NYC Marathon reaches 40th an­niver­sary

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Verena Dobnik

Forty years ago, the world’s top two marathon run­ners were each handed an en­ve­lope with a check in it for $3,000 — se­cret re­wards for help­ing raise the pro­file of the very first five-bor­ough New York City Marathon.

“It was an in­stant hit, a ‘Wow!”’ says Ge­orge Hirsch, chair­man of the board of the New York Road Run­ners Club that hosts the 2016 race to­day.

What is now the world’s largest marathon be­gan in 1970 when 126 men and one woman cir­cled Cen­tral Park. Six years later, about 2,000 am­a­teurs, in­clud­ing Hirsch, took the race to the streets of New York for the first time, touch­ing all five bor­oughs. Lead­ing the pack were Amer­i­can marathon record-holder Bill Rodgers and Olympic gold medal­ist Frank Shorter, paid to push the 26.2-mile run into the global spot­light. Hirsch — then a prom­i­nent pub­lisher — passed them the checks “un­der the ta­ble,” he re­mem­bers.

“We wanted to give the most im­por­tant run­ners in the world an in­cen­tive to be here,” Hirsch says. “They made a big dif­fer­ence.”

Rodgers won the first of his four New York marathons. The pay­ments to hit the pave­ment cer­tainly paid off.

This year, about 50,000 peo­ple from more than 120 coun­tries — half of them women — have reg­is­tered. The elite ath­letes will be com­pet­ing for a prize purse to­tal­ing $803,000, with po­ten­tial record bonuses. The men’s and women’s cham­pi­ons will each re­ceive $100,000. And $25,000 goes to the fastest com­peti­tor in a wheel­chair.

All eyes will be on Mary Kei­tany, of Kenya, last year’s de­fend­ing cham­pion, who also won in 2014, and last year’s male win­ner, Kenyan Stan­ley Bi­wott.

Among Amer­i­cans, Gwen Jor­gensen, win­ner of the triathlon gold medal at the Rio Olympics in Au­gust, will be run­ning her first marathon. Molly Hud­dle, who set a U.S. record while fin­ish­ing sixth in the 10,000 me­ters in Rio, is mak­ing her first try at this longer dis­tance.

The star-stud­ded Amer­i­can field also in­cludes Olympians Dathan Ritzen­hein and Kim Con­ley, who is mak­ing her marathon de­but. Scat­tered amid the crowded, sweaty run­ners will be eight am­a­teurs in their 60s and 70s — all trail­blaz­ers in New York in 1976.

Dick Traum was the first person to com­plete a marathon with a pros­thetic leg, in 7 hours, 24 min­utes. Asked to step off ahead of the thou­sands of others, he was the first person ever to start the five-bor­ough marathon.

“I ran as if you broke your leg and had a cast, try­ing to get across the street quickly, hop­ping-style,” says Traum, who has a busi­ness Ph.D. and cre­ated his own com­puter app com­pany to help com­pa­nies max­i­mize their re­sources. At 75, he’ll mount his hand­cy­cle at the start line near the Ver­razano-Nar­rows Bridge in the bor­ough of Staten Is­land. A knee re­place­ment on his nat­u­ral leg dis­qual­i­fies him from ac­tu­ally run­ning; one leg must be in­tact by the rules of the race.

He lost his limb as a young man when a run­away car crashed into him at a New Jer­sey gas sta­tion.

Traum was a mem­ber of the New York Road Run­ners Club led by Fred Le­bow, a Ro­ma­nian-born New Yorker and avid run­ner whose dogged en­ergy fu­eled the early ef­forts to ex­pand and el­e­vate the marathon to a global level. Even af­ter his death, Le­bow sym­bol­izes the race, his statue stand­ing near the Cen­tral Park fin­ish line.

For the city’s first five­bor­ough run, Le­bow, Hirsch and Percy Sut­ton, Man­hat­tan’s bor­ough pres­i­dent, had per­suaded Mayor Abe Beame to ban traf­fic from the route that spanned the whole city. On the side­lines were tens of thou­sands of spec­ta­tors — a far cry from the 2 mil­lion or so now cheer­ing on run­ners.

The three men told the mayor that the crime-rid­den, nearly bank­rupt New York of the mid-1970s “needed the marathon to lift the city’s spir­its,” Hirsch says. Rodgers and Shorter’s pay­ments were le­gal but de­fied a reg­u­la­tion of the sport’s gov­ern­ing body, now called USA Track & Field, which clas­si­fied marathon­ers as un­paid am­a­teurs. Many strug­gled fi­nan­cially.

New York spurred the world­wide run­ning boom, with or­di­nary peo­ple huff­ing and puff­ing their way through big ur­ban marathons that fol­lowed in Lon­don, Am­s­ter­dam, Paris, Tokyo, Shang­hai and else­where. The Bos­ton Marathon is the old­est, launched in 1897.

Each first Sun­day in Novem­ber, when ex­hausted par­tic­i­pants fi­nally fin­ish, some col­laps­ing into the arms of loved ones, many take away new friend­ships while col­lect­ing funds for more than 300 char­i­ties.

Four decades af­ter a small group of hard-core en­thu­si­asts started it, the New York marathon has be­come an ath­letic and so­cial democ­racy.

“In every neigh­bor­hood, spec­ta­tors come at us with a lot of en­thu­si­asm — and that may be conga drums, it may be some­body bang­ing on cook­ware,” says Paul Fetscher, who ran in 1976. “You get to see the best neigh­bor­hoods, you get to see the worst, you get to see the rich­est, you get to see the poor­est, and you get to see the im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion of Brook­lyn, where more than a mil­lion peo­ple were not born in the United States.

KATHY WILLENS — AP FILE

Stan­ley Bi­wott, left, em­braces fel­low Kenyan Mary Kei­tany af­ter the pair won the men’s and women’s di­vi­sions of lasy year’s New York City Marathon. About 50,000 peo­ple from more than 120 coun­tries are run­ning in the 40th an­niver­sary of the race, in­clud­ing Bi­wott and Kei­tany.

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