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Bill Rodgers stood at the start of Sunday's New York City Marathon without his gloves. "Won't need 'em today," he said ruefully, trying to catch a glimpse of Manhattan through a thick, unseasonably warm haze. It was 61�, well above Rodgers' beloved chill. "I am freaked out over this weather," he said. "Today I think it's going to be Garry's race."
Garry Bjorklund, the Olympic 10,000-meter finalist from Minneapolis who had battled Rodgers for 20 miles last year before succumbing to stomach cramps, stared across at Rodgers. "I don't concern myself with anyone but him," Bjorklund said.
Others were more expansive. "There simply is no finer place in the world to start a race," said Great Britain's Chris Stewart, third in both 1976 and 1977. "It's not merely scenic, it's functional." Indeed, after the starting gun, the broad delta of 28 lanes leading away from the Staten Island toll plaza gathered in the 10,000 runners of this largest marathon in history and sent them up the western slope of the Verrazano Bridge, which links Staten Island and Brooklyn, without mishap.
In the two previous years that the New York marathon had passed through the city's five boroughs (from 1970 to 1975 it clung to the safe confines of Central Park), the race was permitted only the right three lanes of the Verrazano, the world's largest suspension bridge. This year the runners were given the bridge's entire upper level, and experienced male marathoners were assigned the right half. New Zealand's Kevin Ryan led a quickly unraveling knot of contenders, Rodgers and Bjorklund among them. To their left were the women and novices. Separated by a steel wall, they would not join until the 2�-mile point, where it was hoped the fields would be scattered enough for the women to blend in without damage to their pace. In previous mass races, women have faced the frustrating choice either of starting to the rear of the pack—thus sacrificing a minute or two in the bouncing, dancing shuffle to the starting line itself—or beginning in the front ranks and having to sprint to escape being trampled. Last year defending champion Miki Gorman, an 88-pound butterfly, was jostled into a frantic early pace, tired, and was well off her course record of 2:39:11. This year the 1,100 women entrants (up from the 88 of two years ago), who were contesting their national AAU championship as well, calmly established their own rhythms and sailed into Brooklyn in high spirits.
Marty Cooksey of Orange, Calif., the Avon International Champion, moved ahead. Confident and extraordinarily fit, she hoped to approach 2:30, a time that would shatter the 2:34:48 world record of West Germany's Christa Vahlensieck. Vahlensieck herself lurked behind, as did Norway's Grete Waitz, the World Cup 3,000-meter champion trying her first marathon. Waitz's only expectation was to finish. "I've never run more than 20 kilometers," she said. "I came because I wanted to see New York."
As the two rivers of runners flowed off the bridge and joined, the vibration was palpable. The impression was of a medium-sized town up and on the move, affirming the view that distance running may be a mark of our entire species, not just of a few members. The rumbling footfalls conveyed as well a sense of the enormity of the organizers' responsibilities once such a mass is set in motion. Some 4,600 of these men and women were attempting their first marathon. Race Director Fred Lebow of the New York Road Runners Club had constantly urged entrants not to run if they had any doubt they would finish. "In 1967 when I started running," said Lebow, "there was no one to tell me what to do, no book to read. Now you can smother in literature, go deaf at running clinics. There is no excuse for a runner not to be informed and prepared. Even so, three of our entrants died between signing up in July and the race. The law of averages tells you some more are capable of it today." In reaction, Lebow boosted the number of medical attendants from 100 to 300, placing them in 20 areas, while 21 water stations would dispense more than 250,000 paper cups of liquid.
Now Lebow, riding in a pace car ahead of the leaders, realized that 250,000 cups wouldn't be enough. He began calling to the crowds along Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn to bring more water. Few moved, for to the spectators 61� hardly seemed hot. It seemed perfect. The day thus was a test of runners' wisdom.
"I was feeling good," said Ian Thompson of England, the fastest man in the race with his 2:09:12 run in 1974. So Thompson burst ahead before five miles, leading Ryan, Rodgers and Bjorklund. As they ran through whirlwinds of dry leaves blown up by helicopter prop-wash, Rodgers felt uneasy. "I was bummed out," he said. "The road seemed rougher and more uneven, the crowds bigger than last year. And Garry was right beside me. I began to get this sense of a duel developing—at six miles! That's suicide. I wanted to tell him to be calm, to save his competitiveness, but of course I couldn't do that."
The Hispanic and Italian crowds in the Gowanus area beat at them with cheers. It seemed as if every third man held a squealing child overhead. "New Yorkers are quick to applaud people they see overcoming adversity," said a spectator, "even if they've brought it all on themselves."
That may explain why for months Lebow has been accosted about a dozen times a day by healthy, beaming people of assorted race and sex who exclaimed, "You're the person who's brought this city together again."