The NYC Marathon: history, greatest moments, and what to expect this year

November 1, 2021

The lead female runners at 81st Street and 1st Avenue in 2015, photo © 6sqft

The world’s largest marathon takes place this Sunday, returning to the five boroughs after a pandemic hiatus last year. On November 7, the 50th New York City Marathon will look slightly different this year, bringing together roughly 33,000 runners, which is about 20,000 fewer participants than usual because of Covid-19. The marathon wasn’t always the largest in the world, however. Started by the New York Road Runners Club in 1970, the race began as a few loops around Central Park with just over 100 runners. But the passion of its founders, coupled with the spirit of the city, grew the marathon into a monumental event. In honor of the upcoming 2021 Marathon, 6sqft is taking a look back at the history of the race, its greatest moments, and what’s in store for this year.

History of the marathon
In 1970, presidents of the New York Road Runners Club Fred Lebow and Vincent Chiapetta took 127 runners on several loops around Central Park’s Park Drive. It cost $1 to join the race, and the entire event was $1,000. This first year of the New York City Marathon saw only one female runner, just 55 participants cross the finish line, and 100 spectators. The winners, including New York City firefighter Gary Muhrcke, received inexpensive watches and recycled baseball and bowling trophies. Today, the fastest runner wins $100,000.

Each year, though, the event got bigger, and in 1976, to celebrate the bicentennial, Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton supported the race expanding throughout the five boroughs. Entry grew to 2,096 runners, and what was supposed to be a one-time event became the official annual course. Two years later, the race became a city-wide spectacle after Norwegian track Olympian Grete Waitz finished in 2:32:30, shattering the women’s world record (she’d go on to win the race nine times, which still holds the record for any runner).

Fred Lebow Sculpture, NYC Marathon
Fred Lebow Statue at the finish line in 2006. Photo by Seidenstud via Wiki Commons.

After Lebow passed away from brain cancer in 1994, a sculpture of him was erected in Central Park at West Drive and 67th Street, the Marathon’s finish line. The sculpture by Jesus Ygnacio Dominguez “shows Lebow in his trademark running suit and hat, checking his watch as runners cross the finish line,” according to the Parks Department.

In 2001, it was put on a new black granite pedestal and moved to 90th Street and the East Drive where runners meet each day, but for the Marathon, it’s moved to a spot near the finish line. The sculpture honors his vision that the NYC Marathon be “a race for everyone–men and women of every color, creed, and country, regardless of ability.”

Verrazano Bridge, NYC Marathon
Runners on the Verrazano Bridge. Photo by Martineric via Wiki Commons

In 2004, global financial services company ING became the first title sponsor of the marathon and teamed up with NYRR on running and fitness programs for the city’s youth. In 2013, India-based company Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) became an eight-year title sponsor, signing a deal worth more than $100 million. In 2015, New Balance replaced Asics as a major sponsor after signing an 11-year, $90 million deal. Today, the New York City Marathon is the largest marathon in the world and is broadcast live by ABC and ESPN.

Greatest race moments
1976: Dick Traum became the first person to complete a marathon with a prosthetic leg.

1979: Rosie Ruiz was given a finish time of 2:56:29, qualifying her for the 1980 Boston Marathon, where she was given a record finish time of 2:31:56. It was later discovered that she didn’t run the entire course in either race, cementing her place as the most notorious woman in running.

1979: At 80 degrees, it was the warmest Marathon day.

1981: Track star Alberto Salazar, who had won the race the previous year, sets a world record with his 2:08:13 finish time, however, it was rescinded when the course was found to be 148 meters shorter than reported.

1981: When ABC airs the NYC Marathon, it is the first time the event is televised.

1982: Alberto Salazar hoped to win his third consecutive race, but it seemed unlikely towards the end. In the last 600 meters, he appeared out of a literal cloud of dust (later revealed to be from a police motorcycle) and broke through to win the marathon.

1986: Bob Wieland lost both his legs after stepping on a mine in Vietnam. Seventeen years later he became the first person to use only his arms to finish the race. It took him four days to finish the course, but he inspired amputees everywhere.

1992: Race co-founder Fred Lebow crossed the finish line while in remission from brain cancer. He ran alongside Grete Waitz in her last marathon.

1992: Though Apartheid wouldn’t end formally until 1994, two years prior, international sanctions were lifted, and Willie Mtolo wasted no time becoming the first South African to complete the NYC Marathon, and also to win.

1994:  Germán Silva, who had been in the lead, took a wrong turn, putting him in second place. He recovered, though, and went on to win by two seconds, earning him the nickname “Wrong Way Silva.”

1995: At 41 degrees, it was the coldest marathon day.

1997: For the first time, the number of runners to cross the finish line surpasses 30,000.

Tatyana Mcfadden, NYC Marathon
Female wheelchair athlete Tatyana Mcfadden in 2011 via Wiki Commons

2000: The race introduces an official wheelchair and handcycle division.

