No one who helped to organize the 1976 Marathon talked about the race becoming an annual fixture, or even really thought about it.
In 1975, George Spitz found himself with time on his hands. A political iconoclast and gadfly, Spitz could generally be found campaigning for, and losing, elections for every office from the state assembly to city council to mayor. But that year, he was between jobs, and elections, so he trained for and ran the Boston Marathon. Afterward he began asking friends, “If Boston can have a marathon on its streets, why not New York?” There was already a small marathon that looped four times around Central Park, but Spitz had in mind a race that would go into all five boroughs. I was a friend of his and a reasonably well-known runner, and thus I became one of the people who would get his day-and-night phone calls. At first, none of us warmed to his vision, not even Fred Lebow, the president of the New York Road Runners, the largest running organization in the city. But Spitz persisted and eventually gained the support of Percy Sutton, the Manhattan borough president. When Sutton in turn secured a twenty-five-thousand-dollar commitment from the influential real-estate moguls Jack and Lewis Rudin, there was no turning back.
Soon, Sutton, Lebow, and I were meeting with Mayor Abraham Beame, whose city was reeling from a financial crisis and a high crime rate. We suggested that plans to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial with a tall-ships parade and other events would be enhanced by a borough-uniting marathon. Beame agreed without realizing what would be involved. No one—not us, not the people in the mayor’s office—talked about the marathon becoming an annual fixture, or even really thought about it.
Lebow took the reins of the project from Spitz and quickly set to work producing a spectacle that would be worthy of the occasion. A Holocaust survivor who earned a living by making “knockoffs” in the garment district, Lebow, whose love of running exceeded his talent for it, had now found his true calling. His is the classic story of the right man in the right place at the right time. Overnight, he turned into a consummate promoter. He loved the big stage, and the media loved him: a thin, hyperkinetic, bearded wonder with an Eastern European accent and an all-consuming passion, the marathon.
Like every Big Apple promoter, Lebow realized he needed star power to gain attention for his big show. In 1976, that meant Frank Shorter, who had won silver and gold at the two previous Olympics, and Bill Rodgers, who had won the Boston Marathon in 1975. Shorter accepted Lebow’s invite, in part, he quipped, “to see if the police could close down New York City’s streets for a foot race.” Lebow asked Shorter to attend his only marathon press conference, held a few weeks before the October race. He proudly told me that he had saved a few dollars by securing a free room for him at the New York Athletic Club.
I interrupted him mid-sentence. “Fred, we’re not putting Frank in a club that doesn’t admit Jews or blacks,” I said as was true at the time. Instead we got Frank a room at the Plaza. He called me just before midnight to invite me for a run the next morning, and to thank me for the room change. “I wouldn’t have felt right about staying at the N.Y.A.C.,” he said.
Rodgers was just beginning his ascendancy in the sport. Unpretentious, ever-smiling, and beloved by all his fellow runners, Rodgers had a little-known hard edge that he reserved for race directors. He believed that the sport’s governing body, the Amateur Athletic Union, abided by centuries-old amateurism rules that were completely outmoded. In other words, he wanted to be paid to enter big races.
At the time, payments were strictly outlawed for any track-and-field athlete, even though everyone knew they were taking place. Lebow was no easy mark, however. He treated every dollar he spent on the marathon as if it were his own. Eventually he and Rodgers agreed to an “under the table” payment of three thousands dollars,, which Shorter also received. The New York City Marathon didn’t begin paying out professional prizes until 1984.
The first timers. As word of the five-borough marathon spread, it created a never-before-seen excitement for running in all corners of the city. Veterans like me began getting phone calls from the newbies. One of these calls came from my friend Jacques d’Amboise, a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet. He began training for the marathon without telling George Balanchine, the company’s choreographer and ballet master, who would not have been pleased.
D’Amboise and I met most mornings for runs around the Central Park Reservoir. When the dance company traveled to Paris, he sent me a postcard. “Ran 10 miles at midnight in the Bois de Boulogne after our performance tonight,” he scrawled. “It was beautiful!”
On one of our runs, I told d’Amboise that he was getting very fit, but that he still needed a least one long run, preferably twenty miles, before he lined up on marathon day. Apparently, I neglected to add that he should do it two to three weeks before the marathon.
