MARATHON 'ORIGINAL' RALPH GARFIELDTO BE HONORED AT FESTIVITIES OF50TH RUNNING OF NYC 26-MILE CLASSIC
By Elliott Denman
Fifty-one-plus years have flown by - but to Ralph Garfield the events of September 13. 1970 seem like just a handful of yesterdays down the road in his memory book.
The 86-year-old Manalapan resident was one of 127 starters in the initial edition of the New York City Marathon, which was staged as a totally low-key trot confined entirely to the
inner roadways of Manhattan's Central Park. Of those 127 - just 55 of them, all men, finished their assigned rounds of four-plus park loops, totaling the official marathon
distance of 26 miles and 385 yards (or 42.2 kilometers.)
There were few frills - race organizer Fred Lebow had somehow scrounged an event budget of just one thousand dollars; there was no prize money, and top finishers were rewarded only with the hand-me-down trophies Lebow had managed to assemble.
Mayor John Lindsay had just recently closed Central Park to vehicular traffic on Sundays, giving Lebow and running friends - who'd previously held their events in the Bronx, Queens and nearby suburbs - the chance to stage this event in the recreational heart of The Big Apple.
But few even knew it was going on. Certainly not the mass media who'll assemble for the 50th running of the Marathon this coming Sunday, Nov. 7th. Certainly not the few million who'll line the streets for the now-five-borough event that has evolved into a huge global happening.
Garfield remembers it all oh-so-well.
Striding as briskly as he could through Central Park, he still had to struggle for elbow room amid the typical Sunday crowd of recreational joggers, walkers, strollers and bikers.
"What the hell are you doing?" Garfield remembers being asked.
"I'm running a marathon," he told the man.
"Are you crazy?" was the response.
And Garfield's answer was "yes."
So it went in the NYC Marathon's earliest moments.
Of the 55 who finished in 1970, Garfield placed 43rd in a time of four hours and seven minutes.
Long Islander Gary Muhrcke went on to win it with a clocking of 2:31:38, with Long Branch-born William Paterson University student Tom Fleming second in 2:35:44 and Ed Ayres of Washington, DC third in 2:39:17.
Of those 55 "originals," 14 are returning for the 50th NYC Marathon on Sunday, as honored guests of the host New York Road Runners and host sponsor TCS.
"It's nice to be remembered," said Garfield a few days ago. "We're going to have a gala reunion on Friday night, and then be guests at the finish line at Tavern On The Green in Central Park on Sunday. They're (NYRR) going all out to make this one a very special occasion."
In a perfect world, the 2021 Marathon should have been the 52nd in the series. But the 2012 race was erased by Superstorm Sandy and the 2020 event by the Covid-19 pandemic.
So this will be the "50th running" of the event with a powerful international cast again gathered for the early morning start at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island. On to Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx they'll go before crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge for final six miles of the race en route to the finish line at "the Tavern."
Garfield, who was born in England, retains vivid memories, as a young man, of watching the marathon finish at the 1948 London Olympic Games. "Etienne Gailly of Belgium led coming into Wembley Stadium, but then started staggering and collapsing. Just 60 yards or so from the finish line, he was passed by (Delfo) Carbrera of Argentina, and then by Tom Richards of England. The crowd was going wild. Gailly finally managed to rise up and finish third. It was an amazing sight."
Garfield came to the United States as a young man, earned his New York University degree and started a long career in the field of actuarial science.
As a member of both the Freehold Area Running Club and Shore Athletic Club, he never stopped running, either.
To his credit, he has notched eight NYC Marathon completions, two Londons, and one apiece in the Yonkers, NYC Earth Day, and Jersey Shore events, with a career-best clocking of 3:23 over the London course.
His best running in recent years has come in assorted shorter events on the New Jersey circuit, and he's been a dominating force through his 70s and now 80s in assorted 5K and 10K events, and five-milers.
Just one of those original 14 returnees of 1970 will actually be running in the 2021 event. He's Larry Trachtenberg, who ran it in 3:22:04, placing 32nd, as a 17-year-old student at Long Island City High School. Trachtenberg went on to excel as a distance runner at Princeton University and - now as a resident of Eugene, Oregon - continues living the lifestyle of a runner.
Due to pandemic limitations, the 2021 field has been reduced to just over 33,000 starters from its recent highs of over 50,000.
As ever, though, lots of New Jerseyans will be among those multitudes.
And no one will be asking, "are you crazy?"