2001: Just two months after September 11th, the NYC Marathon brought the city together and boosted morale among New Yorkers.

2003: Margaret Okayo of Kenya completes the race in a record-setting 2:22:31, which has still not been beaten in the women’s division.

2003: Rapper P.Diddy ran the race and raised $2,000,000 for the New York City Department of Education.

2005: The closest finish ever was recorded when Kenyan Paul Tergat defeated South African Hendrick Ramaala by 0.03 seconds.

2006: Australia’s Kurt Fearnley completes the wheelchair division race in 1:29:22, a still-standing record for men.

2008: Tragedy struck when three participants died, all of heart attacks.

2011: Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya completes the race in a record-setting 2:05:06, which has still not been beaten in the men’s division.

2012: After insisting the race would go on, Mayor Bloomberg canceled the marathon just two days before it was scheduled to take place due to Hurricane Sandy. This ignited a firestorm from both ends: Some said how could the race go on when thousands were without homes or power, but after the cancellation others were annoyed that runners had flown in from all over the world with no notice. In the end, the participants came together, with some choosing to help in storm aid and cleanup efforts and thousands joining together in Central Park to run.

2013: For the first time ever, more than 50,000 participants cross the finish line.

2015: The United States’ Tatyana McFadden completes the wheelchair division race in 1:43:04, a still-standing record for women (she has won the race a total of five times).

2017: 84-year-old New Yorker Ginette Bedard became the oldest person to finish the race, completing it in 6:12:53.

By the numbers
1,600 portable toilets are set up at the start of the race; an additional 400 are along the course.

At the starting line, 30,000 PowerBars get handed out, along with 90,000 bottles of water.

During the race, 10,000 volunteers distribute nearly 63,000 gallons of water and 60,000 Gatorade Endurance Energy Gels.

There are about 40 medical tents along the route stocked with 14,000 bandages, 220 tubs of Vaseline, 54,000 salt tabs, 61,000 heat sheets (in the event it’s cold), and nearly 13,000 pounds of ice.

The average age of runners is 41.

What to expect and where to watch this year
Today’s route has been in effect since 1976. The race starts near the approach to the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island, leading runners over the transverse in what is widely photographed as a symbol of the event. For the next 11 miles, the course goes through Brooklyn along Fourth Avenue and Bedford Avenue, crossing the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Park Slope, Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint. Next, at the halfway point, runners cross into Long Island City, Queens via the Pulaski Bridge. After just 2.5 miles, they then run across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. This upward climb is one of the toughest points of the race.

NYC Marathon, BronxMile 21 in the Bronx in 2008. Photo by Kerstin Winterkamp via Wiki Commons

Now, 16 miles in, participants head up First Avenue and into the Bronx using the Willis Avenue Bridge. They’re only in the northernmost borough for one mile, though, as they then loop back into Manhattan via the Madison Avenue Bridge. The race then heads down Fifth Avenue, through Harlem and past Museum Mile, along Central Park South, and back into the park to finish just outside Tavern on the Green.

Some of the most popular spots for spectators include:

  • Mile 3 in Bay Ridge, when the runners are still full of energy and waving and smiling.
  • Mile 8, along Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene, where locals gather on their brownstone stoops and the Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School band performs.
  • Mile 13, the halfway point, at the Pulaski Bridge. As they hit the halfway point, runners need some extra encouragement. That’s why this is NYRRC’s official cheering zone, where they give out orange cowbells.
  • Miles 16 to 18, the Upper East Side along First Avenue, always draws a wild, cheering crowd. The street’s many bars and restaurants offer race-day specials.
  • Miles 23 to 24, along Museum Mile, is a great spot to see the runners before they cross the finish line. They enter the park at 90th Street, so this stretch is often packed with fans shouting “almost there!”
  • Finish Line! Want to get a coveted spot to see runners cross the line? Grandstand Seating tickets are available in advance, but you’ll have to cozy up to someone who’s already snagged them since they’re sold out.

As far as street closures go, there are many, and they’ll be in effect for most of the day. See the full list HERE.

This year, there are several health and safety guidelines in place in addition to reducing the number of participants, including requiring runners to show proof of at least one dose of the Covid vaccine or proof of a negative Covid test administered no more than 49 hours before November 7. Face coverings will be required on public transportation, in the start area on Staten Island, the post-finish area in Central Park, and in designated indoor venues.

NYRR also launched the official 2021 TCS New York City Marathon app that allows fans to track runners on the racecourse and those competing virtually at the same time. The app will show the location and estimated finishing time of in-person runners, letting spectators easily find the best spot to cheer on their friends and family.

This story was originally published on October 27, 2015, and has since been updated.


Get Insider Updates with Our Newsletter!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. D

    How in the world could you fail to mention the WINNER of the first marathon, the great Gary Muhrcke!?