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No Easy Task: Getting To The Starting Line of The ING New York City Marathon
But Once You Start, Finishing Is No Longer Much Of A Challenge

by: Molly O'Toole
November 5, 2009

Editor's Note: Molly ran cross-country and track and field for Cornell University.  She is now a graduate student at the NYU for journalism (and international relations).

New York, NY - At the finish line of the 2009 ING New York City Marathon, winners Derartu Tulu and Meb Keflezighi have already crossed that lauded threshold, but runners continue to pour in from the crowd stretching around the last Central Park curve below fall leaves. If the exhausted athletes can break the front line of photographers ten feet beyond the finish, nearly 45,000 heavy gold medals stand ready to be added to the weight of 26.2 miles on the body.

Take a good look, because let’s face it — many of us will never see the start, much less that storied finish line, pass under our feet. But we, the runners who didn’t run Sunday, are as much the story of the world’s largest marathon as the ones wearing the bibs. Because for every professional out there vying for the tape, there are a hundred regular runners, who despite pounding the pavement with faithful feet, didn’t quite qualify this year, found others feeling uncharitable or found themselves out of luck in the lottery.

If everyone got to run, it wouldn’t be the New York City marathon. Without those whose toes never touch the start, crossing the finish would just be crossing another line.

NYC Marathon Turns 40: Then and Now

On the brisk marathon day a banner hung above the finish line, “40 Years of Fabulous Finishes in Central Park 1970-2009,” a reminder of the humble beginnings of a race that has become a veritable mecca of marathoners, runners competitive and casual, sports enthusiasts, media, and celebrities.

On September 13, 1970, New York City Firefighter Gary Muhrcke worked through the night, then in the morning, ran, and won, a marathon — the first ever New York City Marathon, the brainchild of the young New York Road Runners organization and race co-founder Fred Lebow — in a time of 2:31. That day, Muhrcke and 126 other American participants ran a rough course of four six-mile loops around Central Park, cheered by a little over 100 spectators. Muhrcke received a recycled bowling trophy for his victory. Competitors paid $1 to enter, and could register to run on race day. 

This year when Muhrcke — now 69, with over 150 marathons (12 New York’s) under the band of his shorts — returned to race. He, along with 43,740 other participants, dealt with a different animal: the largest marathon in the history of the event. The 26.2-mile course from Staten Island, through Brooklyn and Queens, into Manhattan, up to the Bronx, and down Fifth Avenue into Central Park for the finish, is lined with over 2 million spectators. Athletes from 110 countries, looking to bring home a portion of the $800,000 total prize purse, with $200,000 and $140,000 in prize money and time bonuses going to winners Keflezighi and Tulu, according to the NYRR post-race breakdown.

Muhrcke told Runners World before the race, “I’m from a different era, and [when] I put a number on, I’m competitive with myself.”

“Forty thousand is a lot, but I’m not in awe of that … It’s very, very small. I would love for everybody in this country to run one marathon a year,” added Muhrcke who noted the value of the experience, whether a runner finishes in 4 hours or 2:15 (Muhurcke finished in 3:46:25 this year).

Muhrcke is indeed right when he says it’s a different era. On that hot day in 1970, only 55 male runners — 44 percent of the field— finished the first New York marathon. In 2009, out of a record-breaking field of 43,741 starters, only 266 runners dropped out — 43,475, or 99 percent, finished what they started.

In the 1970, the single female entrant, Nina Kuscsik, later one of two women to first run a marathon under 3 hours, was a DNF due to sickness. In the 2009 ING NYC Marathon, women represented 15,239 of the starters, and 15,121, or 35 percent, of the finishers.

Sunday’s race ended officially at 6:40 pm  — though the timing system scores participants through 8:40 – that’s 10 hours and 20 minutes after the official 8:20 am start (or 23 minutes, 40 seconds per mile pace). Though this generous time allotment may contribute to the near certainty a runner will cross the finish line of the NYC marathon, it does nothing to indicate how many will make it to the start, by some perspectives an equally impressive feat, as just getting in is a marathon in of itself.

The Race to the Start: “Guaranteed” Entry

Today, interested athletes must apply for and earn entry to the NYC marathon. Despite the recent renewal of the “plodder” debate by the New York Times, the 2009 NYC Marathon was the most selective: out of 102,486 applicants, nearly 47,500 were rejected, over 24,000 more runners than ran the 2009 Boston Marathon. And though millions of sporting enthusiasts flock to New York each Fall, the average runner couldn’t automatically qualify.

According to Running USA’s “State of the Sport” report for 2008, the average U.S. female long distance runner is just over 39 years old, married, without kids at home, has run for over 5 years or more, and runs at least 4 days a week, for a total of 20 miles or above. She’s completed at least one marathon. The average U.S. male long distance runner is about 45 years old, married, without kids at home, has run for 10 years or more, and also runs a minimum of 4 days a week, for a total of 20 miles or more. He has completed at least two marathons. Both genders run, primarily, to lose weight, maintain health, and relieve stress.

