What's longer, a 26.2-mile footrace or 39 years? This might be a question for one Gary Muhrcke of Huntington shortly after noon on Sunday, when Muhrcke, winner of the first New York City Marathon in 1970, should be in the latter stages of taking another crack at the classic distance on the occasion of the race's 40th running.
"I'd like to run 3:30," Muhrcke admitted. "I'm not saying I will run 3:30 and I'm not sure I can run 3:30, but . . ."
That's an eight-minute-per-mile pace. It may be nearly an hour slower than when Muhrcke won the New York inaugural 39 years ago, in 2:31:38. But it would put him far ahead of most in Sunday's expected field of 40,000. And Muhrcke, after all, not only is 69 years old now but also was among the rare few who had a sort of owner's manual for negotiating such a challenge when this now-grand event debuted.
In 1970, the marathon was run on four-plus loops of Central Park. There were 127 entrants dealing with 85-degree weather, as the race was then run in mid-September. Only 55 finished. The entry fee was $1. "We were totally ignored by the people in the park," said Bill Newkirk, who finished 47th that day and will run his 10th New York Marathon on Sunday at 74. "Nobody knew what was going on."
It would be six years before marathon impresario Fred Lebow took the race into the five boroughs. The gaggle of competitors in 1970 knew all of their fellow participants in distance-running's tiny world - either by name or by face - and were considered, as the race's current board chairman George Hirsch put it, "to be aliens.
"No one cared about running except us," said Hirsch, himself a veteran marathoner at the time, though he didn't run the 1970 New York race. "And we cared a lot."
Muhrcke guessed that he already had run between 75 and 100 marathons before that first New York victory. A New York City firefighter at the time, he had worked the overnight shift before the race, but decided to run, anyway. Lebow, Newkirk said, had called every single entrant to beg their participation so that he could get this Manhattan event off the ground.
Muhrcke was pretty sure that the only people paying any attention were family members and the handful of officials, timekeepers and such. "I got a trophy and a watch," he said. "The trophy is broken; I have it at home. The watch, I don't know where it is."
It was six years later that Muhrcke, widely known in the suddenly expanding running community, hit on a business model of selling running shoes out of a van; he would show up at all the Metropolitan-area fun runs and races. That expanded into what is now an empire of nine Super Shoe running stores. His excuse for not having run New York City since 1999, in fact, has been that he was too busy selling shoes to the runners in town for the race.
"Forty-thousand," he said. "To me, that number isn't right, when you have 60,000 people watching a football game at so many different locations on the same day. I think everybody should run a marathon. What an amazing image, if everybody in this country ran a marathon in their lives."
He did note that that would require a lot of running shoes. And, just last year, he said he included the fact that he was the first New York City Marathon champion on his business card. "I figured, at my age, I did it; it's nothing to be ashamed of," he said.
If he runs 3:30 Sunday, he should put that on the card, too.