November 2, 2003
A New York Kind of Marathon
By BENJAMIN CHEEVER
I first ran the New York City Marathon in 1978, and I remember hearing a commotion over behind the world's longest urinal. Three men were making a racket climbing the chain-link fence that girds Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, where the race begins. The numbers pinned to their tunics looked like the real thing, but the bar codes, as was cheerfully explained by the bandits, had been cut from cereal boxes.
The race is justly famous for mirroring its host city. The event is gigantic (there were 31,700 finishers last year), hits all five boroughs and has an international flavor.
"New Yorkers are arrogant,'' says the marathon's director, Alan Steinfeld. "They have a right to be arrogant. But come marathon week, everybody opens their arms.''
Which doesn't mean we stop being New Yorkers. Read: passionate, competitive, vain and sometimes devious.
Boston, the nation's oldest marathon, requires speed of its entrants. The New York application process is intended to create a diverse field. Ten thousand come from overseas; locals get in first come first served, with a lottery attached. Now you also can guarantee admission by joining the New York Road Runners' Club and competing in nine authorized races. But if you want a number for New York, it's good to be lucky, foreign, connected or shrewd.
Some 73,000 applied this year, "our highest ever,'' according to Mr. Steinfeld. That's more than twice what the field can hold.
So how do you get in? Many of us cheat. My friend Eduardo Castillo, who had applied twice, got in twice, and I didn't get in at all. So I ran as Julio Castillo and was repeatedly startled when people who seemed to be looking at me, Ben, shouted, "Go, Julio!''
Ray Bowles, a running companion from Pleasantville, N.Y., where I live, first entered on two weeks' notice with the number given him by a friend of his nephew. "I know of a man who had his mail delivered to his girlfriend's home in the Bahamas to establish residency,'' he told me. "I registered once with my brother's address in Vermont. None of this is extraordinary.''
One year I lined up at midnight outside a Manhattan post office, and the next year a friend worked inside and promised to give us all the most advantageous postmark. Marty Linsky, now on the faculty at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, tells me he ran in 1989 with a number provided by the Boston mayor, Ray Flynn, "who was given a small supply to hand out to his nearest and dearest.''
One would think that a race that killed Pheidippides, the first man who ran the distance, would be destructive of self-regard, but New York's egoists are a hearty lot. I recall one young woman who shed the 30-gallon trash bag in which she had huddled against the cold, turned to her friend and said, "I'm doing this to honor my body.''
The willingness to look out for No. 1 can also assert itself at the start. Competitors are urged to line up with the fastest runners first. I'm a small man, and one year I recall finding myself shoulder to shoulder with a whippet. Directly in front of us was this great fat guy. The whippet and I exchanged angry glances. I reached forward and tapped the giant. "I don't think you belong up here,'' I said.
"Yeah?'' he said as he turned and looked us both in the face. "What are either of you going to do about it?''
Ordinarily the race stampede is triggered when the mayor fires a howitzer. But back in 1992, a group of foreign runners who had been let onto the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge couldn't be persuaded to halt at the starting line. Then everybody else began to run. "The police are told that if the race breaks, you just take off, whether you hear the cannon or not,'' Mr. Steinfeld recalled. "I was fortunately a sprinter in college, and I ran like hell to the lead vehicle.''
Fred Lebow, the founder of the race, was running the five-borough race for the first time that year with Grete Waitz. He had surrendered control of the start to Mr. Steinfeld. As the acting race director sped to safety, "Fred is on the phone, or I guess we had walkie-talkies back then, screaming: 'What happened? What happened?' ''
This sort of story works as a foil to the tide of good will that colors the event. I ran in 1992, and I remember passing Fred and Grete. The crowd erupted around that unlikely pair. Since then, runners from the Police and Fire Departments are set out at each of the race's several starting points, arms locked in a cordon, so nobody can cross the line until the race begins.
Mr. Steinfeld has never run the course but would like to in three years, when he is 60, "provided I'm not hit by a bus.'' For now, he enjoys watching others cross the line, kissed by volunteers who hang medals around their necks and dole out the silvery capes.
THERE'S a good deal of status attached to the event. After my 1978 outing, I remember being stopped by a woman in the supermarket who wanted to know how to get the T-shirt I was wearing. "Oh,'' I said, "You need to run the marathon.''