Last year, the median finishing time for male marathoners in the U.S. was 4:16, a pace of 9:46 per mile, and 4:43:32 for females, a pace of 10:49, according to RUSA’s annual marathon report. In order to qualify for the 2010 NYC marathon in the Open category, ages 18 through 39 (containing the majority of marathoners in the U.S. last year), men must post a time of 2:55 or better, a pace of 6:41 per mile, and women a time of 3:23 or better, at 7:47 pace.

Both men and women must run the marathon over 1 hour and 20 minutes faster, three minutes faster per mile, than the current national average.

2010 Automatic Qualifying Times

Open (Age 18-39)**

Masters (Age 40+)*






















Veterans (Age 50+)**

Veterans (Age 60+)**

















Veterans (Age 70+)**










From: The NYRR http://www.nycmarathon.org/apply.htm

This year, the 2010 NYC marathon application opened the day after the race — Monday — for the first time, as the NYRR hopeas to build off this year’s record application numbers and adrenaline, according to race organizers.

The move-up also gives aspiring participants well-needed extra time to earn entry to the marathon. According to the NYC marathon website, those eligible for “Guaranteed Entry” in 2010 include: automatic qualifiers, members of NYRR since Jan. 31, 2009 who have completed at least nine NYRR scored and sponsored qualifying races and have volunteered for at least one in that same year, those who have completed 15 or more NYC marathons, entrants from the 2009 marathon who canceled their entry, and those who have applied but have been denied entry for the last three years (and couldn’t find another way to enter). A runner meeting one of these criteria can apply from January 25 to March 5.

The “9+1 Guaranteed Entry,” as the NYC marathon site calls it, is limited to NYRR. In 2009, a quarter of entrants, 13,598 runners, were NYRR members. An annual membership includes reduced costs for NYRR’s full calendar of races, but the challenge of “9+1” is no small feat or fee, costing hundreds of dollars with price of entrance once accepted.

Vadim Krisyan, originally from Paris, started with NYRR last year. He ran eight half-marathons and one 18-mile “ING New York City Marathon Tune-Up” in the last 20 months to qualify, but was injured in July. He attended the marathon as a photographer instead.

“I think it’s fair, it gives everybody the opportunity to run it,” Krisyan said of the several opportunities for entry, “and like any other NYRR race, you aren’t really competing with others but yourself.” Krisyan has yet to run a marathon.

The next two options of 15 previous NYC marathons and cancellation, exclude a large number by requiring previous qualification. Even Muhrcke, the inaugural NY champion, has only run 13 (including this year’s race). In 2009, only 37 percent of accepted entrants were first-time marathoners — 63 percent were qualified as “experienced marathoners,” according to the Media Guide.

But once accepted, entrants to the NYC marathon can cancel for endless years in a row, according to the official marathon site.

Brian Hayes missed the 2008 NYC marathon due to injury, automatically qualifying for 2009. But an unforeseen conflict prevented him from running this year also.

“I got a bid and was all set to race,” Hayes, who is a high school cross-country coach, stated in an email. But roughly two months before the race, he discovered, “my team has their League Champs on Marathon Sunday. So instead of running NY, I will be running Philly in three weeks.”

Hayes may qualify for New York for the third year in a row in 2010, without having run it.

According to the New York Times, 53,146 gained entry to last year’s race, but after cancellations and deferrals, only 38,832 made it to the start. That’s over 14,000 guaranteed spots less for applicants to this year’s race. In 2009, the marathon accepted 54,976 entrants, and 43,740 started — about 11,000 guaranteed entrants for 2010.

This year, the NYC Marathon offered guaranteed entry for 2010 to the runners that cancelled online by Oct. 28, by mail up until the day before the race, and in person from Oct. 29-31. These runners still must reapply and pay the entry fee for the year they do decide to race. All cancellation decisions are final, and once runners pick up their number in person, with photo ID and registration card — no exceptions, according to the marathon site — they cannot cancel. This policy is the same for 2010.

Tom Alderfer scored tickets to the NYC marathon and Game 3 of the World Series in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia most of the week, neither he, nor any one else, was allowed to pick up his bib number.

Alderfer, who says he has run nine Boston Marathons, claims, “This is clearly not a security issue. I suspect this is a financial issue of the NYRR wanting to drive as many people as they can through … to collect rent.”

The cancellation page of the NYC marathon site shows too how seriously both race organizers and also runners take a coveted entry. It strongly states that any person giving or selling their race number or “d-tag”; or receiving, buying, or racing a number that is not their own, will be, “disqualified, with both persons barred from future [NYRR] events, including the ING New York City Marathon” — as in, forever.

