Updated October 22, 2022
Friday, October 21, was the 43rd anniversary of this incredible race and the very last time that Bill Rodgers would win the NYC Marathon. Jeff Benjamin wrote this piece, and you can see his enthusiasm for the event, and his respect for Bill Rodgers and Kirk Pfeffer, two of the road warriors competing that day! This story, on the 1979 NYC Marathon, was originally published in November 2019.
This was the height of the first running boom and, for many, one of the golden times of American long-distance running. Bill Rodgers was the King of the Roads. Newspapers all across the country showed agates of the big road races and marathons. Bill Rodgers made the cover of Sports Illustrated, the finest sports journal in the country.
The 1979 NYC Marathon was amazing. I got back from my Sunday run just in time to see the event! Kirk Pfeffer was leading Bill Rodgers, and it was mesmerizing on my Black and white TV. This is Jeff Benjamin’s story on one of my all-time favorite events!
The 40th Anniversary Of The 1979 NYC Marathon – Bill Rodgers VS Kirk Pfeffer –Giving Their All
By Jeff Benjamin
Whether one is the hunter or the hunted, that feeling of giving your all is most definitely needed, especially in World-Class Marathoning.
Just ask Bill Rodgers and Kirk Pfeffer.
By 1979, Rodgers was a marked man, with running fans wondering if the 3-Time Boston and NYC Champion could be toppled from his throne as America’s Best Marathoner.
Earlier in April at Boston, Tom Fleming and Gary Bjorkland took it out on Rodgers, who was also concerned with Japan’s Toshihiko Seko clipping at his heels. Biding his time and holding his pace, Rodgers would roar past all of them, clocking an American Record time of 2:09:27 for the victory.
Now, getting ready for his possible victory # 4 in New York, Rodgers looked a little vulnerable based upon his non-stop racing which, by his standards, was sub-par in the summer months leading up to NYC.
But Rodgers, who loves the cold, saw his gears beginning to move in the right direction with the arrival of September and October.
“I had completed weeks of 119, 144, 122, and finally 137 miles per week in the last month before the Marathon,” said Rodgers recently.
“I had raced 47:14 for 2nd at the Virginia 10 Mile, a notoriously hilly race in Lynchburg, VA.in late September, along with two 10K races on the Roads in Worcester and at Diet Pepsi, along with the Freedom Trail 7-Miler, so I felt I was ready to race, and I liked racing the NYC marathon – my 3 previous wins proved that. I liked the hills, the bridges, the big Crowds, the feisty, occasionally pothilly, undulating nature of the course, the dog-eat-dog nature of the race, and the Dramatic rolling hills finishing miles thru Central Park…if you knew the New York course, you had a big edge..this was no Dubai Marathon- no flat out and back jogathon – this was, and is a racer’s marathon!”
Toeing the line on Staten Island, Rodgers knew his competition would be tough, with Tom Fleming, Steve Kenyon, Olympic Champion Frank Shorter, Kevin Shaw of South Africa, Zakarie Barie of Tanzania, Steve Floto, Benji Durden, Ron Hill, and VERY last minute entry Kirk Pfeffer all looking to take him on.
Pfeffer, who competed for the legendary Bob Larsen on the Miracle-Winning 1976 Jamul Toads National XC Championship Team (Which is the subject of a phenomenal new book, “Running The Edge” By Matthew Futterman!) was having a solid 1979 season as well.
“I ran the Enschede International Marathon, held in Enschede Holland on August 25, 1979. I won the race at 2:11.50. I was living in Mountain Home, Idaho, on the airforce base with my brother-in-law. Lots of hard runs to Strike Dam and around the base, which was in the middle of nowhere.
As far as his decision to run New York…
“I was fit and living in Boulder, Colorado. I realized I could run a fast marathon, so I called Fred Lebow on Friday and was on an afternoon flight Saturday. I got in very late. Thanks to the help of a fellow friend from my hometown of San Diego, Bill Gookin, I found a room to stay in. Not sure if I had dinner, only that I had a supply of candy bars in my bag. In the morning, I dashed across the street for a bite of toast. Considering I ran a hundred-mile week (fast) that week and subsisted on very little food…”
These self-imposed factors did not deter Pfeffer in the least –
“I enjoyed training hard. I ran 140-mile weeks running – two ten milers a day and an additional 20 milers once a week. I made it a point to surge up hills and keep the runs fast. Many runs averaged under a 5-minute pace. This didn’t change the week of New York with the exception of Saturday.”
