Thirty-fourth Street was busy with trim, expectant-looking individuals heading to the Javits Center Thursday — runners picking up their bib numbers for this Sunday’s New York City Marathon. Bob Falk and Tim Ryan were among them.
“I have to babysit at 4,” Falk said. Ryan had to get back to work soon. Both are 73, and it’s not their first time.
They are “streakers,” members of the 1,000-strong club of runners who have completed more than 15 New York City marathons. These guys aren’t new members — they have close to 50 marathons between them, not to mention ultramarathons.
Ryan bashfully says his PR, or personal record, was “only” 3:10, when he was younger. For context, that’s an impressive time which means running under 7:30 minutes a mile. Both have always been serious runners. Falk, whose decades-old PR was some 20 minutes quicker, wears shoes 1.5 sizes too big for him for 100-mile races. It accommodates the foot swell.
They and other streakers were on the scene long before running reached its current popularity; their first races happened when the marathon drew hundreds of locals. Now, nearly fifty thousand participants fly in from over 100 countries to make the New York City Marathon the largest in the world and one of the most anticipated days of the city’s year.
Marathons have changed
During the first marathon in 1970, 55 people finished the Central Park course. Winners got wristwatches and recycled trophies. It was a different era, when hard-core runners like Falk could run down Wall Street in shorts and people would “look like I was nuts,” he says. It wasn’t the norm — now recreational joggers are everywhere.
With a smaller population, competition was fierce and those who partook were very committed, the streakers say.
Falk in particular took it seriously.
As an adult, he says he would wake up at 4:30 in the morning for training runs. After bad races, he’d want to punch holes in the wall of his house. But many of his races were good.
A few years ago, he tore his meniscus while hiking — that and other leg injuries mean he is confined to walking. “It took me four years to come to terms with not being able to run,” he says.
Now he walks the marathon, clocking in around 7 hours. He still enjoys it, though it hurts when “some turkey says, ‘Keep it up, pal,’” along the route.
This year, he’s going to have to miss the race in order to attend a friend’s memorial service in Florida. But he’s picking up the number and t-shirt anyway. Ryan is nursing injuries but plans to run.
Breaking out of the crowd
The runners make their way into the giant convention center, its carpeted floors crawling with purple-shirted volunteers and fast-moving contestants, some in matching team uniforms, speaking different languages.
The two streakers say that the marathon is too crowded now — so crowded it’s impossible for lower-level runners to really race. And many don’t seem to want to. Ryan was surprised at the number of people stopping in front of him in recent years to take selfies or post updates.
With behavior like that, the streakers say the race has become more social than competitive. “Running, not racing,” says Falk. Still, they come back.
It could be that they’re in a different cohort of the marathon now, far behind the competitive class they used to parry. They have strong feelings about their placement — both are slotted for “wave four,” which is nice way of saying “the back.” It’s a slog within the crowd, hard to finish in full daylight if you’re on the slower side.
They think streakers like them should have a little priority — not right up front with the elites, but closer to it. They say they’re tough enough to get passed and not be run over.
As Falk answers questions from an admiring woman surprised at the number of marathons he’s run, Ryan goes to an information booth to ask about moving up a wave. He is unsuccessful.
Slightly subdued, he and Falk continue through the hall, past a DJ spinning techno, and racks and racks of merchandise.
Falk likes a few handheld massage devices, but says he’s done as well with lacrosse balls. “This race is purely a business,” he says as we pass a stall advertising a marathon travel agency.
“I’m just aiming not to embarrass myself,” says Ryan.
It’s true that their competitive days have passed, as they recede into the growing, excited pack. “It’s just a long run,” says Falk. “A pleasant afternoon. That’s what it is.”