Cashing In Vs. Checking In

Yet, the temptation to cash in on these hard-to-come-by bib numbers, or even “proof” of participation, is too strong for some.

Two days after the race, a basic EBay search of “2009 NYC Marathon,” brings up ten hits — five auctioning off finisher medals from this year, at upwards of $36 dollars with 30 total bids. Craigslist for New York came up with 11 hits for “2009 marathon.” Eight put marathon numbers or entry packages up for sale, from negotiable — “be prepared to meet in midtown, in a public place tonight” (October 31) — to $750 dollars. One offer, from a runner committed to run for charity and unable to run due to a torn knee cartilage, indicated that proceeds from the rule-breaking sale would go to the organization.

Some say, why not? The NYC Marathon is the most expensive in the country. According to the New York Times in February, the NYC Marathon increased entry fees for 2009 due to the uncertainties of the economy — bringing the cost to $138 for NYRR members, $171 for nonmembers, and $231 for non-U.S. applicants for the international lottery. But the cost per runner, as Mary Wittenberg, president and chief of NYRR told the Times, is, “easily more than $250.”

These entry fees are only applied once an applicant is accepted, but all applicants, regardless of acceptance, are charged a nonrefundable $11 processing fee. Roughly 83,000 paid this fee in 2008, representing an amount of $913,000 for race organizers; for perspective, NYRR estimated that in 2009, the marathon’s total economic impact was $250,000,000. But only 53,146 earned entry to the race, meaning that nearly 30,000 runners paid for the “right to be rejected,” as described by the New York Times.

It correlates that 93 percent of the 2009 NYC marathon entrants have at least a college degree (42 percent, plus 32 percent with graduate degrees and 19 percent post-graduate degrees) and are occupied mainly as Administration/Management, Teacher/Educator, Attorney, Banking, Financial Analyst, Engineer, Marketing, Physician, Business Owner, and Student, in that order, according to the media guide distributed by NYRR — not exactly representative of your average New Yorker.

But hope for the less talented, experienced, or wealthy among us comes in several forms: a guaranteed entry through a charity program, or the lottery system.

Feeling Charitable, or Just Lucky?

A potential participant only has to commit to fundraising for any of 86 not-for-profit teams in the ING NY Marathon charitable runner program, though its site provides these disclaimers: the chosen charities fill up quickly, transfers aren’t allowed, and once committed you cannot back out without permission of the charity. Even two days after the marathon, its site still lists five sold-out teams, one of which is NYRR’s Foundation Team for Kids. The charity had 1415 members racing this year. See NYRR’s own “Champion’s Circle,” which states that 2010 marathon entry will be secured for the first 100 who apply and donate $2,500. At the bottom, a note in italics reminds contributions are deductible. As the site implies, because such an amount is difficult to raise, some athletes will donate the necessary amount themselves.

Though the guaranteed-entry-by-charity requires, by personal donation or fundraising, no small sum, in this year’s marathon, more than 6,700 runners raised over $24 million total for charity, according to race organizers.

But if you (or your potential donors) aren’t feeling charitable, there’s always the lottery system. You still must apply to enter, starting Nov. 2 until March 5 for the 2010 marathon. NYRR will hold the drawing for all applicants in the middle of March. For 2009, lottery applications from a U.S. address were accepted until June 1, an extra month more than non-U.S. lottery applications, accepted until May 1.

Tom Voss, of Massachusetts, is a particularly unlucky one.

“I didn’t make it in the NY marathon through the lottery,” he said. “Ironically, I registered for the Philly marathon, and broke my foot running the NYRR half-marathon. Can’t wait for Spring.”

According to marathon organizers, only a portion of international athletes, including those with disabilities, are selected by the lottery drawing, because most international entrants work through the Official International Travel Partners program.

Next Stop, NY Marathon: International Tourist Entrants

Though odds are that international runners face even more challenges gaining entry to the race, their presence is integral to the marathon’s make-up. Besides the competitive contribution international athletes make, non-U.S. entrants also comprised nearly half of the total field in 2009.

For non-professional, non-U.S. runners, the ITP offers an opportunity for guaranteed entry — with the purchase of a marathon package. Runners may only apply through their country or territory, but most of the ITP partners are tourism agencies rather than running clubs, ranging from the “Mid-Atlantic Athletic Club” of Bermuda to “Planet Tours” of France and “Penthouse Travel Sporting Tours” of South Africa (the only African country represented). None of these athletes who withdraw are guaranteed entry to any of the following marathons.

If you are an “Average Joe” (or one in denial) looking to run the NYC Marathon next year, here’s a training tip: be experienced, wealthy, charitable, lucky, American, or, if all else fails, talented.

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