Six Decades of New York Road Runners History: 1990-1999
In 2018, NYRR is celebrating 60 years of helping and inspiring people through running. Last month, we looked at five dates that defined NYRR in the 1980s. In February, we explored the 1970s, a decade of tremendous change for NYRR, and in January, we chronicled the organization’s humble beginnings. This month, we're going back to the 1990s, a decade defined by emotional moments in Central Park and further growth into a club that was "about more than just running."
1992: Fred and Grete Finish the New York City Marathon
In early 1990, New York City Marathon co-founder and New York Road Runners president Fred Lebow was diagnosed with brain cancer. In 1992, his cancer in remission, Lebow stepped up to the starting line of the New York City Marathon, his dear friend and nine-time event champion Grete Waitz by his side, to run what would be his final race.
At the start, Lebow gave orders to volunteers and staff alike. He was always on, always working, and had never been very good at delegating. It was the first time he’d run the New York City Marathon since it had expanded to all five boroughs, and he was determined to finish—but also ensure the race went off without a hitch.
Waitz stayed with Lebow every step, urging him to walk every few miles and making sure he did not push too hard. Throughout the race, Lebow asked for a walkie-talkie to find out the status of the race and its winners.
As Lebow and Waitz approached the race finish line, roaring crowds were there to meet them. After they crossed, they immediately collapsed into each other’s arms, in tears as they were swarmed by friends, colleagues, and family.
This moment remains one of the most iconic and beautiful moments in New York City Marathon history and in running as a whole. Although Lebow would lose his battle with cancer two years later, his tremendous accomplishment of crossing the finish line at the 1992 New York City Marathon is a lasting testament to his strength and dedication to his beloved sport.
1994: Passing the Baton to Allan Steinfeld
On October 9, 1994, just four weeks before the 25th New York City Marathon, Fred Lebow lost his four-year battle with cancer. A memorial service at the marathon finish line in Central Park three days later was attended by Mayor Giuliani, NYC Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, nine-time New York City Marathon champion Grete Waitz, the entire New York Road Runners staff, and more than 3,000 others—friends and strangers alike whose lives had been touched by the brilliant and charismatic former garment worker from Romania. At the time it was the largest memorial gathering in Central Park since the death of John Lennon in 1980.
“He touched a lot of lives, mine included, and for that I will always be grateful,” said Waitz at the service. Together with city officials and Lebow’s successor Allan Steinfeld, she led the crowd of mourners in a processional walk across the finish line. A year later, Fred’s Team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center was created to raise funds for cancer research and honor the life and legacy of Lebow.
Steinfeld had taken on many of Lebow’s duties as president of New York Road Runners and race director of the New York City Marathon as Lebow’s health failed, and he now officially assumed the leadership of the organization, adding CEO to his title.
Even as Steinfeld and his staff mourned the loss of Lebow, they pushed forward to stage the largest New York City Marathon to date on November 6, 1994, with nearly 30,000 finishers. Finisher numbers of the marathon and other NYRR races continued to grow throughout the decade.
With Steinfeld at the helm, NYRR continued to bring running and fitness to people of all ages and abilities, all over NYC and beyond. “The Club is about more than just running,” Steinfeld wrote in the February/March 1995 NYRR magazine, ticking off the many NYRR offerings: walking classes, deep water running, yoga, and a cancer support group. He also touted volunteer opportunities at NYRR races and weekly track & field events taking place at the Armory.
NYRR membership grew, surpassing 40,000. Always striving to improve processes and systems and harness the latest technology, Steinfeld led his staff in streamlining the marathon entry drawing application process. “This is an organization that can do almost anything it wants to,” Steinfeld said.
Like Lebow before him, Steinfeld also traveled all over the world to share NYRR’s experience, knowledge, and passion with other running organizations and events. “I wanted to do more on the outside with respect to what Fred used to do, traveling to help events. I can help bring races to a higher standard,” Steinfeld told Runner’s World. “It’s what we’re about. We help people. We change people’s lives.”
1994: More Memorable Finishes at the New York City Marathon
On November 6, 1994, Germán Silva of Mexico took a now-famous wrong turn on Central Park South at mile 26. He quickly figured it out, turned around, and got back on the course, and surged past the leader—his training partner and compatriot Benjamín Paredes—to take the win in 2:11:21.
On the women’s side, Kenyan Tegla Loroupe made a push in the second half of the race, running to victory in 2:27:37 and becoming the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon. She’d go on to win the event again the following year.
1996: NYRR on the World Wide Web
On February 21, 1996, New York Road Runners stepped from the roadway onto the information superhighway, registering the domains for nyrrc.org and nycmarathon.org.
While the site design looks dated by today’s standards, with its textured backgrounds and framed layout (remember, this was the Web 1.0 era), many of the functions within the site—a calendar of races, race results, stories, and instructions on how to apply for the New York City Marathon—are still present on the current-day NYRR and TCS New York City Marathon sites.
The early days of NYRR in cyberspace also featured a few noteworthy sections that were, arguably, ahead of their time.
More than a decade before Twitter, NYCMarathon.org featured a “Web Check-In,” a space for runners to send short messages to friends and family updating them on their status from mile 19 of the Marathon course.
And years before swiping was ever a thing, NYRRC.org hosted a “Personals” section, where runners could post short profiles about themselves as they looked to meet new running (or life) partners.
1999: NYRR Launches Its First After-School Running Program
In 1998, the New York Road Runners Foundation was formed to raise funds that would support the community—a mission that had been close to Fred Lebow’s heart. With Grete Waitz, the nine-time New York City Marathon champion and a former schoolteacher, as its chairwoman, the foundation quickly began to discuss how it could address the dearth of physical education programming in New York City schools.
A free after-school running program was the answer, and in January 1999, NYRR launched “Running Partners” at a middle school in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Despite snow on the ground, 15 students took part in day one of the pilot program.
By fall 1999, 10 schools were implementing the youth running program, and on the weekends participants were taking part in NYRR events like the Race Against Teenage Smoking. Waitz, refusing to be merely a figurehead, was actively involved as chairwoman, especially with children: She attended practices, ran with the kids, and cheered at their races when she was in NYC. From afar, she wrote letters for the kids’ newsletter, wrote personal letters to those who wrote to her, and helped guide program development.
When the New York City Marathon rolled around in November, students were invited to participate in the first-ever Run with Champions, racing in Central Park alongside Tegla Loroupe, German Silva, and Waitz, who’d been writing letters to the students in the program as a pro-athlete pen pal.
Today, NYRR’s youth programs, now known as Rising New York Road Runners, serve 267,000 youth in NYC and nationwide. Olympic medalist and six-time 5th Avenue Mile champion Jenny Simpson, who was a kid herself in the 1990s, serves as Rising New York Road Runners Ambassador and Special Advisor.