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New York City: The Ultimate in Urban Ultrarunning | A Winter’s Trip to New York | PUR Interview: Ted Corbitt | Photos

New York City: The Ultimate in Urban Ultrarunning

by Don Allison

For most ultrarunners, New York City does not immediately come to mind when discussing venues for ultra distance running. Majestic mountain top views? Not here. Rugged, single track trails? Not many. Peaceful communing with nature? Forget about it. Upon further examination however, New York does indeed have a long history of ultrarunning. Some of the most prolific ultrarunners have come from the Big Apple, including the legendary Ted Corbitt, a man who has arguably has had more influence on the sport in America than anyone during past half century.

Of course, there have been and continue to be many ultras held in New York City. Central Park, a huge expanse of greenery, is the most logical place for long races in the city. Loop 50-km and 50-mile events are held in the park each year, including the Metropolitan 50 Mile and Kurt Stiener 50 Km, held this past February. The park was also the site of the IAU 100 Km USA Championship, in 1993.

Running a race in the park, especially on a mild sunny day, is unlike almost any other ultra. Even with an early morning start, Central Park races share the road with a steady stream of cyclists, walkers, roller bladers, and other runners. Ultras held in the park require runners to wear numbers on their backs as well as front. The reason for this becomes evident early on, when runners not in the race, some moving along at a very fast clip, become mixed in with those who are. Depending upon your point of view, it can be comforting or disconcerting to know that the runner who just flew by you is just out for a training run.

Training is always a challenge for an ultrarunner living in New York City. The reality of millions of people living on a relatively small island presents obstacles that those living on or near remote trails just don't face. Ellen McCurtin, a several time member of the USA national team, lives and trains in the heart of the metropolis known as New York City. She offers a glimpse of what it is like to be an ultrarunner in the city.

"There is a lot I could say about running in the city. I have been in New York for almost 14 years and I have been running about 100 miles (in the early 90s it was more like 120 or more at times) a week for about 12 of those years. There are both advantages and disadvantages to being an urban runner. On the minus side, there can be traffic (even when you have the right of way, drivers will just go for it to make one more light), too many people doing too many different things (bikers, bladers, people pushing baby joggers, power walkers, and dogs), pollution (especially in the summer when it is hot and humid), and noise (people lean on their horns before the light even turns green). All in all, just too much going on.

"Over the years, I have been jumped in Riverside Park (I got away), had 40-ounce beer bottles hurled at me (smashed at my feet, fortunately not my head), been chased by gangs of teenagers, seen naked guys masturbating in the bushes, had kids on BMX bikes throw handfuls of gravel at me, had an M-80 explode in front of me (during July 4 festivities in Central Park) seen someone shot, and seen a person jump out an apartment window. Sometimes, it can really drive me more than a little crazy.

"After that list, you might wonder what good things I could possible say about running in the city. I often wonder about it myself, but here goes. First, you can nearly always find a running partner, a nice thing, for both social and safety reasons. I've even heard stories about a group of runners who are out in Central Park at around 2:00 a.m. I do nearly all my morning runs with my friend Barbara and most of evening runs with other friends on different nights. This is fortunate or I would not have much of a social life. There is also a very active running club scene in New York for those who want that. There are several different clubs right here in the city. This means that you don't have travel far to get to group workouts. Also, there is a race nearly every weekend right in the park. Although the park is nice, I still try to get away whenever I can. Close by are the Palisades in New Jersey. There is a leafy and lovely unspoiled eight-mile long road that runs along the Hudson River. It's close enough to be convenient, but it feels nice and far from the city."

Dave Luljak, another of the USA's elite ultrarunners, has nothing but praise for the vistas offered up in city running. He talks of a few of his favorite runs: "One of my favorite races is the Joe Kleinerman 12 Hour Run, which is held in Crocheron Park, Queens during the summer. The course is a nearly one-mile loop that provides a great deal of variety. There are wooded sections and open areas, baseball games and tennis matches, and even a glimpse of the bay as you go by the scoring area. The only bad part is that in the afternoon when you're hot and tired an ice cream truck stops in a parking lot next to the course for hours. Could Leadville's Hope Pass or the hot canyons of Western States provide any more of a challenge than having to run by that truck?"

