The Big Apple

The New York Marathon is a premier event, second only perhaps to the prestigious Boston Marathon. The twenty-six mile course runs through the five boroughs of Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and finishes in Manhattan’s Central Park. The city closes down its streets in support of the run. Nearly 4,000 foreign athletes crossed the ocean to run the Big Apple. Entrance is achieved by lottery. Over sixty thousand applicants apply every year.  In 1982 I won the lottery and was selected.

NY Map

Running was my avocation, second to my vocation as Vice-President of our company. I was on its board and the October, 1982 date of the New York Marathon was on a Sunday one day before a board meeting we had scheduled for the following Monday. I mentioned the New York opportunity to our CEO, in casual conversation.

“Not a problem,” he replied. “Actually there is a business in New York I’d like you to visit. Therefore, the company will fly you out Saturday to make the visit, run the marathon on Sunday, and then fly back that night for the board meeting on Monday.”

How about that for a thoughtful boss!

When I arrived in NYC, I had the cab drive by the New York business to satisfy the feigned business expense on my way from the airport.

The marathon started Sunday morning on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Staten Island across the East River to Brooklyn. Runners were bussed to Staten Island prior to dawn to be in place for the starting gun. We were huddled in small groups under tents trying to keep warm in the early morning chill.

NY Bridge

Hundreds of porta-potties had been hauled in to accommodate the anxious participants. In addition, in the men’s section, a mile-long trough had been installed as a urinal. Standing at the trough it was humorous to see that previous NY runners, up stream, had launched small matchbook-sized sailboats in the trough with sails inscribed with encouraging messages, “Oh what a relief it is,” “Aim to Please,” “See you in Central Park.”

I sat in a circle of ten other runners waiting for the race to begin. There was a young girl from New Jersey who was running her first marathon because her whole family ran.  In fact, both her mom and dad ran New York the previous year.  Did real good too, for old folks, she said.  Finished holding hands.  The crowd loved them.  Oh, their age?  Both forty-years-old.

Our group included a Spanish doctor from Brooklyn, a student from New Jersey, a fragile artist type from Paris, a young black from Harlem, and a businessman from Australia, folks I have great warm feelings for but would never see again.

All were curious about the small tape recorder I had Velcroed to my running shorts.  A few marathons earlier, I started recording my runs, first for the purpose of recording split times at the mile markers, but then found my comments during the race about what was going on about me and how I felt, were interesting in evaluating and reliving the experience. Some recordings became classics, like the runner’s high I experienced (more like drunkenness) during the Toledo Marathon.

The Verrazano Bridge had two levels, six lanes wide. On one level the New York Road Runners Club, organizer of the race, put all the world-class and talented Olympic runners. Bill Rogers, who won Boston that year, was on that level. The also rans, and that would be me, were on the second level. Using my Walter Cronkite voice, I announced into my recorder. “We’re at the start of the 1982 New York City Marathon. It is a gray day, fifty degrees, with the hint of rain in the air. Perfect for running.”

I could hear those standing close by, speculating on who this media reporter was recording the event. Then the cannon fired and we were off. I had been training hard and achieving some encouraging, for me, racing times. I was looking forward to a personal record in the twenty-six mile race. I was wearing a new pair of the New Balance 100 running shoes. Most of the popular Brooks, Tiger, and Adidas shoes worn at that time cost thirty or forty dollars. New Balance introduced a shoe costing one hundred dollars, the NB 100, and I had to have a pair. Must be at least three times better, right? I knew not to put on a new pair a shoes without breaking them in and had run several weeks in my 100s, but now expected miraculous results with my new secret weapons.

What excitement. From the moment I left the bridge and entered Brooklyn, there was never a place along the racecourse that spectators weren’t lined up ten-deep. Chariots of Fire and the theme from Rocky blared from every street corner. Local neighborhood fire departments had their trucks shooting firehoses over the street intersections. At first, the cooling water felt good, but then my feet became wet and I could tell I was slipping in my shoes.

I had been to New York many times while growing up in Connecticut, but never realized how hilly it was. Particularly when crossing the bridges from one borough to the next. The bridges had a steep initial ramp and then an abrupt descent when you exited. My feet were sliding around in those hundred-dollar shoes and blisters soon became open wounds.

At the sixteen-mile mark, after two hours and sixteen minutes, loudspeakers announced that Bill Rogers had won the marathon. Good for you Bill. I had another hour and half to go. Looking down at those hundred-dollar shoes, I could see they were stained with blood.

Listening to my recording of the race later, from twelve-miles on, I was obviously hurting. My breathing was labored, and the mile splits were getting slower. Just after the announcement of Roger’s winning, I recorded, “My feet feel like hamburger. Ten more miles to go. Come on you can do it. Uh- oh, it feels like one of my toes just came off.”

The last few miles were excruciating. Finally, I made the turn along Central Park with only two miles to go. Running by the Plaza Hotel, I clearly heard someone shout, “Hey, Jim Stark.” I wondered if it might be my sister who lives in Connecticut, but it turned out it wasn’t. I never learned the owner of that shout.

