One of the world’s greatest marathons came from truly humble beginnings — not so long ago.
The New York City Marathon turns 45 this year. That’s not very old, but this great event has packed a lot of great moments into its relatively brief history. Here are 14 of the most memorable ones, in chronological order:
1970: A Humble Beginning
The inaugural New York City Marathon, which was the brainchild of New York Road Runners founder Fred Lebow, was a very humble affair — almost laughably so when you contrast it against what the event would become. The course consisted of a few loops around Central Park. The entry fee was $1. Only 127 runners started, and of those, a mere 55 finished!
1976: The First 5-borough Race
Although Fred Lebow started small, he always thought big, and in 1976 he took a big step toward realizing the full scope of his vision for the New York City Marathon by convincing the city to allow runners to travel through all five boroughs. Although the field was still small at just over 2,000 runners, Lebow scored another coup by attracting Olympic gold and silver medalist Frank Shorter to run the race.
1978: Grete Waitz Arrives
In 1978, a relatively unknown Norwegian track runner named Grete Waitz ran New York as her first marathon and not only won but set a world record of 2:32:20. Amazingly, it was the first run longer than 12 miles she had ever done.
1981: Alberto Salazar Breaks World Record — Or Not
The New York City Marathon course is not considered to be particularly conducive to fast times, but on that course in 1981, Alberto Salazar recorded the fastest marathon time ever run anywhere: 2:08:13. Maddeningly, however, Salazar’s world record was snatched away from him when the course was later re-measured and found to be a few meters short. His only consolation was in winning the NYC Marathon for a third time the following year (Salazar was also the 1980 winner).
1983: Rod Dixon Outduels Geoff Smith
The 1983 men’s elite race brought unparalleled drama. England’s Geoff Smith started at a torrid pace and built a lead of more than a half-mile over 1972 Olympic 1,500m bronze medalist Rod Dixon of New Zealand with only a few miles left in the race. But Smith faltered and Dixon slowly reeled him in, catching and passing the exhausted Brit a mere 400 meters from the finish line.
1988: Grete Waitz Wins Her Ninth NYC Marathon
Who could have known that Grete Waitz’ surprise victory in the 1978 NYC Marathon would be the first chapter in a decade-long domination of the event? That period of podium ownership culminated in 1988, when Waitz won for the ninth and last time.
1992: Fred Lebow Finishes His Own Race
When he contracted brain cancer in 1990, Fred Lebow vowed to defeat the disease so thoroughly that he would be able to run the New York City Marathon himself, and in 1992 he fulfilled that promise to the delight of his legions of admirers. Sadly, the disease did return, and in 1994 it took his life. He was only 62 years old.
2005: The Closest Finish Ever
A margin of victory of 0.03 seconds is fairly small in a 100m dash. But in a marathon it is nothing — and almost unheard of. But that was the margin by which Kenyan Paul Tergat defeated South African Hendrick Ramaala in the 2005 New York City Marathon. The two men’s accelerating, side-by-side push toward the finish in the final mile of the race was almost enough to make spectators’ heads explode.
2007: NYC Marathon Hosts The Men’s Olympic Trials
Whoever thought of hosting the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials Men’s Marathon the day before the 2007 New York City Marathon on a spectator-friendly, multi-lap course in Central Park deserves a medal. Ryan Hall put on one of the greatest marathon performances ever, winning the race handily in 2:09:02 after running the second half in a stunning time of 1:02:45 on a very challenging route. Sadly, though, the day will mostly be remembered for the death of another competitor and Hall’s close friend, Ryan Shay.
2009: Meb Keflezighi Becomes First American Winner In 27 Years
On November 1, 2009, Meb Keflezighi became the first American to win the New York City Marathon since Alberto Salazar in 1982. No American has won since, although Shalane Flanagan finished second in 2010 — in her marathon debut. Keflezighi broke away from four-time Boston Marathon Robert Cheruiyot in Central Park, leading six American men to top-10 finishes: Ryan Hall (fourth), Jorge Torres (seventh), Nick Arciniaga (eighth), Abdi Abdirahman (ninth) and Jason Lehmkuhle (tenth) followed him across the finish line.
2010: Gebre Gebremariam Victorious In Marathon Debut
Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia made his marathon debut a memorable one, breaking the Central Park finish line tape in 2:08:14. The 26-year-old pulled away from Kenya’s Emmanuel Mutai, who finished 68 seconds back. Defending champion Meb Keflezighi finished sixth, while former world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie dropped out at the 16-mile mark with a knee injury. After the race, Gebrselassie announced his retirement, a decision he later reversed. In the women’s race, Edna Kiplagat of Kenya pulled away from American debutante Shalane Flanagan in Central Park to win by 20 seconds in 2:28:20.
2011: Geoffrey Mutai Shatters Course Record
Since the race’s inception in 1970, no one had ever broken the 2:07 barrier in New York. In 2011, Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai, riding the momentum of his scintillating 2:03:02 performance at the Boston Marathon earlier in the year, didn’t just break it, he obliterated it. Mutai crossed the line in 2:05:06, breaking the 10-year-old course record of 2:07:43 set by Tesfaye Jifar. Emmanuel Mutai and Tsegaye Kebede, who finished second and third in 2:06:28 and 2:07:13, also slipped under the old mark. In the women’s race, Ethiopian Firehiwot Dado was the surprise come-from-behind winner in 2:23:15, edging out countrywoman Buzunesh Deba by four seconds. Mary Keitany of Kenya, who led for much of the race at a torrid pace before being caught and eventually passed in Central Park, finished third in 2:23:38.
2013: Mutai Becomes Sixth Runner To Defend NYC Title
Cranking down the pace just past mile 20 and splitting up a lead pack of 8 runners, Geoffrey Mutai put himself into a two-man battle with countryman Stanley Biwott by the 35K mark, but the duel didn’t last long. Mutai continued to step on the gas in Central Park, extending his advantage all the way to the finish line to break the tape in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 24 seconds and capture his second ING New York City Marathon title. His victory made him the sixth winner in New York City Marathon history to successfully defend his title. In the women’s race, Priscah Jeptoo of Kenya broke the tape in 2:25:07, taking home the $100,000 first place paycheck along with the 2012-2013 World Marathon Majors title, worth an additional half million dollars.
2014: Two Close Races, Two Kenyan Victories
On a cold and windy day in the Big Apple, Wilson Kipsang of Kenya outlasted Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa with a punishing kick over the final meters to win in 2:10:55, beating Desisa by 11 seconds. Temperatures were in the 40s with wind gusts exceeding 30 miles per hour, making it a tactical race from the start. Meb Keflezighi finished fourth and Ryan Vail ninth to lead the Americans. The women’s race was even closer—Mary Keitany edged Jemima Sumgong by just three seconds, winning her first New York City Marathon in a time of 2:25:07.