The Long Haul of the New York City Marathon

As the New York City Marathon faces the strangest run in its history, a look back at this long race's long, strange history
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Image via Library of Congress.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to green-light this weekend's New York City Marathon despite the destructiveness of Hurricane Sandy is confounding and controversial in a number of ways, but easy enough to understand as a business decision. The New York City Marathon is outsized. Some 40,000-plus runners will course through the five boroughs this weekend, many of whom must pay a $225 entry fee for the privilege. They will be cheered on by millions of spectators, some of whom purchased reserved grandstand seats at the finish line for $275; they will be buoyed by thousands of volunteers. Afterwards, legions of sanitation workers will clear tons of trash from city streets still bearing fresh wounds from the storm.

The marathon is a major revenue generator for the city and for New York Road Runners, the non-profit organization that stages the annual event. Its sponsors include ING, PowerBar, Asics, United Airlines, Coors Light, Nissan, Tiffany, The New York Times and Poland Spring. ESPN2 is broadcasting the race live nationally for the first time, as part of a new five-year deal. The runners at the front of the pack are competing for approximately $850,000 in prize money. That's peanuts by the standards of NFL or NBA stars, but something like business as usual for the biggest marathon in the world.

The economics and scale of the world's biggest marathon are even more astonishing, though, when contrasted with its modest origins.

***

The first marathon in New York—which also happened to be the first-ever marathon in the United States—was held on September 19, 1896. The course measured approximately 25 miles because the standard distance of the marathon—26 miles, 385 yards—had not yet been established. The race started at the town square in Stamford, Connecticut, and ended at the Columbia Oval in the Bronx. In this all-amateur and all-male affair, 28 men started the race wearing "loose knee-length drawers . . . to fulfill the Victorian need for modesty" and "low-cut leather running shoes," according to marathon historian Pamela Cooper. 

Ten men managed to finish. The winner was John J. McDermott, a 22-year-old Irish immigrant who worked as a lithographer. He was, according to an account in The New York Times, "a pale-faced man in blue tights" who took charge in New Rochelle and then survived a muddy and ruddy course with "many heart-racking hills," in a time of 3:25:55.

The following year, McDermott traveled north to win the first-ever Boston Marathon, over a field of 15 runners. Over the next ten years, as the Boston Marathon established itself as the oldest continuously held marathon in the world, the race "evolved into a sport with mostly working-class participants," according to Cooper, author of The American Marathon.

Most of the pioneering marathoners were blue-collar types—construction workers, bricklayers, printing-press operators. The first superstar marathoner was Tom Longboat, an Onondaga Indian who grew up in poverty on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. These men—and all marathoners were men at this time—had to be rugged enough to endure the primitive and arduous conditions of early marathons: they pounded along rough, uneven roads wearing little more than a slice of kangaroo leather over a stiff rubber sole. Trainers discouraged their runners from drinking water. If a competitor was in extremis, he downed whiskey or brandy.

But at a time when the first generation of automobiles were arriving, they persevered to become "the explorers, test pilots and astronauts of their era, boldly running where none had run before, and, in their perceptions and the public's, risking their lives and future health to do it," according to Boston Marathon historian Tom Derderian.

In 1907, after a decade's absence, the marathon returned to the New York City area, when the Yonkers Daily News sponsored the Yonkers Marathon. The hilly course attracted 42 entrants, and the winner was a local lad named Johnny Hayes.

Born and raised in the tenements of New York City, Hayes was the son of an Irish immigrant. He was an orphan by the time he was 19. To support his younger siblings, he found work as a "sand hog"—an underwater digger—in the building of the first subway lines in New York. This paid about $4 a day, and was one the nastiest and most dangerous jobs imaginable. He trained at night and on weekends.

Johnny's efforts paid off the following year. At the 1908 London Olympics, he captured the gold medal after the apparent winner, Italy's Dorando Pietri was disqualified for receiving assistance during the final stretch. It remains one of the most bizarre and controversial finishes in Olympic history, in no small part because Dorando probably ingested performance-enhancing stimulants—in the unconventional form of strychnine—during the race. (It should be noted that Dorando himself came from poverty; he had dropped out of school at a young age to help support his family.)

The marathon at the 1908 Olympics remains historic for several reasons, not least because it was the first-ever run at the distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. It was the first marathon to receive extensive media coverage: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle covered the event for the London Daily Mail newspaper, and his reportage was reprinted in newspapers around the world. This was also the first marathon to be filmed—by the brothers Pathé—so that spectators who did not attend the event could view the highlights afterwards.

The uproar over the 1908 Olympics brought the marathon from the shadows of sport into the mainstream, and turned Hayes and Dorando into worldwide celebrities. President Teddy Roosevelt championed Hayes, while the Queen of England personally awarded Dorando a gold trophy.

That fall, Hayes and Dorando were persuaded to turn pro and race an indoor marathon, one on one, in Stanford White's Madison Square Garden. They sold out the Garden as the grandstands filled with spectators brandishing Irish, Italian, and American flags. Some 262 dizzying laps later, Dorando had gained his revenge. He earned more than $2,000, while Hayes banked about $4,500. This was the start of something.

***

The United States of the early 20th century, from the vantage point of the early 21st, seems exceptionally fad-prone, so it seems almost inevitable that what became known as "Marathon Mania" soon took hold of the nation. Dorando, Hayes, Longboat, barnstormed across North America and introduced the race to adoring crowds. The climax occurred in the spring of 1909, as the trio and several other competitors drew 35,000 spectators to the Polo Grounds for a "Marathon Derby," with a purse of $10,000.

The original "Marathon Mania" did not last long. After World War I, the marathon returned to its cultish roots in this country, an amateur affair with small fields of hardy men. That began to change in 1970, when Fred Lebow, himself an immigrant, founded the New York City Marathon. The race attracted 127 entrants; they each paid $1 apiece.

But Lebow's timing was perfect. Two years later, Frank Shorter became the first American runner since Johnny Hayes to win the Olympic marathon. Shorter was a Yale University graduate—a distinct upgrade from Hayes, the humble sand hog—and he and a generation of brilliant distance runners (including Kenny Moore, Amby Burfoot, Steve Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar) helped spark the second marathon boom. We're still feeling that one's reverberations.

This one differs from the original in three distinct ways. At the elite level, African runners now dominate the event. And, freed from the discriminatory rules that prohibited their participation until the late 1970s, women have joined the marathon ranks in significant numbers. Finally, unlike the quick fade of the first boom, this one shows no sign of abating.

Gatorade has replaced strychnine, and the exploits of Dorando, Hayes and Longboat are largely forgotten. But their legacy can be found in the exuberant spirit of contemporary marathoning. With nearly every major city in the world following New York City's lead, the marathon is now a global phenomenon that attracts elite athletes and weekend warriors alike. How wise it is that New York is holding its most recent marathon so soon after its most recent tragedy is a question each person—and most every New Yorker—will answer differently. But for a city already at work on the business of becoming itself again, the marathon—a phenomenon that inspires us all to keep moving—seems an apt symbol indeed.


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