As a sporting enterprise, there is nothing quite like the spectacle of a big-city marathon — pioneered by New York in 1976 after a five-year run entirely within Central Park. But what would soon emerge as a huge international event proved hard to keep up with for the journalists who covered it.
What makes the New York City Marathon so enticing — its freewheeling march through neighborhoods, scooting around corners and over bridges, and the boisterous crowds — also made it a storytelling puzzle: trying to piece together the elements of the victorious runs based on shards of information and sketchy interviews.
Sunday’s 50th running of the marathon will reach a half-billion households in more than 180 countries across multiple networks and streaming apps. People will watch on their phones and computers and, of course, on television, which was the only way to watch the event in its early years if you couldn’t line the course or see the finish in person.
Back then, the broadcast was often spotty because of interference from tall buildings, bridges and weather. One year, dense fog knocked out the TV picture for most of the telecast. The signal from the motorcycle on the course could not get through to the receiver on a helicopter necessary for transmission.
“It was like the Wright brothers,” the longtime TV marathon commentator Larry Rawson said in a recent interview. “Sometimes,” said Rawson, who worked with ABC and ESPN, “a helicopter would have to refuel and the picture would go down until the next copter arrived.”
In 1986, I tried to help change that predicament. On my bicycle.
I proposed the idea to ABC, then telecasting the marathon, riding my sleek Italian racer as an official vehicle for the network. With a headset and walkie-talkie, I could stick at the front of the pack with the lead runners and report on developments: who surged, dropped back, missed a water bottle or tripped and fell. I had run the New York City Marathon several times, so I knew the ins and outs as well as danger spots where runners and course vehicles would have to make narrow passage. And, at the time, as the editor of The Runner, a national magazine, I knew the runners as well as anyone.
The ABC producer said, “You’re hired.”
No more press bus for me. I was now a primitive platform unto myself.
The “press bus” of the era was usually a rickety flatbed truck: one for reporters, another for photographers. The reporters’ truck rumbled too far from the runners to see much of anything in the race. Pleas to the driver to get closer would fall on deaf ears.
Reporting on running was like that. In the press truck for one New York Road Runners 10-kilometer race in Central Park, we were smacked continually by low tree branches as cries of “duck” rang out among my colleagues.
And then there was the 1984 men’s Olympic marathon trial, which started in Buffalo and after four miles proceeded over the Peace Bridge into Canada for a long, straight run to the finish near Niagara Falls. The reporters’ flatbed truck lost power and died after a few miles, and I almost died chasing after the photo truck a half-mile up the road in order to cover the race.
There had to be another way. In 1985, ABC put a wired hockey helmet on the 1983 New York City Marathon champion, Rod Dixon, who was not competing but was instead assigned to jump into the race at strategic points. The helmet had a microphone attachment and a camera that were supposed to enable transmission to the TV studio. It was an embarrassing failure.
The next year, as the record field of 20,502 marathoners assembled on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, I was decked out like Ralph Kramden of “The Honeymooners” in his homemade pinball machine costume in the “Man From Space” episode. I had an array of belts, clamps and whatchamacallits. A headset enabled me to hear the play-by-play via a receiving device that had been wedged into my water bottle cage. An ABC pennant — pumpkin orange atop a six-foot pole — flew from my rear tire, as though to announce, “Clear the road, baby, I’m coming through.”
I reported on the surge to the lead at 10 miles through Brooklyn by the two-time title defender Orlando Pizzolato of Italy; the steady pace and tough countenance of the favorite, Robert de Castella of Australia, a Boston Marathon champion; and the surprise moves by another Italian, Gianni Poli, a long shot who had placed 13th at the European Championships marathon in Stuttgart, West Germany, two months earlier.
Nearing 12 miles, where Brooklyn fed into Queens, I detected the weakening stride of Robleh Djama, a contender from the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, who had taken second in the 1985 Chicago Marathon in 2 hours 8 minutes 8 seconds, then one of the fastest times ever.
At the halfway point, on the Pulaski Bridge, I got a frantic call from the producer. “Where’s Djama? We don’t have him in the top 10 at the halfway split.” I reported that I’d seen Djama drop out.
But those calls were easy compared with my toughest challenge: police officers. Despite assurances that the police were aware of my role, motorcycle officers tried to push me into the sideline crowds and officers on foot grabbed at me. “ABC!” I cried, to no avail.
Then I met my match: the man in blue crouched for a powerful lunge, arms out, a little past 14 miles with an upcoming sharp, pivotal turn onto the Queensboro Bridge.
I feared being stuck in Long Island City as 20,000 runners clogged the route. I imagined a tussle with the police interfering with the top runners as they narrowed to find choice footing for the sweep onto the Queensboro.
Pulling ahead of the leaders for some elbow room — the foursome of de Castella, Poli, Pizzolato and Ibrahim Hussein of Kenya set the pace — I lowered my head, helmet up, as the officer went for me with both hands. As we made contact, I unleashed my best Paul Hornung straight arm, spun away and pedaled onto the bridge carpet, a little dazed but empowered by courage and desperation.
The rest of the ride down First Avenue in Manhattan, into the Bronx, and over to Central Park was a breeze. Poli was the upset winner in 2:11:06. I climbed off my bike with stiff legs near the finish and felt the woozy, blissful exhaustion common after a good run.
ABC was delighted with the experiment. When NBC took over the telecasts, I continued my spotting for about a decade — by then as team captain of a platoon of cyclists also covering the women’s race and wheelchair fields.
The rudimentary TV transmission system (in some years, signals had to be sent from rooftops) continued until the early 2000s, when digital technology replaced analog. Then more flexible circuitry allowed for stronger signals between course vehicles and helicopters, resulting in less risk of interference.
Even with advances in technology, the simple bicycle as an official vehicle continues to prove critical to TV operations. At the 2018 Boston Marathon, which was whipped by a cold rain, NBC bike spotters reported key runners who dropped out, like the American star Galen Rupp at 19 miles. At the 2018 Berlin Marathon, officials on bicycles handed drinks to Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, who set a world record.
For this year’s marathon, 13 cyclists have been hired by New York Road Runners, the organizer of the marathon, to work with ABC, which took over the telecast from NBC in 2013. The bikes will provide five-kilometer split times, watch for contenders who falter and stick with a secondary pack in the event of a breakaway as support to electric-powered cars ferrying reporters and cameramen after the leaders. The live TV feed will show on multiple screens at the media center in Central Park, a short walk from the finish.
Never a particularly good marathon runner, I thrilled to the event on two wheels. But I still wonder about the statute of limitations on evading a New York City police officer.