The foil blanket has become the most obvious and convincing badge of courage. My father, John, brought me to Boston to run that marathon in 1979, the day he won the Pulitzer Prize. I took a bath while he answered calls. Walking near the Prudential Center afterwards, he noticed all the other runners still trailing those silvery capes. "Nobody knows that either of us did anything,'' he said.
Mr. Steinfeld started as a marathon volunteer in 1975; in 1978 it became a full-time job, "for half the salary I was making teaching,'' he said, "but it seemed like it would be fun.''
The race he has directed for a decade has spawned imitators all over the globe, including the larger London Marathon and one through the vineyards of Bordeaux, which I ran last year. They serve wine at the water stops. "Le Marathon le Plus Long du Monde,'' they call it. Actually, it goes rather quickly, once you start drinking.
I suppose it's more difficult now than it was in 1978 to fake a number, but there will always be some bandits, a little fraud at the edges of the great event. New York is the business capital of the world, and business is a contact sport. Ask the Indians who sold us Manhattan.
Rosie Ruiz rode the subway to glory in Boston, but the first ever New York Marathon was won in 1970 by Gary Muhrcke. Muhrcke made the front pages in 1978, when he was victorious in the race up the 85 flights of the Empire State Building, and it was discovered that he was receiving a tax-free disability pension of $11,822 from the Fire Department. There were editorials and angry letters. Defenders point out that Muhrcke had been in traction, and that running is not the same as climbing down a ladder with a 200-pound man on your back. Muhrcke went on to found the Super Runners Shop, which now has four outlets.
I like to think that his survival was more a matter of generosity than judgment. People liked Gary. He knew a lot about shoes. And he was fast.
Benjamin Cheever is the author of "Selling Ben Cheever,'' a book about entry-level jobs. His newest novel, "The Good Nanny,'' will be published by Bloomsbury U.S.A. next July.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
November 2, 2003
Music and Medals Attract Marathoners
By MARC BLOOM
Entertainment-oriented marathons, some with rock 'n' roll bands every mile, are attracting record numbers of newcomers who are drawn more to the entertainment and camaraderie than to the athletic challenge.
Tricia Coultes, 33, of Lansing, Mich., was among the 20,000 participants in last year's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego. She had no interest in running it, was unfamiliar with training methods and knew little about the sport.
Coultes said her goal was to walk the marathon at a pace of 15 minutes a mile and enjoy the sights as part of a weekend vacation.
Coultes had walked previous marathons with her mother but was on her own in San Diego. By the halfway point, she took out her cellphone to call her mother. "I was crying my eyes out," she said. "I told her, `You never told me how hard it would be to do a marathon by myself.' She told me to hang in there."
Coultes was not exactly by herself. In addition to the large field of runners, there were bands with a stage and a sound system every mile to entertain the runners and spur them on to the finish. There were also groups of high school cheerleaders throughout for additional motivation.
Propelled by this popular new style of entertainment-oriented marathon, which is redefining what was once an elite event for superior, highly trained athletes, Coultes finally crossed the finish line in 6 hours 59 minutes, a pace of 16 minutes a mile. "The music gives you more energy," she said.
Coultes, who works for an insurance company, represents a new type of participant that is swelling marathon fields but at the same time slowing them to a crawl. These new adherents, officials say, are changing the marathon from an athletic event to a social event. In doing so, the participants have created running's version of a reality show in which ordinary people with no athletic background can be in the spotlight.
At the forefront of the movement, known as "marathons for everyone," are so-called music marathons, which have sprung up in the last few years. Elite Racing, a company based in San Diego that created the concept, will draw nearly 100,000 participants to its four music marathons next year.
They offer glory without sacrifice to those who barely train but cover the distance; they receive a finisher's medal to wear around their necks.
In addition, at least 20 marathons now offer separate standings and prizes for heavier people once spurned by the event's very thin devotees. Men weighing 200 pounds and up, called Clydesdales, and women 160 pounds and up, called Athenas, are welcomed.
One event with a Clydesdales division is the Cellcom Marathon in Green Bay, Wis. "We wanted to be all-inclusive," said Nadia Farr, a spokeswoman for the marathon, which also featured a Super Clydesdales division for men weighing 250 pounds or more. "We felt we should level the playing field so more people could come out as winners."
Some marathon veterans regard the changes with contempt. They complain that an event in which the quest for Everest-like achievement went along with a disciplined, healthier lifestyle has been watered down to little more than a hike in the park. Proponents of the new breed of marathoner contend that any endeavor that addresses America's obesity problem by getting people to walk is worthwhile.
