Runar: This is not your typical New York City Marathon story. Then again, my story is 40 years old


This is not your typical New York City Marathon story. Then again, my story is 40 years old.

And a new chapter is added every year. 

You see, I’ve run the New York City Marathon 40 consecutive times. 

My first time running the five boroughs was back in 1978. Things were much different then. As was the race.  

Back in ’78 I was doing track at that time in my home country of Norway and I certainly wasn’t an elite runner. But in Norway, everybody knows each other—or that’s how it felt.  

I remember talking to a great 5000-meter runner who’d been in the finals at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He knew I had run some marathons in Norway, and he said, “You should try New York City. It’s a fantastic race.” I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a chance to visit the U.S. for the first time.’ And that’s how it started. 

Forty years ago. 

The ’78 Race

On race day, I thought the field size was enormous, even if it was only around 9,000 people. That’s one-sixth of the field now.  

I was nervous, but I remember meeting a lot of my track friends a couple of hours before the start. One of them was Grete Waitz. She knew I had run a few marathons, and this was her first, so she asked me for some last-minute advice. We talked for at least a half-hour. Everybody walked past because they didn’t know her at that time. That would soon change as she ended up winning the race.  

I really liked the experience of running in ’78 and it wasn’t long before I started thinking about returning the following year. Part of the push was that I wasn’t very happy with my first race. I think I did 3:09.  

Looking back, I put it down to the fact that it was my first time in the U.S., and my first trip to New York City. I walked around so much the two days before the race that I woke up the night before with cramps in both legs. I had a bad race, so I decided, ‘I have to go back.’  

Reasons to Run

In those early years, I kept coming back for the race itself, until injuries hit.  

There were some difficult moments. I was training hard up until 1983. During that year’s New York City Marathon, my Achilles was bad, and it didn’t get any better after the race. At that time, Norway didn’t have private hospitals and the wait time for surgeries in public hospitals was long. Extremely long. I couldn’t get my Achilles surgery until September 1984, which left me with a cast on my foot. 

I removed the cast two or three weeks before the 1984 New York City Marathon. At that point, I couldn’t run, but I registered for the race. I traveled to New York with no plans to run. When I arrived, I said, ‘I’ll go to the expo and pick up my T-shirt and bib.’  

The first time I thought about running was during dinner on the Saturday night. I thought, ‘Maybe I should go to the start, see how it goes, and walk most of the way.’ I did. And I was able to finish.  

I was never the same after that surgery. I’ve had a total of nine Achilles surgeries, plus back surgery in 2015 and knee surgeries in 2016 and 2017. When people ask me if I’m going to run in 2019, I tell them, ‘I have done it with my bad knees the last couple years. If it doesn’t get any worse, I will do it.’  


Times Have Changed

Today, the race is about the experience and meeting all my friends and having fun. Thanks to the New York City Marathon, I’ve made friends all over the world and that’s the most important thing: all the friendships I’ve made. When I ran my 40th race in 2018, a bunch of friends at the mile 18 aid station surprised me with balloons. It was a big celebration all day. 

So many things make the New York City Marathon special. First, there’s the size: the number of runners, not to mention the spectators. I’ve never seen so many people watching on the sidelines as I did last year. It was amazing. 

Then there is the course. The final 300 yards in Central Park when you get close to the finish are very special.  

The New York City Marathon has grown so much throughout the years. The first year, we had to mail in our applications, and we got a letter back in the mail. There was no interaction with other runners. It’s so different now. I talk to marathon friends every day.  

In the early years, I didn't think about the New York City Marathon until weeks before the race. Now, I think about it every day.

It changed my life. 

By Runar Gundersen

For your chance to run the five boroughs, you can claim your guaranteed entry or enter the drawing through February 14.

Gary McLaughlin