He adds, "One of my most memorable training routes, although I only did it three times, was to run along Route 25A from my house in Huntington, on Long Island's north shore, to New York City, a distance of about 35 miles. You'd start out on the rolling hills of Long Island's Gold Coast, passing horse farms and other trappings of the good life, then make your way through the congested suburbs of Nassau County, pass Shea Stadium and the site of the 1964 World's Fair, run through various ethnic neighborhoods in Queens to the warehouses and light industry of Long Island City until you finally traversed the 59th Street Bridge with its spectacular skyline view. One year I ran to Central Park in order to turn in my envelope for entry into the New York City Marathon, a classic example of ultrarunning chutzpah."

Not only are there ultrarunners in New York and places for them to run, there are also an array of ultras in the city for them to run. The driving force behind these events for the past two decades has been the Broadway Ultra Society and Rich Innamorato. In addition to BUS, the Prospect Park Track Club also stages events, but perhaps the most prolific group of all is the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team.

Sri Chinmoy, an Indian spiritual leader, came of New York in 1964. Viewing sports, especially running, as a vehicle for meditation and reaching one's highest potential, it was natural that the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team was formed. The group conducted its first ultra in 1978 and hundreds have followed since.

As most know, SCMT specializes in multi-day races on short closed loop courses. For many years, these multi-day races were held in Queens' Flushing Meadow Park, before the US tennis center took over the area. Now the races are held in Jamaica Estates in Queens or on Ward's Island off of Manhattan. As this issue of UR is reaching our readers, the Sri Chinmoy 3,100 Mile is in progress, a nearly two-month affair that defies description.

Trishul Cherns, a prolific multi-day runner on the Sri Chinmoy Team, says "Multi-day races are what we (SCMT) do best. We have the resources to manage events that last for days and weeks. With a closed loop course, we can manage the event perfectly. Our standards are very high; we have never had one compliant about one of our races." He adds, "We put on races that people can come to alone and be fully supported." Cherns has nothing but praise for BUS and Innamorato as well. "Without BUS there is no New York City ultrarunning. What he has done by himself is amazing. SCMT and BUS get along well and run in each other's races. We are one big, happy family."

What does Cherns think about being an ultrarunner in the city? "It's a great place to run," he says. "The streets are very safe to run on, aside from a few bad areas, such as parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem. We have nice measured courses in Queens to run on. It's a nice residential area. There are trails too, in the parks. You can do a 30-mile run in Forest Park or Van Cortland Park."

Given all of this, it becomes apparent that yes, ultrarunning is alive and thriving in America's biggest metropolis. While many ultrarunners aspire to international ultras, some of the big US 50-milers or the Western 100s, an ultrarunner's resume is not totally complete without a trip to the to New York City for a true urban ultrarunning experience.

A Winter’s Trip to New York
By Don Allison

Those who live in the Northeast and who choose to race in the month of February are well aware of the possible weather challenges with which they may be presented. One can hardly claim surprise if snow, ice, or extreme cold turns up on race day. Caveat Emptor is the order of the season.

Thus, the cold weather for the 2001 Kurt Steiner 50 Km and Metropolitan 50 Mile was hardly an impediment to racing, especially when compared with last year, when an ice and snowstorm caused much misery in the 50-km and the cancellation of the 50-mile. All of that was cold comfort however, to those of us huddled at the start of this year’s race, jumping up and down in order to create some heat to offset the sub 20-degree by temperatures, accompanied by a brisk arctic wind. Nonetheless, the usual complement of nearly 100 ultrarunners lined up for the start of the 50-km at 9:00 a.m., while a few dozen hardy 50-mile runners were already an hour into their respective races.