And how did this “Amateur” Athlete survive financially and get the funds to compete?
“I ran with Nike at the time; however not sure of those details. In terms of money for the race, I think it was either 5 or 7.5K from the race directors. Everything was so hush-hush. They told me not to say anything to anybody. Glad those days are over for those who benefit.”
When the gun DID NOT go off, and the Runners took off, Rodgers now had to concern himself with the 150 or so ahead of him already!
“With the false start, I was about 150th place at the mile mark,” Rodgers said as he “had to do quite a bit of zigzagging.”
Another factor was the hazy morning, as the 60-degree temps would be moving into the humid 70-degree area.
But, after 8 miles, Pfeffer was not intimidated by the conditions or the field at all…
“I didn’t have any strategy until I got into the race. Once in the race, I realized I had a good lead, so I went for it. I enjoyed all the sights and sounds of the race, which preoccupied my mind and helped me run fast…I had a blast out there. I had never set a foot in New York, let alone run one of the most famous marathons in the world!”
With Pfeffer running 4:55 per mile pace and reaching 10 miles in 48:21, Rodgers (who hit ten miles with Durden and others in 49:30) and the rest of the field were stunned. “I also knew Kirk was quite good too, and I was hoping to catch him.”
Pfeffer, however, kept blasting and battling away, spurred on by racing shoes using 1979 technology by which he had put rubber tire material in the soles. Pfeffer Came upon Central Park, where he hit “The Wall.”
“When all of that faded, I realized I was done for and held on for dear life,” said Pfeffer as Rodgers passed him just past 23 miles.
“When Bill passed me in Central Park, he encouraged me, but alas not so.”
Rodgers, who later said that he didn’t want to pick up the next day’s newspaper with the headline “Pfeffer upsets Rodgers”, poured it on after that, keeping his crown and winning his 4th NYC Marathon in a time of 2:11:42! Pfeffer would finish 2nd in 2:13:29, with Steve Kenyon 3rd in 2:13:29.
Norway’s Grete Waitz would continue to grow her legendary status as the first female winner once again, this time setting the World Record line in 2:27:33, almost five minutes faster than the world record she set the previous year in New York and 11 minutes faster than any other woman in the race.!
“Kirk really made me work for it that day,” said Rodgers in his first-ever catchup performance in New York. “He was tough!”
As far as any regrets from Pfeffer…
“I enjoyed all the sights and sounds of the race, which preoccupied my mind and helped me run fast…My only regret was the lack of rest and food. I know that things would have been different, much different.”
Pfeffer would more than makeup for his NYC disappointment a month later…
“I went on and ran the Las Vegas Â½ Marathon on December 7th (Friday) and won it with a 1:02.31, which was reported as a World Record. Bill was in the race and ended up third, running 1:03.22.”
1979 would mark the end of Rodgers’ NYC Championship reign. With the 1980 Olympic Boycott, alongside divorce and his constant weekly racing schedule, Rodgers would win his 4th and last Boston that April, this time with Pfeffer marching him stride for stride, only for Pfeffer to drop out at 15 miles. Pfeffer would go on to run December’s Fukuoka Marathon in a time of 2:10:29.
Running the 1980 Toronto marathon 2 weeks before New York, Rodgers would encounter a brand new force in marathoning, his old teammate known as “The Rookie” on the Greater Boston Track Club- Alberto Salazar. A few miles into the race, Rodgers would be tripped up and fall and finish along with the rest of the field far away from Salazar, who ran his first marathon in an NYC record of 2:09:41, taking the NYC Crown, which he would hold for 3 years in a row.
Rodgers would never run that fast again in NYC, but it was always about the win for him.
“I still believe Winning counts more than the fast times manufactured by agents and shoe companies today.”
These days Pfeffer is still battling and fighting, although in a different arena…
“I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in January…Most every day is focused on rehab…I am fighting PD with diet and exercise… I feel like I am on the mend.
“Some say there isn’t a cure. I disagree. So, I lift weights and run on the treadmill six days a week. I eat a copious supply of fresh fruits and veggies every day.”
From Bill Rodgers-
“Parkinson’s is a tough Neurological disease, but I know Kirk is a great Competitor and will fight Parkinson’s just as another American Champion who was hit with this disease did – Muhammed Ali!
“My VERY best wishes to Kirk!”
Even today, Kirk Pfeffer and Bill Rodgers are still giving their ALL!
Bill Rodgers and his fans, photo by Jeff Benjamin