Coultes, whose next marathon is Elite's inaugural P. F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Arizona in Phoenix in January, said: "Most of the year, I don't train. I'm a couch potato." Even though she said she walks for only four months leading to a race, she has lost 10 pounds this year.
Walkers like Coultes, according to officials, are most responsible for a rise in marathon finishers. Statistics from the USA Track and Field Road Running Information Center in Santa Barbara, Calif., show a 13 percent increase in United States marathon finishers from 1996 (396,000) to 2002 (450,000). Last year, women made up 40 percent of finishers, compared with 26 percent in 1995. The median women's time in 2002 was 4:56:46, compared with 4:15:00 in 1995. The men's median time was 4:20:01 in 2002, compared with 3:54:00 in 1995.
Today's 34th New York City Marathon, which has a field of 32,000, reflects the nationwide trends. The median time for marathon finishers last year was 4:27:02, a pace of 10:12 a mile, compared with 3:59:29 in 1989, a pace of 9:03 a mile. Women were 30 percent of the 2002 field, while in 1989, women made up 18 percent. Subsequently, the starting times for New York's different divisions will be about an hour earlier this year.
"People are coming into the marathon for fitness, not competition," Allan Steinfield, the New York City Marathon director, said in an interview. "Their times are not important. They want the camaraderie. It's not the loneliness of the long-distance runner anymore."
Aware that the new marathoners also want entertainment, Steinfeld said that he was talking with the borough presidents and others about having "bands, choirs and doo-wop groups" along the course next year.
Or at least a tape of "Chariots of Fire" at the 20-mile point, known as the Wall because marathoners' energy tends to run low.
Pushing through the Wall at a brisk three-hour pace, or 6:52 a mile, was what motivated James F. Behr of Staten Island, a Vietnam veteran and former smoker who ran every New York City Marathon from 1975 to 2001. Behr, 56, a high school teacher and everyday runner who broke 3:00 often and once ran a 2:38 at the Boston Marathon, no longer enters New York.
"I resent that the race is now dominated by what the French call poseurs," Behr said. "They want to look like runners and get a medal but they're not running. It's the dumbing down of the marathon."
Behr said that the final straw for him occurred when participants carrying cameras stopped shortly after the start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to ask others to take their pictures. "Another guy took out a cellphone to brag to someone about his race," Behr said. "And he hadn't even done a mile yet."
On the other hand, Tim Murphy, the president of Elite Racing, extolled his events' open-arms atmosphere. "What I hear most is that the people feel just as cool as the runner trying to break three hours," he said. "It's all about finishing."
JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a sports psychologist in San Carlos, Calif., said that she had previously helped obsessive marathoners learn to cope with pain so they could break three hours. "Now I see people struggling with goals to get under seven hours. Some marathons have a cut-off time where they close the course. These people want to make sure they don't feel like they're getting kicked out."
Dahlkoetter said that, in a startling shift, most newcomers made the marathon their first race. "They've never accomplished anything physical in their lives," she said. "This gives them bragging rights."
Marathoners once served an apprenticeship based on training fundamentals and historical precedence. They started out in five-kilometer (3.1-mile) and 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) races, worked up to a half-marathon and, after advancing to a training regimen of 40 to 50 miles a week and up, found the courage to tackle a marathon. This process often took years.
Today's participants go right into a marathon because the typical five-kilometer race offers little recognition or hoopla and is not perceived as an athletic steppingstone. Coultes's first race was the Honolulu Marathon, which she has done three times. She does not run five-kilometers but sometimes does half-marathons.
Coultes did the Nashville Country Music Half-Marathon with seven other women from her office. She covered the 13.1 miles in 3:04 and turned out to be the event's big money winner. Murphy had offered a sweepstakes in which participants' race numbers and finish times were picked at random. Coultes won $5,000. The winner of the half-marathon, a Kenyan who ran 1:08:54, got nothing.
Murphy's newest music marathon, the Chang event in Phoenix, advertises a fast, flat course, more than 50 bands, 40 cheering squads and cool weather. Murphy said he already had 15,000 entries and would limit the combined fields to about 30,000, a record for a first marathon and half-marathon.
