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Marathoners Finish at Record Rate as New York Cheers ‘Everyman’

Marathoners Finish at Record Rate
Last year’s 99.5 percent completion rate was the best in the 41-year history of the New York City marathon. Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Mary Darling is running the New York City Marathon this year with the goal of not repeating one of the rarest feats in the 26.2-mile race -- failing to finish.

Darling, an experienced marathoner who is studying at New York University to become a social worker, was one of a record 45,350 people who started the 2010 race through the city’s five boroughs. With about eight miles to go, her left hamstring gave way, making her one of 247 who never crossed the finish line.

A field of 46,000 to 47,000 is expected by organizers for the Nov. 6 race that’s considered to be among the world’s toughest, and one that organizers say has a high finish rate because contestants run to challenge themselves, honor others, fulfill lifelong dreams and win. Darling said it’s going to take much more than a bad hamstring to keep her from completing the course.

“I may have to have blood coming out of my eyeballs,” Darling, 45, said in a telephone interview.

Last year’s 99.5 percent completion rate was the best in the 41-year history of the marathon. The inaugural race in 1970 had 55 of 127 runners finish the race, or 43 percent.

The rates for this year’s other major marathons were 98.3 percent for London, 98.2 percent for Boston, 96.5 percent for Berlin and 94.8 percent for Chicago. Philadelphia had a 99 percent finish in November 2010.

Elite Runners

Elite runners often pull out of marathons when feeling at less than top fitness, preserving themselves to compete again sooner. Former world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, Viktor Rothlin of Switzerland and Ana Dulce Felix of Portugal were among top runners who walked off the New York course last year.

About 60 percent of the 2010 field were first-time marathoners, according to the New York Road Runners, which organizes the race. More than 27,000 likely had never run farther than 20 miles while training and were testing the limits of their ability and willpower for the first time.

“It is not easy to run a marathon,” Mary Wittenberg, NYRR’s 49-year-old chief executive officer, said in an interview. “It is near impossible to drop out of the ING New York City Marathon.”

The difficulty of getting into a race that had 146,000 applicants last year keeps runners motivated to finish, Wittenberg said. Half the field is international, many qualify by running nine NYRR races the previous year and 7,400 did charity work to gain entry. The Road Runners call the race “Everyman’s Mount Everest.”

Crowd Support

Add the support that New York fans bring to the day, often lining the streets five deep, and it makes the difference, Wittenberg said. William Wiener, a sports psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, agrees.

“It might take people’s minds off their own pain and suffering,” Wiener said in a telephone interview. “Distraction is not a bad technique when it comes to marathon running.”

Wittenberg’s busy pre-race schedule played a role in one marathon dropout -- her husband’s.

Derek Wittenberg, co-founder of New York-based boutique investment-banking firm Ion Partners LLC, said he made “all the rookie mistakes” while preparing for the 2004 race after setting a goal to run a marathon by age 40.

He trained alone, occasionally taking shortcuts. He wore long sleeves when it turned out to be 65 degrees (18.3 degrees Celsius). His sick child threw up on him hours before the race.

Rough Night

“I said, ‘Well, that’s not exactly what you’re hoping for the night before a marathon,’” said Derek Wittenberg, who struggled with stomach pain while coming off the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan at Mile 16, a spot known for boisterous crowds.

“You’re running up First Avenue and there’s this lift in your step, but it only took me so far before my hamstring tightened up,” he said.

Blaming his rational demeanor for the decision, he walked off the course at 96th Street, later breaking down when he called his wife with the news.

“I felt so badly,” Mary Wittenberg said. “It was one of the moments that made me realize the significance of this. It’s something so much more than a race. I was thinking of 10 things I could have done differently -- like maybe coaching him more.”

Derek Wittenberg made plans that day to sign up for the London Marathon, which he finished. The 46-year-old says he’ll try New York again before he’s 50.

Darling said she left the silence of the bridge and hit First Avenue feeling “like a gladiator,” out to break three hours for the first time.

‘It Was Weird’

She then “felt a click in the belly of my hamstring” at around Mile 18. She stopped and started several times, passing Mile 20 before deciding she was damaging her leg.

“I couldn’t leave the course,” she said. “It was weird. It was like a force field.”

She finally abandoned the race in Harlem, in tears. Two young women consoled Darling and gave her $20 to take a cab to her Upper East Side townhouse, where her two children waited with celebratory signs -- and were about to get bad news.

“You would think I was in the Olympics,” Darling said. “I couldn’t shake it for a while.”

NYRR unveiled a poetic manifesto this week that lists 38 reasons people run. Included are “Run for a cause. Run just because. Run because endorphins are better than Botox.”

Many are the same reasons people who commit to marathon running see it through to the end, Wittenberg said.

“It would be nirvana if every single solitary person finished,” she said. “But we’re pretty darn close.”

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