Central Park was incredible. All you could see was a sea of people lining the road. A recording of Frank Sinatra singing New York, New York, filled the air. The joyful exhaustion brought many runners to tears. My time of 3 hours and 40 minutes was twenty-two minutes slower than other marathons, but I finished.  All runners were draped with a foil solar blanket as they finished and had a large commemorative medallion hung around their necks.

NY Finish

Making a brief stop at the refreshment area for Gatorade, a banana, and health bar, I needed to get back to my hotel to shower and a change into traveling clothes for the flight home.

I hadn’t lost a toe, but my feet were raw from the wet shoes and abrasion. I taped them up carefully, then thinking about the three-hour flight home, rubbed myself down with analgesic balm in hopes the heat would relax my muscles while immobilized in the airliner seat.

I caught a cab outside the hotel. On the way to the airport the cabbie was grumbling about the traffic. “Christ, I can’t believe it. They have half the streets closed today. Something must be going on.”

“Yeah,” I said. “The New York Marathon. I just ran it. See my medal,” which still hung around my neck.

“Oh, so that’s it?”

“Yeah, and that’s why I’ve got the analgesic smeared all over me. You must have smelled it.”

“Oh, so that’s what it is. I thought you had Chinese food back there.”

Huh? I didn’t ask for clarification on that one.

My tape recording of the New York Marathon has been heard by a number of people. A friend who was track coach at Columbus North High School used to play the tape for his runners when teaching the “no pain, no gain” concept. I listen to it myself from time to time and think “the thrill of victory and the agony of da feet!”

The following is part of an article I wrote for Hoosier Runner, an Indiana running newsletter.

Doing the big apple, as in running the New York City marathon, is a cornucopia of experiences, each of which is unique and everlastingly memorable.

New York is Winning

The 16,000 chilled marathoners who lined-up October 24, 1982, for the 26.2 mile tour of New York City had already beat out 44,000 other applicants for those same starting slots.  An early postmarked entry and the luck of the drawl had determined that this dedicated jogger from Columbus, Indiana, was more qualified to run the streets of Brooklyn and Bronx than numerous other more talented runners.

New York is Big

 Logistically, New York is mind-boggling: Twelve hundred medical personnel, 4,500 volunteers, 284 gallons of course marking pain, 68,000 safety pins, 500,000 paper cups, and the world’s largest urinal.  The race administrators process the huge number of runners by issuing bar codes to all official participants.  Just like a package of wieners at the grocery, it’s the scan of your bar code that triggers the instantaneous printing of your race number, the distribution of your information packet, your check in at the starting line, and the documentation of your finish in central park.

New York is People and Camaraderie

 Its 3,912 foreign runners getting their first exposure to the U.S. through our country’s self-appointed goodwill ambassadors, the New York cab drivers.

It’s too gorgeous snow bunnies from Denver, Colorado, who came east to run their third New York marathon.

It’s ten people pressed into the corner of the tent on Staten island spending the eternal two hours prior to the starting gun by opening their hearts and souls to the perfect strangers around them.

It’s a Spanish doctor from Brooklyn, a student from New Jersey, a fragile artist type from Paris, a young black from Harlem, and a businessman from Australia, folks I have great warm feelings for but will never see again.

New York is Excitement

When the canon fires sending the army of waffle-soled combatants on their five-borough crusade of the city, the intensity and pitch of the spectators’ encouragement is awesome. New York is on display.  Flags, banners, and signs are everywhere.  Bells ring, sirens wail, and people cheer like you can’t believe.

New York is Emotion

Along with the thrills, the gaiety, and the fun comes the inevitable marathon pain.  Twelve hundred medical personnel aren’t there for their health.

Some of my fellow athletes are reduced to a survival shuffle.  Others show their badges of courage staining through their shirts and shoes and still they continue.

At last, the turn into central park, the final four hundred yards.  Look at that crowd.  Listen to that applause.  Is that Frank Sinatra singing New York, New York?  This is unbelievable. Why some of those runners are crying.  Can you imagine that?  No, not me, must just be a cinder and my eye.

5 thoughts on “The Big Apple

  1. Sounds like a good race- Any race you can walk away from is a bad race.
    Our whole running club send in letters requesting an application-I was lucky- but the only one who got drawn, so we skipped it. After that we ran the Marine Corps marathon (held the same day).

  2. Well done Jim ! Your athletic determination and your writing skills reflect a Marathon of Personality, certainly deserving another chorus from Frank S !

  3. I don’t recall hearing a report of this magnitude … maybe none at all – when you arrived back in the offices of Kirby Risk Columbus. Wow … alot to absorb there. What I remember most about your marathons is that shortly after coming back from the Boston Marathon was when you hired me – May of 1979. Best career move of my life (though my “post-retirement” one to The Villages, Fl, was great as well). At 79yo, I’m still running (some) but have never run a Marathon (and won’t be doing so). Blessings to ya, Jim

  4. Jim, first, let me congratulate you for finishing that grueling marathon. That is a major accomplishment. Just reading about your account of the race has my toes aching. Second, the taxi ride from the hotel to the airport is no minor achievement. I don’t know how you get the stamina to do all of these many fetes, but God bless you.

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