"Murphy has built a recognizable brand," said Phil Stewart, the publisher of Road Race Management, an industry newsletter. "Individuality is what used to set marathons apart. Now we're seeing the reverse of that. He's looking at it in more marketing terms."
Even though the entry fee of $85 will generate around $2.5 million in revenue for the Phoenix race, Murphy said his events lose money. "The Arizona event has a marketing budget of $700,000, the entertainment costs $600,000, and we're spending a total of $3.6 million," he said.
It is too soon to determine if the new marathoners are making a commitment to improved health in the long-term or whether they are taking a one-shot attempt at fun and glory.
"Many events claim large numbers of first-timers year after year," said Stewart, the newsletter publisher. "If that's the case, where are the second-timers?"
But the participants' emotional gratification is clear. Going from obscurity to covering 26 miles on foot, no matter what the pace, can be a transcendent experience.
For Tricia Coultes, the best part comes when she glances back at the finish.
"There are a lot of people behind me," she said. "That makes me feel good."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
NYC Marathon Pictures (2002)
It was such a beautiful day to watch the marathon - a little warm for the runners, but the mild temperatures brought out as many onlookers as I've ever seen. Fun day!
I'm running it this year.
Took a few photos of the starting area at Fort Hamilton on Staten Island.
A great photo tour of New York City and the marathon by SSP member gct13, here.
Last edited by NYatKNIGHT; November 3rd, 2006 at 12:40 PM.
That urinal? Do they put that there just for the use of the men to use? Is it there all the time or only during the Marathon?
November 11, 2004
A Long Run, but He Broke the Red Tape
By JOYCE PURNICK
Fred Lebow, in bronze, checks a runner's time.
THOUSANDS see it every year at the finish line of the New York City Marathon, and all but maybe the youngest know they are looking at a bronze statue of Fred Lebow, the marathon's founder.
What they don't know is how that statue came to be, that its path was long and costly and nearly blocked. Its sponsor had to raise contributions from afar and hold meetings with commissions and lawmakers, the mayor and the governor.
There were disagreements over location, and a religious objection threatened to consign the statue to storage until a clever solution presented itself, giving rise to The Secret of the Lebow Bronze.
This little saga began in 1990, when a runner from San Diego named Daniel S. Mitrovich ran in the New York marathon. "I felt it was one of the greatest events I'd ever been in," Mr. Mitrovich said over the phone this week.
He was so impressed with New Yorkers and with the determined, willful Mr. Lebow, that he thought he should be honored with a statue. He started the equivalent of a campaign, even though he had just met Mr. Lebow, who created the marathon in 1970 and grew it into a world-class institution.
In the government relations business, Mr. Mitrovich knows his way through the political maze, as does his older brother, George, president of the City Club of San Diego and a former press adviser to Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Charles E. Goodell of New York.
The elder Mr. Mitrovich helped get Mr. Lebow a visit with the first President Bush in the Oval Office. The younger Mr. Mitrovich asked a San Diego artist, Jesus Ygnacio Dominguez, to work on the statue, and he got such luminaries as Grete Waitz and George Plimpton to join his effort. "George said, 'You think you're just going to put up a statue - do you know how tough that's going to be?' '' recalled Mr. Mitrovich, who concedes he hadn't realized how hard New York could be.
He soon found out, starting when he first met a dyspeptic Henry J. Stern, commissioner of parks and recreation. "Henry told me, 'This is not going to happen.' ''
The Californian did what any good government relations man would do. Over the next several years, he gathered broad support from public figures. In Rudolph W. Giuliani's administration, he consulted often with the mayor's spokeswoman at the time - a marathon runner - Cristyne F. Lategano.
Commissioner Stern relented. "I'm wary of statues in general, but here was a guy, Fred Lebow, who really brought about a new sport," he said this week.
The statue was unveiled at the marathon on Nov. 4, 1994, a few weeks after Mr. Lebow died of cancer at the age of 62, but did not find its semi-permanent home for another seven years.
IT kept moving, from the marathon's finish line near Tavern on the Green to a less visible site nearby, into storage and out of storage.
Mr. Mitrovich, driven for reasons he cannot quite articulate - innate obstinacy, perhaps - kept pushing. The Giuliani administration, about to leave office, wanted to tie up loose ends.
Today, the statue stands in Central Park near 90th Street and Fifth Avenue, not far from the headquarters of the New York Road Runners. It is still moved each year to preside over the finish line of the marathon, and while the city Art Commission has yet to officially sanction its location, nobody expects it to be dislodged.
