Six Decades of New York Road Runners History: 1958-1970
In 2018, NYRR is celebrating 60 years of helping and inspiring people through running. Since 1958, we have grown from a local running club to the world’s premier community running organization. We look forward to an exciting year of honoring our past and continuing to build our future as we fulfill our mission to help and inspire people through running.
Humble Beginnings in the Bronx
On June 4, 1958, New York Road Runners was founded as the Road Runners Club–New York Association, or RRC–NYA, with 40-odd members who met in Macombs Dam Park in the Bronx and paid dues of just $3 a year.
Ted Corbitt, an African American and 1952 Olympian, was elected the club’s first president and opened membership to all races, genders, and running speeds. Still, in its early years, RRC–NYA was a small, insular group of serious, dedicated runners. The concept of the recreational or fitness runner was years in the future.
At its founding, the club’s mission was simple—work together to promote long distance running and increase the number of racing opportunities for its members. From the club’s first newsletter, it’s evident the group was thinking big: “...it should be possible to put on at least 35 races a year in the metropolitan area.”
In its first year, the RCA–NYA organized seven events, a mix of cross-country and road races, all taking place in the Bronx. The first, a six-mile cross-country race, was held on September 28, 1958 in Van Cortlandt Park, where NYRR today continues to host a series of cross-country events to honor its founding members. On February 22, 1959, RCA–NYA hosted the Cherry Tree Marathon, the predecessor to the New York City Marathon, where Ted Corbitt was crowned champion.
Small, But Determined
In the 1960s, the RCA–NYA faced many challenges, from precarious finances to inaccurately measured courses to squabbles with the Amateur Athletic Association (AAU), the national governing body of track and field. Membership barely moved out of double-digits for most of the early part of the decade. At times the RRC–NYA struggled simply to survive—one newsletter includes a heartfelt thanks to “the generous, extra support given to the RRC in the form of financial contributions and plain work of its members.”
Despite the difficulties, the organization continued to put on a variety of road and cross country races each year. Never mind that these events were often held in dangerous neighborhoods without road closures, course signage (meaning that getting lost was all too common), or refreshments—the fact that they existed at all meant that NYC runners no longer had to spend their weekends driving hours to a race. The RRC–NYA also sent runners to prestigious international competitions, including the storied London-to-Brighton Road Race, an ultramarathon of 52½ miles. The Fall 1964 issue of the RRC–NYA newsletter featured a report on that year’s event, in which Corbitt placed second, later presidents Nat Cirulnick and Aldo Scandurra were 14th and 24th, respectively, and the future champion of the inaugural New York City Marathon, Gary Muhrcke, was 34th. The newsletter attributes these successes to a two-year program of ultramarathon races—ranging from 30 miles to 40½ miles, mostly in NYC—"guided by” Scandurra.
The organization’s focus seems hopelessly narrow and parochial by today’s standards. The newsletters are limited primarily to race reports and dues reminders, with an odd smattering of advice on training (“no one should attempt this event without running slowly at least 2 runs above 45 miles”) and nutrition (“Of the numerous concoctions that are put together one can easily drink something that will cause the gut to rebel”), along with philosophical musings and an occasional inspirational quote (from 1962: “The pupil who is never required to do what he cannot do never does what he can do.” –J. S. Mill). Corbitt often exhorts members to support his groundbreaking efforts to improve course measurement, such as with this rallying cry in 1964: “Thus one of our immediate goals in the New York Association of the RRC is to get all courses checked and measured and certified by a national committee … We can set the pattern for other RRC Associations in the USA.”
Another goal from the early days—albeit one that took some time to enact—was to incorporate men and women into RRC–NYA's events. The club's Fall 1962 newsletter includes this opinion piece from Dr. Charles Robbins:
By the end of the 1960s, women's membership in the club neared 30, and in 1972, a total of 72 women took part in the first-ever Crazylegs Mini Marathon, a women-only race known today as the NYRR New York Mini 10K. Next month, in our entry about NYRR in the 1970s, we'll cover more about how the original all-women road race came to be.
A Higher “Standard” of Racing
Toward the RRC–NYA’s goal of measuring and certifying race courses, they had perhaps the best person in charge of the task: Ted Corbitt. Even today, runners might argue that their watch read 13.2 miles at the finish, or that a certain mile felt longer than the one before it, but thanks to Corbitt’s work, when you run an NYRR race you can be sure you ran the distance you signed up for.
In 1964, Corbitt published “Measuring Road Running Courses,” a 40-page booklet providing standards and guidelines for measuring road courses. Before this time, races were frequently measured using a car’s odometer—often leading to short courses—but Corbitt’s book lays out multiple ways to ensure an accurate distance; if it was supposed to be a 10K, it would cover 10 kilometers—not 9.6, and certainly not 10.4. He later collaborated on the development of the Jones Counter, a measuring device that attaches to the front wheel of a bicycle.
Central Park as a New Place to Run
During the summer of 1966, New York City mayor John Lindsay, an avid cyclist, closed Central Park Drive to traffic on weekends between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., giving cyclists, walkers, and joggers six miles of recreational space. The initiative was so popular that in 1967, the city implemented the weekend closings year-round. In the years that followed, the park would become a prime spot for RRC–NYA events, including the New York City Marathon.
Fred Lebow, a Romanian immigrant and former talmudic scholar who was working in the garment district, began running in Central Park in 1968 as a way of improving his tennis game. In his 1984 autobiography, Inside the World of Big-Time Marathoning, Lebow recounted his first meeting with the the RRC–NYA, in 1969:
“One day I got into conversation with another jogger at the reservoir … He said there was a race coming up, a 5-miler—eleven laps around Yankee Stadium in the Bronx … I went up to Yankee Stadium to run that race, and that was my first contact with the New York Road Runners Club … We went around and around Yankee Stadium. Everybody passed me … The club was a small clique of men who seemed reluctant to share their world with others, which included me … They were not very communicative to me, and the language they used among themselves in talking about running—language runners understand, about splits and pace and surging and drafting—was foreign to me.”
Lebow would persist in his efforts to understand the “foreignness” of the RRC–NYA and eventually bring the organization into the wider world. This process became the story of NYRR in the 1970s and beyond.
Stay tuned for more stories in our Six Decades of New York Road Runners History series and share your own NYRR story using #NYRR60Years on social media.