Four laps and change around Central Park, a $1 entry fee, 55 finishers -- such was the inauspicious debut in 1970 of what would become the world's largest marathon.
Today, the New York City Marathon (to be held on Sun., Nov. 5) wends 26.2 miles through neighborhood enclaves and past famous landmarks in all five boroughs, attracting more than 35,000 participants and two million spectators. For the runners, certainly, the marathon marks the culmination of months of training and dedication, but aspiring spectators likewise shouldn't take on the race unprepared. Here's a guide for the big day:
Miles 1-2: Staten Island to Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn
The race begins at Staten Island's Fort Wadsworth, a military installation that closed in 1994, and sends runners streaming over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge northeast into Brooklyn. The start is staggered, with disabled athletes hitting the course at 8 a.m. and followed later by the wheelchair and handcycle divisions. Professional women begin at 9:35 a.m., and professional men, along with the tens of thousands in the full open field, are at 10:10 a.m.
Competitors cross the first mile marker at the midpoint of the Verrazano, the longest suspension bridge in the United States, then head down the other side toward Fort Hamilton on Brooklyn's southwest shore. This still-active Army post opened in 1825, and Abner Doubleday, once credited with inventing the game of baseball, served as commander during the early months of the Civil War.
Spectators aren't allowed at the starting line or along the bridge, so the early portion of the course is a relatively quiet one for the runners, but that changes fast as the course heads northward through Bay Ridge.
Miles 3-8: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to Fort Greene, Brooklyn
The runners, still blissfully energetic at this stage, begin settling into their rhythm over a five-mile straight shot up Brooklyn's boulevard-esque Fourth Avenue -- from 92nd Street to Flatbush Avenue. It's also one of the best segments for spectators, roomy and easily reachable, with the New York City subway's N/R line making stops approximately every 10 blocks along Fourth Avenue and as far south as 95th Street.
From the predominantly Irish and Italian neighborhood of Bay Ridge, where John Travolta did his strutting and shimmying in Saturday Night Fever, the course crosses the Gowanus Expressway at 65th Street and enters Sunset Park, home to large Hispanic and Asian communities. Picturesque Greenwood Cemetery, final resting place for Edward R. Murrow, Samuel Morse, powerful politicians and notorious gangsters, is just a block off the route between 36th and 24th Streets.
Pushing further north, the race passes through the more gentrified Park Slope, a haven for young professionals who streamed out of high-priced Manhattan in the 1990s in search of more affordable housing. As a result, high-rise condos and chain stores have sprouted up in place of the old-school brownstones and mom-and-pops.
For much of the Fourth Avenue segment, the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower in Fort Greene -- Brooklyn's tallest building -- looms in the distance, and the runners finally reach it at the eight-mile mark. The men's and women's courses, which had run separately along opposite sides of Fourth Avenue, also merge at this point, and with several subway lines serving the area, it's a prime location in terms of accessibility for spectators.
Miles 9-13: Clinton Hill, Brooklyn to Pulaski Bridge
The racers leave Fourth Avenue behind and begin zig-zagging toward Queens, heading northeast into Bedford-Stuyvesant on Lafayette Avenue and then making a turn onto winding Bedford Avenue. After the short trek through "Bed-Stuy" -- New York's largest African-American neighborhood -- the route crosses Flushing Avenue into Williamsburg, where a large community of Hassidic Jews embraces the language and dress of its religious tradition. Further north, the race also passes the utilitarian-looking Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Brooklyn with Manhattan's lower east side.
Continuing along Bedford Avenue, the runners reach Greenpoint, the northernmost and final neighborhood they'll visit in Brooklyn. The sizeable Polish population in the area prompted the nickname "Little Poland," and the Pulaski Bridge to Queens was named after Polish soldier and Revolutionary War commander Kazimierz Pulaski. The bridge itself spans Newtown Creek, connecting Greenpoint and Long Island City, and marks the halfway point of the marathon. The first male and female runners to cross it receive the Pulaski Bridge Award from the Polish embassy.
Miles 14-16: Long Island City, Queens to Queensboro Bridge
The calm before the storm ahead, industrial Long Island City serves as the launch pad that sends runners into Manhattan. With the sprawling midtown skyline visible across the East River, the route takes a series of turns over a short two miles before hitting the Queensboro Bridge. Solid vantage points are available for spectators along the 44th Drive straightaway, an area served by nearby subway stations at 23rd Street and Queens Plaza.
The most electric moment of the marathon prior to the finish comes on the Manhattan side of the Queensboro Bridge, when the competitors come off the ramp and are welcomed by the boisterous, cheering throngs that line First Avenue. Race veterans describe hearing the roar of the crowd from the bridge before even actually seeing the fans, then riding an adrenaline boost all the way up First Avenue. Bleachers are set up to handle the mobs at 59th Street, where the runners exit the bridge, but anywhere along First Avenue will be packed and energetic.
Miles 17-20: First Avenue, Manhattan to Willis Avenue Bridge
Through residential Yorkville, where the New York City mayor makes his home at Gracie Mansion, and on into Spanish Harlem, the race moves north on a long, packed straightaway up Manhattan's Upper East Side. The crowds along First Avenue -- estimated at nearly one million people -- tend to thin along the way, and with six miles still to go, many runners find themselves hitting the infamous wall on the half-mile uphill climb to the Willis Avenue Bridge and the Bronx.
Fans who want to set up shop in this segment can take Lexington Avenue's 4/5/6 subway line, which runs parallel to First Avenue and three blocks to the west. Even better, once the runners pass, it's a manageable walk over to Central Park to check out the marathon's home stretch.
Miles 21-24: South Bronx to Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx, the runners reach the city's fifth borough -- and one of its poorest neighborhoods. Mott Haven in the South Bronx is marked by old brick factories and abandoned apartment buildings as well as pleasant historic districts packed with brownstones and townhouses. Less than one mile of the marathon route snakes through here, making three quick turns and offering a clear view of Yankee Stadium before sending the runners over the Madison Avenue Bridge and back into Manhattan.
Six blocks west of their emotional dash up First Avenue, the racers make their way back south along Fifth Avenue through Harlem, wrap around Marcus Garvey Park at 124th Street and reach the northeast corner of Central Park at 110th Street. The crowds grow larger over the upper portion of "Museum Mile" on Fifth Avenue and larger still when the route finally merges into the park's East Drive at 90th Street.
Miles 25-26.2: Central Park
At long last, the closing stretch, though there's good news and bad news for the runners as they enter the world-famous urban oasis of Central Park. On one hand, the Holy Grail -- the finish line -- is finally near and again the fans are roaring; on the other, the Park Drives certainly don't lack for rolling hills, so these final miles will be agony on exhausted legs.
Heading south on the East Drive, the runners pass the Metropolitan Museum of Art on their way to the southeast corner of the park, where they exit onto 59th Street and traverse the width of the park to Columbus Circle. This stretch effectively offers the last quality viewing for casual spectators, as tickets are required for the prime seating at the finish line, and negotiating the mob scene there is an exercise in futility.
The runners re-enter Central Park at 59th Street and Central Park West, and from there it's just blocks (albeit some of them uphill) to a triumphant finish at Tavern on the Green. Finish line tickets are available for $65 at nycmarathon.org, and for fans who want to make a day of it, there's the finish line banquet for $200, which includes breakfast, lunch and an open bar.
Of course, it may be more convenient -- especially for the spectators who put in their time on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, First Avenue in Manhattan or any other makeshift viewing spot along the marathon route -- to simply catch the broadcast from the finish line. Unlike that small initial race around Central Park in 1970, this one is televised.