Money was another problem. Mr. Mitrovich called on friends and associates, including the Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Indians, a tribe from Alpine, Calif., near San Diego. They contributed $25,000, and Mr. Mitrovich helped the tribe hold a ceremony at ground zero to honor victims of Sept. 11.
Then came religion. One of Mr. Lebow's brothers objected, citing the prohibition against graven images. Some Jews believe that since God created human beings in his image, any representation of a human being could be construed as the image of God.
What to do? The night before the statue's dedication in Central Park 10 years ago, Mr. Mitrovich and a rabbi ducked under the blanket covering the statue. The rabbi used a metal file to chip the statue between Fred Lebow's left thumb and forefinger.
"It's an incomplete human being, so you're not creating an image of a human being," explained Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program. "It's sort of like a loophole."
The Secret of the Lebow Bronze. The statue of Fred Lebow is incomplete, imperfect. Like the rest of us. But it finally seems to have found a comfortable home in Central Park because a sunny, persistent Californian didn't realize you can't get things done in New York.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
I have a question about the Marathon. Can anyone run it? Just pu tin an application and you in? I thought they may select just the best runners. I want to run this year, anyone have plans to? Also, when should I submit the application?
You have until June 1 to submit an application. You can pill out an entry form at this site which also shows who is guaranteed entry. For all others there is a lottery. I submitted an application for this year, though odds are I don't get in because I ran it last year.
Longtime lurker here. I'll be coming to NY in a few days to run the marathon, my first. If any of you have run in the marathon before (such as NYatKNIGHT), would you care to share your experiences/photos/tips? I'm curious about a few things in particular like how to deal with the long wait at the starting line, the best places for spectators to stand, and what to do when I hit the wall at mile 20. Thanks everyone!
a great moment in my life (2004 runner) last four or five miles are pure will as your bosy is out of it
I've run the NYC Marathon before and will tell you that is is 26.2 miles of pure adreneline rush. From the moment you get on the Verrazano Bridge and the deck starts bouncing up and down, get ready for the experience of your lifetime!
The crowds throughout the course are awesome but I think Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn is the best because they have tons of live bands along the street. If my memory serves me correct, there is usually a good rock band near an auto dealership by the 86th Street subway station (between miles 2 and 3 on the blue/orange starts). That is a good place for spectators because you can quickly jump on the subway and head off to watch the race in other locations.
It's an incredible experience when you first enter Manhattan at Mile 16. On the 59th Street Bridge it's eerie quiet but this suddenly goes all the way from nothing to a deafening crowd roar when you turn onto First Avenue. Use the crowd noise to your advantage to re-energize yourself after the long climb up the bridge. However, if you're a spectator it's much easier to watch the race a few more blocks uptown where the crowd isn't five people deep.
If you hit the wall in the Bronx, just hang in there for the last 10K. You'll get tons of support from the spectators along Fifth Avenue, and even more if you write your name on your shirt. Good luck Sunday and save enough energy to give some high-fives to the kids along the course!
The start may seem an unnecessarily long wait, but there is plenty of things to keep you entertained. Just stretch, keep warm, eat a little, drink a little, go to the bathroom, walk around....it's a real scene. Soon enough you'll be on the starting line.
You can put a bag of your things on a bus to retrieve after the race, but that's a good half hour before the gun goes off. So remember to bring something warm to wear for that last half hour that you can take off at the starting line - something that you'll never see again, so nothing you particularly like. They give all the discarded clothes to charity.
It's sort of hard to say where the best place for spectators to stand is. Central Park has a lot going for it, but it is so crowded you may not see who you're cheering for. I know a lot of people who like First Avenue because there are lots of eateries (and bars) to get inside of. As a runner I appreciated the fans in the harder to reach places - like in the Bronx and in Queens. There's a good spot in Brooklyn around Mile 8 just after coming off Fourth Avenue when they make a right onto Lafayette. Lots of subway lines there around there and places to get breakfast or lunch. Then you can catch the subway back to Manhattan on the 4 train to 86th Street and either check out the race on First Avenue or head straight to the park. This is how I've been able to see who I'm cheering for three times along the race course.
I'll try to find those pictures I posted above - they show what it's like at the start.
I put most of those photos back. Makes me wish I was running it this year. Maybe 2007, we'll see. Good luck to all.