NYRR in the 1970s: A Decade of Firsts

NYRR in the 1970s: A Decade of Firsts

The 1970s, under the leadership of Fred Lebow, saw New York Road Runners start several events that reshaped the running world.

From a 26.2-miler in Central Park that would later expand to all five boroughs, to the world’s first all-women’s road race, to more unique events—like a run up one of New York City’s iconic skyscrapers and a race starting at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve—NYRR showcased innovative and groundbreaking ways to run in its third decade.

The Marathon, Round (and Round and Round) One

At 11:00 a.m. on September 13, 1970, the first-ever New York City Marathon set off in Central Park with 127 starters—126 men and one woman. The course, which started and finished outside Tavern on the Green, called for one time around the park’s 1.7-mile lower loop, followed by four full loops of the park.

In total, 55 runners, or 43 percent of the field, finished the inaugural race; Nina Kuscsik, the only women’s entrant, dropped out after 14 miles due to illness. (For comparison, the 2017 race featured a 98.9% finisher rate, with 50,773 runners completing the distance.)

And in contrast to the modern-day finisher medal, the top 10 finishers in 1970s received wristwatches, with clocks and beer mugs for the next 35 finishers. The race would continue on the Central Park course from 1970 to 1975, before it would expand to a citywide celebration in 1976.

Beth Bonner at the front of the 1971 New York City Marathon in Central Park.

A Race Just for Women

The New York City Marathon would see its first female finisher in 1971, when 19-year-old Beth Bonner became the first woman to break three hours in the marathon with her 2:55:22. The following year, New York Road Runners would help move women’s athletics further forward by launching the first-ever road race for women: The Crazylegs Mini-Marathon.

With 75 women on the starting line, a total of 72 finished the six-mile race in Central Park, as 17-year-old Jackie Dixon led the way in 37:01.7. By the end of the decade, the race would become a 10K and would grow to more than 4,000 finishers, with Grete Waitz setting a road world record of 31:16 to win the 1979 race.

Runners at the starting line of the Mini in its early years. Nine-time champion Grete Waitz of Norway (red shorts, white singlet) is eighth from the left.

Today, the race has expanded to more than 8,000 finishers, with world-class professional athlete fields lining up each year, while also including a shorter-distance event for girls ages 12 to 18.

1979: A Year for Off-Beat Races

In the last year of the 1970s, NYRR organized two novel events—one of which took place in the very final moments of the decade.

In February of 1979, NYRR hosted a race that covered only about 350 yards—although every one of those yards was measured vertically. The Empire State Building Run Up brought runners from the lobby of one of New York’s best-known buildings to the tower’s observation deck on the 86th floor, climbing a total of 1,576 steps.

Despite its short overall distance, the early years of the event were limited to experienced marathoners and ultramarathoners. With a field of 24 athletes in 1979, the fastest to the top were Jim Rafferty, completing the climb in 12:19.8, and Nina Kuscsik in 15:03.4.

Stair climbers jockey for position at the second running of the Empire State Building Run Up.

On the final day of the 1970s, NYRR started another annual tradition, and one that we celebrate to this day: the NYRR Midnight Run. Now a four-miler, the initial New Year’s Eve run covered eight kilometers, with nearly 1,000 runners signing up and receiving commemorative glow-in-the-dark T-shirts.

Since that first running, the NYRR Midnight Run has added a fireworks show at the start and a sparkling cider toast at the halfway mark. Celebrating its 40th running in 2018, the event has continued to close out one year of racing while simultaneously opening the next year’s season.

NYRR's spirit of innovation would continue into the 1980s, as the Fifth Avenue Mile made its first appearance on the calendar in 1981. Check back next month as we share the history of how that world-famous 20-block dash came to be.

Six Decades of New York Road Runners History: 1970-1979

Six Decades of New York Road Runners History: 1970-1979

Meet Coco Wander, a College Student Committed to Helping Kids Fall in Love with Running

Meet Coco Wander, a College Student Committed to Helping Kids Fall in Love with Running