NYRR Night of Champions-A Mix of the Past, Present and Hopefully, the Future!

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FullSizeRender-5.jpgMike Capiraso, Mary Wittenberg, Peter Ciaccia, Jeff Benjamin, NYRR Night of Champions

IMG_5313.JPGJeff Benjamin, Gary Muerckhe, Dr. Norb Sander, Gene McCarthy, NYRR Night of Champions

We asked Jeff Benjamin to write about the NYRR Night of Champions, one of the amazing events that makes the New York City Marathon week so spectacular.

NYRR Night of Champions- A Mix of the Past, Present and Hopefully the Future! By Jeff Benjamin


40 years ago, New York Road Runner Club President Fred Lebow was running around crazy, although not for the obvious reasons. The first 5-Borough New York Marathon was fast approaching, due to the group catalysts of George Spitz, George Hirsch and Percy Sutton, who, with Lebow, had convinced Mayor Beame and New York City that this grand event could be done!

Lebow had already gotten the course set up. Lebow convinced the Police, neighborhood leaders and even gangs in some of New York's roughest neighborhoods to help out. Lebow secured support from all of the borough leaders and key community members. Lebow even trekked up the previous August to the Falmouth Road Race to convince America's running legends Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers to compete, albeit for different reasons as we will see.

But, like with any grand event, finances were desperately needed. Lebow had some small commitments from sponsors but needed more. It was then that the New York Marathons' greatest saviors came forward in the personas of the Rudin family, who generously gave support. Lewis and Jack Rudin agreed to be sponsors in tribute to their late father, Samuel, an avid distance runner and a member of the Pastime Athletic Club in the Bronx. With this generosity of dollars, the true greatness of world marathoning through the streets of a major city exploded onto the scene, fueling a "Running Boom'. The running boom began in 1972 with Shorter's Olympic Marathon Gold Medal performance in Munich. The boom was then taken to an even higher level which Lebow, Shorter, Rodgers, the Rudins and others could never have imagined. The Five Boroughs Marathon went from a one time event to a yearly celebration of running and the city of New York . The winners of the NYC Marathon have ever since been awarded with the Samuel Rudin trophy.

Now, (November 4), 40 years later history repeated itself at last night's NYRR "Night of Champions". This event, hosted by the the NYRR leadership of Mike Capiraso and Peter Ciaccia, George Hirsch, Mike Rodgers, Michael Schnall and the entire NYRR team, raises money for their free youth and community programs which nowadays consists of helping over 200,000 children throughout the City.
In a positive feeling of deja vu, as like in 1976, 100% of the proceeds raised that night will be going to these programs thanks once again for the underwriting of the event courtesy of none other than the Rudin family!

The crowd in the NYRR Pavilion right by the Central Park finish line consisted of history makers, the present and the future as well. Three of the newest members of the NYRR Hall of Fame attended, as Margaret Okayo, Steve Jones, and Rod Dixon were present. Margaret Okayo won the New York City Marathon in 2001 and 2003--setting a course record of 2:22:31 that still stands. Steve Jones, who in 1988 was motivated to prove to critics who thought his World-Class marathoning career was coming to an end, dominated the race, clocking a time of 2:08:20 defeating his closest opponent by over 3 minutes. The New Zealander Rod Dixon, a former 3:52 miler and Olympic Bronze Medalist in the 1972 Olympic 1500, would win the 1983 race in one of the most dramatic and iconic victories in the history of the marathon, passing Britain's Geoff Smith at mile 26 on the rain-soaked course, then falling to his knees with his hands raised high at the finish in painful, but emotional triumph!

Joining these 3 legends were local greats Gary Muhrcke, the first NY Marathon Champion (1970), and Dr. Norb Sander, the Armory's Indoor Track leader and 1974 Marathon Champion. Also present was Meb Keflezighi, his brother Hawi and 77 years young Masters World Record Holder Sid Howard.
Also mixing in with the large crowd was legendary 3-time NYC Champion marathoner Paula Radcliffe, whose Beamonesque world record time of 2:15:25 in London has not been approached, along with Larry Rawson, one of the great announcers and true fans of the Sport. Also present was ASICS CEO Gene McCarthy.
Speaking of true fans, many of the attendees also hovered over to Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter, the 2 top names from 40 years ago. When Lebow approached Shorter about running the race, the 1972 Gold Medalist had just won the Silver at Montreal and was not in top form. As Shorter said in a previous interview, "I really came to see if this race throughout the boroughs would really happen successfully." For Rodgers, who, along with his brother Charlie, had experienced low valleys before 1975 but then went on to experience great heights in marathon running in 1975, the 1976 Olympics proved to be disappointing, as he battled injuries.
Rodgers then wanted the 1976 NY Marathon to be his redemption, and he was indeed ready as he crushed the field and ran the remarkable time of 2:10:10, running and sometime maneuvering through tight crowds and other obstacles encountered by the runners in that inaugural run through the boroughs (along with either steps or a ramp along the course, depending on who one talks with!). Rodgers would then go on to accumulate a total of 4 NYC wins to coincide with his 4 great victories at Boston.
Shorter and Dixon also showed that they know their sport as well, as they met 3:55 miler Johnny Gregorek of the NJ-NY Track Club. Aside from knowing his Dad John (a 3:51 Olympian), Shorter remarkably spoke of the younger runner's accomplishments in his short but rising career. Gregorek expressed his admiration of Shorter and also Dixon, remarking on the range of a 3:52 miler who raced all the way up to a sub 2:09 marathon, something this writer was left wondering if the younger Gregorek might follow that same path eventually.
As the previous NYC champions along with 2016 US Olympic Marathoners Keflezighi, Jared Ward, Desiree Linden, Shalene Flanagan and Amy Cragg (who were made honorary Marathon Grand Marshals) were being acknowledged, hovering on the side keeping off their feet and being very low key yet very friendly were 2 athletes who one hopes represents America's marathon future. Dathan Ritzenhein has already competed at the highest levels in 2 Olympiads from 5K and up and has run the marathon in 2:07:47, while Molly Huddle is trying to follow the path of 5 and 10K runners who have moved up to marathon success. And while this will be her first marathon, fans should keep in mind that Huddle has won 2 NYC Half Marathons as well, her last one this past year, clicking an American Record of 1:07:41!!
(Editor's note: this piece was written during NYC Marathon week. Molly Huddle had a very succesful debut, taking third in New York. Dathan Ritzenhein had to withdraw at 19 miles, and will need surgery for plantar fascia injury).

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