen by 250%.