I received my last pre-race phone call from d’Amboise on Friday afternoon, less than forty-eight hours before the start of the marathon. His voice quivered with excitement. “George, that run you suggested was just fantastic,” he said.
I felt my heart skip a beat or two. “When did you do it?” I asked.
“Oh, I just walked in the door,” he replied.
As we assembled at the start of the race on that cloudy, chilly morning in October, there was a sense of expectancy and excitement. Helicopters hovered overhead, almost drowning out the noise when the Mayor fired the starter’s gun.
As everyone knows, the five-borough marathon course begins at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and then heads north through Brooklyn and Queens. Eventually, runners take the Queensboro Bridge from Queens into Manhattan, and then turn north toward Harlem. In 1976, we didn’t run on First Avenue, but on the narrow East River Esplanade between the F.D.R. Drive and the East River.
Here’s where the story gets interesting, and urban legends have become difficult to dispel. Many of the two thousand runners in the 1976 race seem to believe they climbed the steep stairway into Carl Schurz Park, where the esplanade path ends. Even Marathon winner Bill Rodgers later asked me, “What kind of marathon is it that makes you run up a flight of stairs?” Well-known New York City running pioneer and coach Bob Glover insisted to me, “No way in hell we didn’t run up those stairs.”
But in fact we didn’t. We actually ran up a ramp, a few blocks before the dreaded staircase, crossed a footbridge over the F.D.R. drive, and then turned north through the Upper East Side. I even have a photo of me and other runners ascending the ramp.
Why are there so many false memories? Peter Gambaccini, the author of “The New York City Marathon: Twenty-Five Years,” suggests a possibility. In the popular 1978 movie “An Unmarried Woman,” Jill Clayburgh runs up a stairway after a jog along the East River. This image might have entered into the collective consciousness of so many runners that they are convinced they did the same.
One feature that no one disputes is that we all had to take a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn around a lamppost in the Bronx. This came after we crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge, and is how we added the Bronx to our city tour. By this point, Rodgers had opened a two-minute lead on Shorter, so they encountered each other going in opposite directions.
Shorter said, “Great job, Bill,” and the torch was symbolically passed from the best American marathoner of one era to the best American marathoner of the next. Shorter, an elegant, respected lawyer and two-time Olympic medalist, gave way to Rodgers, an affable, former Winston-cigarette fan who would win New York City and Boston four times each, becoming known as the King of the Roads. Rodgers finished the race in two hours ten minutes and ten seconds; Shorter came in three minutes later.
But it wasn’t over yet; we still had to get home after finishing in Central Park. Shorter, who was staying with me, greeted me after I finished, and we walked outside the park to hail a cab. That was the moment that we realized neither of us had any money. We stuck out our thumbs, and were soon picked up by two young marathon fans. They had driven from Philadelphia to see the race up close. When the driver looked into his rearview mirror, he couldn’t believe his eyes: “Oh my god, Frank Shorter!” We said we were going to Thirty-second Street. He responded, “How about Miami?”
Rodgers fared even worse. After being awarded the winner’s Samuel Rudin Trophy, he jogged to the Upper West Side, where he had parked his car. It was gone. With Lebow’s help, and an extra ninety dollars, he eventually liberated it from a police impound and began his drive back to Boston.
Jacques d’Amboise, meanwhile, recovered from his workout fast enough to run a strong 4:05 on Sunday morning. And even the taskmaster Balanchine greeted him warmly the next day.
The 1976 race was such an instant success that no one ever had to ask, “Should we do it over again next year?” Indeed, after a few more years and the successful efforts of other great cities like London, Chicago, Berlin, Rome, Paris, and—more recently—Tokyo and Shanghai, we came to understand the greatest contribution of the 1976 New York City Marathon: it launched the urban-marathon boom. Where earlier marathons had taken place in protective parks and on quiet, rural roads, the marathon is now seen to fit perfectly with the energy, drive, and ambition of our bustling city centers.
I still remember crossing the Verrazano bridge and entering the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge, where noisy crowds greeted us forty years ago. Later, George Spitz, who ran the race, too, recalled the same moment. “I was shocked, absolutely shocked!” This time, one of his off-the-wall ideas had actually worked.
George A. Hirsch is a founder of the New York City Marathon and the former publisher of Runner’s World and New York.