By Sara Cedar Miller
Crossing the Central Park finish line of the ING NYC Marathon is one of the great thrills of a lifetime, as thousands of professional and amateur athletes join together for the one of the world's most famous and beloved sporting events. But this extremely popular race had much more humble beginnings.
Today's modern race originated with the first Greek marathon run at the 1896 Olympics in Athens, but it was only in the 1908 Olympics — when an American won the London marathon — that the fever in this country began. Only a few months later the first marathon on New York City streets started in Westchester County and ended at 59th Street at Columbus Circle, just grazing the site of today's current route.
The first marathon run entirely in New York City was held on September 13, 1970, with only 127 runners. (Compare that with the 45,000 expected in the 2011 marathon). The entire route was four full loops around Central Park's six-mile drives, plus a shorter two-mile loop. The first 10 runners to cross the finish line received inexpensive wristwatches bought by Fred LeBow, founder of New York Road Runners. This year's participants will have their eyes on a prize of $130,000 for both male and female winners.
Even though the Athletic Amateur Union, the sport's governing body, did not sanction female marathoners, runner Nina Kuscsik became the first woman to run in the New York City marathon that year. The national organization did finally move to allow women in the race, but insisted on a separate start for the women 10 minutes ahead of the men. In 1972, the women staged a well-publicized sit-in as a protest, and by the next year there was no separate start.
In 1976, to celebrate the country's bicentennial, the course was redrawn to encompass all five New York boroughs. Thousands of spectators lined the streets, cheering the runners and bringing all New Yorkers together in a new and special way.
In 2000 an official wheelchair division was added to the marathon. Now the New York City Marathon has grown to become one of the most competitive wheelchair marathons and, in addition, a wide variety of ambulatory athletes with disabilities now participate.
In 2007 Team Central Park was inaugurated, bringing together as many as 50 runners each year for the benefit of the Central Park Conservancy. To date, the team has raised almost $850,000, which helps keep the Park beautiful for all the runners and spectators — not just on race day but every day of the year.
While this playground is small in size, it's big on views. Located in one of the most beautiful settings in the Park, the playground is also near the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, which offers additional recreational opportunities.