Many sports fans assume the New York City Marathon has always occurred in October or early November, and always run through the five boroughs. That’s not the case. Indeed, the first New York City Marathon took place entirely within Central Park, and it happened 50 years ago, on Sunday, Sept. 13, 1970.
You couldn’t say it was an instant hit. There were 127 starters and just 55 finishers. It preceded the so-called running boom by a half-dozen years.
Even I, a New Yorker and a committed marathon runner then, didn’t enter. As a busy magazine publisher, I focused all my attention each year on the Boston Marathon, held in April.
On that Sunday morning in 1970, I decided to run the Central Park loop in the opposite direction from the runners. It was a fun way to log a long training run while cheering for my many friends in the race, including the marathon’s co-directors, Fred Lebow and Vince Chiappetta.
I was among the few bona fide spectators that day. Most of the cyclists and pedestrians weaving in and out among the runners were just enjoying a car-free Sunday in Central Park. They didn’t seem to realize that a race was taking place.
The winner, Gary Muhrcke, almost passed up the marathon. The previous night had been unusually busy for Muhrcke, a 30-year-old firefighter, who was summoned to action several times near his station house in Far Rockaway. So at 8:30 Sunday morning, on almost no sleep, he called his wife, Jane, to suggest they spend the day relaxing at home in Freeport, Long Island.
“I’m too tired to drive into the city and run a marathon,” he said.
Jane Muhrcke had a different sort of fatigue. With three young children to tend to all week, she was eager for an outing. She gently suggested they stick with their plans, and her husband acquiesced.
Muhrcke wore the No. 2 race bib, befitting his status as the best local runner at the time. Bib No. 1 went to Ted Corbitt, a renowned figure in the nascent distance running community. He made the United States Olympic marathon team in 1952, won numerous marathons and ultramarathons and later led the movement to measure road-race courses precisely. At age 50, Corbitt was still a top competitor in 1970.
The marathon started at 11 a.m. It was hot and humid. Muhrcke and Corbitt started conservatively over the hilly course that included four full loops of Central Park. Moses Mayfield, a Philadelphia distance-running standout, jumped to an early lead, and still looked strong at 20 miles. Then, struck by a dizzy spell, he faded to eighth place . Muhrcke worked his way up through the field, and caught Mayfield at 24 miles.
The Coronavirus Outbreak
Sports and the Virus
Updated Sept. 11, 2020
Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:
- Baseball plans to hold its playoff games at four stadiums in Southern California and Texas, with the World Series held at the Texas Rangers’ new ballpark.
- N.F.L. teams have spent years trying to create over-the-top entertainment for fans inside stadiums. This year, they’ll just be trying to cover up echoes from empty seats.
- September Saturdays at Penn State are usually the apex of a week of hype. Now, as at other college football destinations, the approach of autumn has been unusually quiet there.
“Moses looked like he was pushing a piano up a steep hill,” Muhrcke later recalled.
He cruised to victory, breaking the tape in 2 hours, 31 minutes, 39 seconds. A 19-year old New Jersey college student, Tom Fleming, finished second (2:35:44), and Corbitt ran 2:44 for fifth place. There was only one woman in the field, Nina Kuscsik. She had run 3:12 five months earlier at Boston, but she came down with the flu just before the New York City race and had to drop out at 14 miles.
The next day’s New York Times published a short article, with no photographs, on page 54.
The next five New York City Marathons were also held in Central Park, with the field growing to slightly over 500 starters. Fleming won two times, as did Kuscsik. In 1972, Jane Muhrcke began crafting the laurel wreaths that have crowned the winner ever since.
Sadly, this year’s marathon had to be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic and become a virtual event instead.
Gary Muhrcke, now 80, briefly considered running the virtual marathon this fall.
When I asked him about this recently, he told me he was still running most days, then added: “I do love a challenge, George, but honestly I’m not sure I feel like running a marathon.”
I reminded him that he had said almost the same thing on a warm September morning in 1970.
George A. Hirsch is the chairman of the New York Road Runners and the founding publisher of New York magazine. He was also the worldwide publisher of Runner’s World and a founder of the five borough New York City Marathon.