The Race That Changed the Face of Road Racing

The Race That Changed the Face of Road Racing

This story first appeared in the Official Program for the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon, which celebrated the 40th running of the five boroughs.  

Bill Rodgers's victorious 2:10:10 finish at the 1976 New York City Marathon was the world's fastest marathon time that year.

This was what the sport needed—to be moved out of the parks and onto city streets. No one really understood that at the time, and it was kind of a gamble—could this be done? The five-borough New York City Marathon changed marathoning forever.
— Bill Rodgers

In 1976, New York City was hungry for revitalization. As crime rates soared and bankruptcy loomed, the morale of the city was sinking. The mean streets weren’t the most inviting for a celebration of the nation’s bicentennial.

Time for Something Different

Since its inception in 1970, the New York City Marathon course had consisted of four-plus loops of Central Park. With 534 entrants in 1975, the race was getting a bit unwieldy. “The route was not suitable for the number of participants because officials couldn’t keep up with the runners,” said Olympic marathoner and New York Road Runners founding president Ted Corbitt. “The course was, in a sense, obsolete.”

It’s difficult to say who first had the idea of a five-borough New York City Marathon, and the originators further confuse the issue by volleying credit back and forth among themselves. What’s known is that a group of runners including Corbitt, race director and NYRR president Fred Lebow, New Times magazine publisher George Hirsch, and political gadfly George Spitz joined forces with the intention of creating a marathon the likes of which the city—or any city—had never seen. Support by Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and a $25,000 sponsorship from real estate developers Jack and Lewis Rudin brought the marathon from the quiet roads of Central Park to the bustling streets of New York.

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A Marathon Like No Other

The idea met with a fair amount of skepticism, according to then-New York Times reporter Neil Amdur. “[It] was viewed with some degree of, maybe not ‘guffaw,’ but everyone dismissed it and thought, ‘Oh yeah, right,’” he recalls.

But after months of politicking, mapping, measuring, and test-running, on October 24, 1976, 2,090 runners assembled on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, emanating the kind of energy that comes only from being a part of something historic. Lebow had recruited running legends like two-time Olympic medalist Frank Shorter, American record-holder Bill Rodgers, five-time World Cross Country champion Doris Brown Heritage, and Boston Marathon winner Miki Gorman to headline the race.

The course trailed out of Staten Island, wound through Brooklyn and Queens, touched the tip of the Bronx, and finished in the heart of Manhattan. In this way, the marathon became a celebration of the diversity and beauty of the neighborhoods of New York City.

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The five bridges and more than 300 intersections along the route were shut down to traffic— unprecedented in 1976—and that ushered curious residents out of their doors. “At one point we were running through these Hasidic neighborhoods and I was looking at all the young kids and everyone out there looking at us,” Shorter recounts. “I realized that these people were witnessing something they’d never seen before.”

“Running over the Queensboro Bridge was exciting as hell. You came into Manhattan and boom, that excitement, that energy!” recalls Rodgers, who won the race in 2:10:10, more than three minutes in front of runner-up Shorter. “It was nice that running was no longer hidden away in parks and far corners of cities.”

 NYC Mayor Abe Beame, Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, and NYRR President Fred Lebow celebrate the city's proclamation for the inaugural five-borough New York City Marathon in October 1976.

NYC Mayor Abe Beame, Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, and NYRR President Fred Lebow celebrate the city's proclamation for the inaugural five-borough New York City Marathon in October 1976.

The People's Marathon

The five-borough New York City Marathon was a tour de force. Lebow later wrote that the founders of the race couldn’t have anticipated its success in their wildest dreams. Not only did the runners love the five-borough experience, so did the people of New York City, who embraced the race as their own.

New York City Marathon set the tone for urban marathons that popped up all over the world; Chicago and London followed suit with races in their streets; Berlin and Tokyo and dozens of other metropolises followed suit. Running was a new and exciting addition to the cultural zeitgeist.

“What it led to was each year more people ran and the city started to see the benefits of it,” says Amdur. “It gave other cities the confidence that, well, if they can do it in New York, then we can do it, too.”

The idea of touching the larger New York community with the spirit of running that was seeded back in 1976 has lived on in the mission of New York Road Runners, which has spread the joy of running to every borough, to 215,000 kids across the country, to seniors who strive to lead healthier lives, to athletes with every variety of disability. The foundation of New York Road Runners may be the New York City Marathon, but changing lives with all our events and programs is what fuels us.

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The Next 40 Years

Today the TCS New York City Marathon brings together more than 50,000 runners of all abilities from dozens of countries. These individuals run for love, for camaraderie, for a cause, for a cure. Like the runners of 1976, the runners of the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon know they’re part of something historic.

“I think New York Road Runners is always analyzing and critically taking a look at their marathon to make it better. They aren’t living in the old days of racing; they took the event by the reins and made it the best it could be,” says Rodgers.

We honor our founders and predecessors for giving us the gift of the Five-Borough Marathon, and we hope they would be proud of the event that it has become.

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