New York City Marathon

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And this is The Score.

This Sunday marks the 35th running of the New York City Marathon. 1970 is listed as the year the race started, as a four-time circling of Central Park. That was before it moved to an expedition of sorts through the five boroughs of the city, with two million people from colorful neighborhoods such as the Hasidic Jews of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to the German strudel bakers of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, all crowding the sidewalks to cheer on the thousands who come from all over the world to run 26.2 miles in a race that, in many ways, has surpassed the famous Boston

Marathon in celebrity. Actually, way back at the turn of the 19th century, a construction worker ran, in his heavy boots laced all the way up to the knees, from Stamford, Connecticut, into Central Park in the city and, poetically if not technically, that was the first New York Marathon.

I've been a big fan of the race. Used to cover it as an announcer for ABC Sports in the '80's, back in the day when the great Norwegian champion Grete Waitz won an astounding nine times. One year my assignment was to make observations from a helicopter, following the leaders. Grete wore a pair of short white gloves that nippy day and she struck the visual image of a mechanical toy soldier, clicking those gloves up and down, up and down, in metronome-perfect cadence for two and a half hours.

I was there the day a surprise unknown woman named Rosie Ruiz won. Standing next to the men's champion, Bill Rodgers, waiting for them to receive their winners' accolades, Bill remarked to me that he not only had never heard of this Rosie Ruiz but that her legs just didn't look the part of a world-class marathoner. We all found out subsequently that she had actually ridden the subway to cover a good deal of the course. That's when they instituted the policy of imprinting an electronic bar code on each runner's number bib that would be read by screening devices all along the course.

There are dozens of inspiring stories of grit and personality that have come out of the NYC Marathon over the years. But by far my favorite is the tale of African talent Tegla Loroupe. Tegla is a typical Kenyan. She grew up running twelve miles to school every morning. At 7,000 feet. And barefoot. Then of course twelve miles home again in the afternoon. She came from a tribe where women were not allowed to do much or even know much beyond their tribal duties. The boys wore cotton shorts, the girls long cotton skirts. At age eleven, Tegla took a pair of one of her brothers' shorts one day and, finally free, ran like the wind to school. She ran faster than all the boys, even the older ones. When the tribal chief heard about her impudence, he beat her badly across the back of the legs with a tree branch and promised her worse would happen if she ever did that again. As soon as her wounds healed, she put on her brothers shorts again and again ran like the wind to school. The chief looked deep into Tegla's eyes that night and said, &quotSo;, it seems your will is too strong. I cannot stop you from running."

Tegla became the first girl of her tribe to make it to Nairobi. The faster she ran, the farther she traveled. Europe. Japan. And, in 1994, to the New York City Marathon. When she won, she was given a sizeable cash prize and a brand new Mercedes sedan. She had never driven a car before. She was polite and smiled graciously for the official photos. But when she returned to Africa, the chief gave her five cattle and sixteen sheep, the first time a woman from her tribe had ever owned her own cattle. Tegla wept at the honor.

They say the marathon is a journey. And, conversely, Tegla Laroupe's journey was indeed a marathon.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that's The Score.



Diana Nyad