I Watched It: the 1981 NYC Marathon

Note: This is the first in a series of several posts about some old school NYC Marathons (and perhaps other races?). There probably will be nothing all that surprising here if you’ve already seen or participated in these races, but if you haven’t and are curious to know what they were like, then I hope you find this interesting.

I had originally intended to publish it as one long post before the 2018 NYC Marathon but couldn’t get it done in time. So it languished in my drafts until recently when I’ve had more time to finish it. Thank you, unemployment!

I’ve decided to break them up into smaller posts, one for each year’s race I watched. Otherwise, this would be ridiculously long and you would grow very tired of reading it. You might already be tired of reading this. If not, please continue.

While training for NYC last summer, I decided to watch a NYC marathon on YouTube so I could see what the course was like. The race I watched wasn’t from 2017; to my dismay, I still can’t find the full video of that race anywhere. I think the one I watched was from 2016. I played it while doing a strength training workout, the workout on mute and the race with sound. I liked this setup. From then on, almost every time I did an indoor workout I played marathon footage in lieu of music. I wouldn’t always get through a full race in one workout so I watched them in chunks, sometimes continuing as I got ready for work.


I watched marathons from NYC, London, Paris, Chicago, Ottawa, and a couple of US Olympic Trials. It was fun. I got a sense of what each course was like and loved watching all the strategies the elite runners used. I like to think that watching their running form over and over was rubbing off on me – if anything, forcing me to pay better attention to my own.

One day I clicked on a really old race. I thought it would be fun to watch a bit. It was from 1981 – the first NYC Marathon broadcast on television. I found this to be a fascinating glimpse into not only where the sport was 38 years ago but what the city was like at the time, as well as a reminder of how far technology has come since the decade of Max Headroom and KITT. The course hasn’t changed, but so much else has. I watched the whole thing and became obsessed with watching more. I couldn’t find every year’s race online, but I managed to find each NYC marathon between 1981 and 1986 – all full races with commentary. One even had all the unedited commercials, which was glorious. I watched it all.

I started taking notes while watching and thought I would compile my observations and thoughts into a series of blog posts because what the hell else am I doing with my life at this point?

For perspective, here are some stats from 2017’s race (all stats in this post are from NYRR). Note that the winners’ finishing times haven’t changed all that much in three decades – but the difference in total number of participants, average finishing times, and ratio of women to men between now and then is striking.

  • Date: November 5, 2017
  • Number of finishers: 50,761 (Men 29,677 / Women 21,084)
  • Winners: Geoffrey Kamworor (2:10:53), Shalane Flanagan (2:26:53)
  • Average finishing time: Men 4:25:14 / Women 4:53:02
  • Weather: mid 50s ºF, 81-90% humidity

(The men’s and women’s wheelchair races were not official until 2000, so there are no stats on those from the 80s races.)




NYRR Overview | YouTube Footage


  • Date: October 25, 1981
  • Number of finishers: 13,205 (Men 11,449 / Women 1,756)
  • Winners: Alberto Salazar (2:08:13), Allison Roe (2:25:29)
  • Average finishing time: Men 3:41:20 / Women 4:10:55
  • Weather: 50 ºF


  • First NYC Marathon to be broadcast on television.
  • ABC news anchors: Jim McKay, distance runner Marty Liquori, runner & swimmer Diana Nyad. Reporters on field: Jim Lampley, Craig Virgin. (Extra noteworthy: In 2013 at the age of 64, Diana Nyad made headlines when she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark tank.)

1981 anchor desk

  • Alberto Salazar, 23, had won this race the year before in what was his debut marathon. He was intent on not only winning again but setting a world record. (His finish was in fact a “world’s best,” but this was later rescinded by The Athletics Congress due to the course being deemed to be short 150 meters.)
  • After winning three years in a row between 1978 and 1980, Grete Waitz dropped out of this race after crossing the Queensboro Bridge. She’d had trouble from the start with shin splints. Nyad reported that only two days earlier, Waitz was in so much pain she could barely walk. (She would come back to win the race six more times.)
  • New Zealand’s Allison Roe, 25, had won the Boston Marathon just six months earlier. She not only won NYC this year as well, but set a course record that Waitz never bested in her astounding nine wins. (I was reminded again and again in the other race viewings that Waitz never cared about her time, only winning.) Roe’s finish time had a similar fate as Salazar’s: it was considered a world’s best but was later rescinded.
  • Anchor Jim McKay reminded the audience that there were no “official world records” in the marathon because of the “varying nature of courses around the world.”


  • Four-time NYC Marathon winner (1976-1979) Bill Rodgers dropped out of the race the night before because his sponsor wanted him to wear its logo on the front and the back of his shorts and Rodgers thought wearing the logo on his butt was a ridiculous request so he refused to run at all.
  • Early in the race, Ireland’s Louis Kenny was in the lead for a while, spending several miles at a 4:45 pace. A reporter called this a “suicidal pace” and wondered what was going on inside Kenny’s head. Unable to maintain this pace, Kenny eventually dropped back before the runners exited Brooklyn.

