Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 26 Jun 2014 11:24:44 -0400

Join the Crowd

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from November 1994.)

The New York City Marathon is the world’s most-reported. Local television covered it live for five hours this year, and highlights would air nationally that afternoon. The Times would carry a 22-page special section the next morning.

Before leaving home, I’d read and reviewed a coffee-table book about this marathon. Later the running magazines would do their annual reports.

I was late to arrive in New York. I’d waited until the 25th running to join this crowd.

Over the marathon’s lifespan the total entry list had passed a quarter-million. Each of these runners had stories to tell, and hundreds had already told them.

Now the race was over for me. I wondered while walking from the finish line back to the hotel: what do you say about the New York City Marathon that hasn’t already been said?

I wasn’t yet thinking about what to write but what to tell my wife by phone. My one-sentence summary to Barbara came out unrehearsed: “It was a one-in-a-lifetime experience.”

I meant that two ways. It was an awesome day, unlike any I’d ever known in running and one I’d never forget. And it was an overwhelming day that I never care to repeat.

New York City was my largest race ever, and I finished exactly in the center of its field. This gave me a perfect typical-runner’s view of The Race That Fred Lebow Built.

I knew what to expect from watching and reading about this marathon for all its years, yet I wasn’t completely prepared for being in the middle of it. A race this size through a city this size might seem unworkable.

But Allan Steinfeld and his army of workers somehow make it work. They see to every runner’s needs. But this isn’t to say they can satisfy everyone’s wishes.

Everyone would like to walk to the starting line a few minutes before the gun (cannon, in this case) fires, find a spot on the front row, hit full stride right away and take a clear path to the finish. You can’t do that at New York.

In trade for running with so many people, and in front of hundreds of thousands more, you give up personal space and time. (My hotel-to-hotel round trip, for instance, took 11 hours.) This bothers you only if you let it.

I’m not normally a New York kind of runner. I favor smaller marathons in more rural settings. (My last was Big Sur and the next would be Napa Valley.) A race this big doesn’t suit my style of running marathons – which is to line up at the back, start slowly and work my way toward the middle while taking short walks at regular intervals.

At New York this means waiting for miles before starting to move up – and even then doing it only by becoming a zigzagging broken-field runner who risks blind-side blocks and rear-end collisions when stopping to walk. You run smoothly here only by going with the flow of the people around you, which I didn’t.

I came away with a few bruises, and unavoidably delivered an equal number. I took 15 minutes longer than normal to finish, but it was time well spent. I had to see if all the fuss about the New York City Marathon was justified.

And it was. Running here was all that everyone had said it would be, and even more. Every marathoner should have this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

UPDATE FROM 2014

My New York City was the first marathon held after the death of its impresario, Fred Lebow. He was a dreamer and schemer who apprenticed as a smuggler during World War II, and in New York thrived as a knock-off artist who made cheaper copies of designer fashions.

Fred eventually drifted into running, where he was just the right man for the times. The sport was burgeoning then, but most of its promoters still thought in terms of limits. Fred imagined possibilities.

I first met him at the 1976 Boston Marathon, where we’d barely exchanged hellos when he announced, “We’re taking the marathon out of Central Park this fall and running it through all five boroughs. In a few years this race could become bigger than Boston.”

Dream on, I thought then. You can’t close down any city but Boston for a marathon. Nowhere but Boston will a race draw thousands of runners. (New York had only a few hundred at the time.)

But Fred was right. Less than 10 years later Boston was suffering badly by comparison with New York City. Boston then joined races all over the world in copying Fred’s model of the big-time, big-city, big-money marathon.

The field for the latest running of this race that Lebow created was 20,000 larger than the one I ran in 1994. I’ve never gone back since then.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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