1981 kenny in lead

  • A filmed segment with Alberto Salazar tells the story of his father moving the family from Cuba to the U.S. to escape Castro’s rule (Castro wouldn’t allow his father to build a chapel). Salazar was running 100 miles a week in addition to weight training in preparation for the race. Anchor: “He once went all the way to Kenya for high altitude training!” Which of course is now commonplace for elite runners.
  • The anchors couldn’t believe Salazar’s 4:33 mile on 1st Avenue, calling it “unnecessary” and so fast he “may pay for it later.” After running alongside Mexico’s Jose Gomez part way up 1st, Salazar broke away and ran solo for the remainder of the race.
  • Many of the shots, especially in the beginning, are via helicopter. The cameras on the course vehicles (26 total, they said) were usually very shaky. Clearly, this was before the invention of the “steady cam.”
  • It’s fun to hear Jim McKay absolutely marvel at the shots of the city via helicopter. “You’re looking at New York City in a way no man has ever seen it before!”
  • A reporter spoke in wonder about “computer printouts” that predicted the finishing times of the runners. Imagine that. Computers predicting things!
  • It was cool to be reminded that this was a time when people did not walk around with cameras and video cameras in their pockets. In fact, people were legitimately excited to see a camera. What a completely different world.
  • Since everyone – men, women, all the professional runners – started together, the men’s race got most of the attention since they were out in front. The women’s race did get mentioned, but usually seemed like an afterthought. An anchor even noted that the lead women had to weave their way in and out of the slower men. (It would be decades – not until the 2002 race – before the elite women got their start earlier than everyone else.)
  • The men’s race generally wasn’t called “the men’s race” on the broadcast – it was just “the race.” There was the “race” and the “women’s competition.” The “runners” and the “women runners.” Sometimes they would refer to the “men’s leader” but other times simply “leader” described the lead man. Perhaps not much to bat an eye at then, but it would be shocking to see this now.
  • Speaking of sexism (I realize that’s just the way it was back then, but I think the label is fair), McKay at one point responds to a reporter’s comment about lead runner Allison Roe and the pack of male runners she has running around her. McKay says, and this quote is 100% real, “Well, she’s a very attractive young woman. I’m sure she often has a pack of men around her.” [insert your favorite wide-eyed emoji here]
  • All that said, although Diana Nyad was usually the anchor to talk about the women’s race, she sometimes commented on the men and the male anchors would report on the women’s race, which was a nice give and take.
  • There was virtually no crowd control. The ubiquitous blue barriers we see today were present in some spots but not everywhere. In some parts, spectators (especially kids) were spilling onto the road all over the place.

1981 crowded street

  • Here is Julie Shea, who at the moment was in first place running through what looks like an absolute nightmare.
  • Shea even tripped over a spectator crossing the road at one point. Mother of God.
  • The lead men and women had police on motorcycles accompanying them, and at one point a cop practically had to kick a kid out of the way. So different from the volunteers doing crowd control and police barriers in place for today’s race (although I don’t believe the barriers line the entire course).

1981 kick

  • There was a lot of talk about the controversy of awarding the top runners prize money. NYRR President Fred Lebow was questioned about prize money in a B-roll interview, and his answer was evasive. The reporter mentioned the “holes” in his answer, and Lebow replied even more evasively, “Well, it’s the hole in the donut.”
  • The anchors continued to speak about the topic of “money passing hands.” So interesting to hear discussion like this today when road race prize money is both commonplace and expected. (Because the race was technically an amateur event, the rules set by the International Amateur Athletic Federation stated that athletes could not accept prize money. However, as with many other races then, it was done under the table and usually not discussed publicly.)
  • When cameras landed on the South Bronx, anchor Jim McKay called the neighborhood “a very difficult area of the city and of our country.” It would be strange to hear this said today (perhaps even rude), but at the time, crime in NYC was much worse than it is today and I guess this was his way of somewhat clumsily acknowledging this.
  • Amputee athlete Richard “Dick” Traum walked the entire race and received some footage by the broadcast. It was cool to see participants other than the top contenders acknowledged. Traum was the first known amputee athlete to complete a marathon when he finished the NYC Marathon in 1976. (In 1983, Traum created the Achilles Track Club, later known as Achilles International. Today, at 78, he is still as inspiring as ever.)
  • Here’s a really cool photo of Traum I found courtesy of Achilles International. It’s from the 1976 NYC Marathon and signed by Bill Rodgers who would go on to win the race. It reads “Richard, You’ve got a slight edge on me in this photo; however we both had good runs at New York. Good luck, Bill Rodgers.”


(By the way can anyone tell what part of the course this is? I am drawing a blank!)

  • After Alberto Salazar crossed the finish, he looked ready to collapse. When asked if he would compete in the 1984 Olympics, Salazar said “possibly the 10K paired with the marathon.” (He did in fact run for the 1984 Olympic Marathon team but finished in 15th place.)

1981 salazar finish

  • When asked at the finish if her ambition had been to run the fastest time ever by a woman, a not-as-exhausted-looking Allison Roe said “My ambition was to run and to win… whether it was the world record or 2:30.” A hamstring injury would derail her 1984 Olympic hopes but she remained active throughout her life, and in 2017 at the age of 60 won a gold medal in mountain biking at the World Masters Games.

1981 allison finish

  • While watching this race, I kept hearing a song in my head with “Allison Roe” being sung over and over. Was it Elvis Costello? Were the lyrics actually “Allison Roe?” Was there a song about her? After some quick Googling I realized what was in my head was “Allison Road” by The Gin Blossoms. Ah, right. I was more of a Tori Amos/Sarah McLachlan/Alanis Morissette fan in the 90s so I had forgotten about this song. And I guess I’d initially thought it was Elvis Costello because he has a song called “Alison.” Anyway, now I have both songs stuck in my head simultaneously. Thanks brain!

There is much more to this race than this little (or not!) blog post, but I will end it there. It really was fascinating to watch. Stay tuned for the next races in this series that I guess I am calling “I Watched It.” And thank you to everyone who uploads old race footage to YouTube. I don’t know where you find it or how you get it or even how one converts VHS tapes to digital uploads, but thank you.

Next up: the 1982 NYC Marathon.

4 thoughts on “I Watched It: the 1981 NYC Marathon

    1. It’s so insane!! A combination of lack of crowd control AND spectators/kids being SO excited for this “weird, new” kind of race they need to literally be ON the course.


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