One benefit of the cold weather was the reduced number of other folks that normally populate the park on the a weekend morning: walkers, runners, rollerbladers, cyclists, birdwatchers, and late-night revelers left over from the previous evening’s partying in Manhattan. This being New York however, there were at least a few from each of those groups on hand. I was especially impressed by the number of cyclists that toured the Park. Anyone who has ridden a bike on a cold winter’s morning knows how quickly various body parts can freeze up. It made running seem toasty by comparison—well, almost.

The hilly four-mile loop in the southern end of the Park is long enough to remain fairly interesting, yet short enough to seem manageable. Having run this race before, my first goal was to get halfway through the race (four laps) feeling decent. Given a recent knee injury and lack of racing fitness, that was not as easy as it sounds. I found staying hydrated was a challenge, as drinking cold water was not very appealing and besides, most of the water was frozen in the cups at the aid stations.

Soon enough I was in the later stages of the race. USA 100-km team member Bob Sweeney had already lapped me once; I was hoping to get through my sixth lap before he completed his eighth and the race. Little goals can keep you motivated when the going gets tough. I did manage to do that and with a little bit of hustle in the final lap, break four and a half hours.

Sweeney ran an impressive 3:18:03 to win by more than 30 minutes. “This race was just a stepping stone for me” he said after the race, looking no worse for the wear. “I am aiming for the (U.S. Championship) 100 Km in Pittsburgh,” he added. Sweeney collected $100 for a course record, easily breaking the previous mark by more than three minutes, but leaving enough room for further improvement in the future. Ellen McCurtin captured the women’s 50-km title. “This (Central Park) was where I ran my first ultra, so I enjoy coming back here to run” said the veteran McCurtin, who since has won countless titles on this course.

Rudy Afendor won the 50-mile in 6:30:43, and the effort showed as he staggered into the Road Runners Club headquarters afterwards, during the 50-km awards ceremony. The 50-km runners who were witness to Rudy’s fatigue and hypothermia were all silently thanking themselves they had not signed on for the full 50 miles on this frigid day. Twenty-one did manage to complete the half-century however, and hat’s off too all of them—even if it does let out one’s body heat.

The distant views of the city on this crystal clear day were a well-deserved reward for all who ran in either of the two races, conducted superbly once again by Rich Inamorato and the Broadway Ultra Society. On the drive out of the city, the concrete canyons stretched seemingly for miles in the glistening late afternoon sun. East River Drive, The Bronx, Yankee Stadium, Yonkers, and Van Cortland Park all passed by as my traveling companion and I left the city behind. By the time we were back in Boston, it was nearly Monday and the deep freeze was setting in again. You can’t beat the feeling of having run an ultra in February.

UR Interview: Ted Corbitt

The terms “pioneer” and “legend” are thrown around too easily in this day and age, but if there is one man in the sport of ultrarunning who deserves those superlatives, it is Ted Corbitt. A quiet man by nature, Corbitt let his accomplishments do the talking, and they speak volumes. He earned a berth on the 1952 Olympic Marathon team and finished in the top ten in the Boston Marathon. In ultrarunning, Corbitt set standards that took others decades to match, including times of 13:33 for 100 miles and 5:35 for 50 miles after the age of 50. These performances were not the result of an abundance of natural talent. Corbitt was also a pioneer in high-mileage running, racking up 200-mile weeks and more at a time when even running 26.2 miles was considered bizarre behavior.

All that Ted Corbitt accomplished was done as a black man in a white man’s sport during America’s racially turbulent decades of the 1950s and 60s. Few know that Corbitt was the first president of the New York Road Runners Club. In addition to steering the NYRRC on course to what is now the biggest running organization in the world, he adopted the practice first used in England of wheel-measuring running courses for accuracy. For the thousands of races that have been accurately measured according to the USATF meticulous standards, you can thank Ted Corbitt. When the Road Runners Club of America was just getting started in the US, guess who they looked to for leadership? That’s right—Ted Corbitt. Ted was a charter inductee into the distance running Hall of Fame in 1998, a well deserved honor

Unfortunately, a bout with bronchial asthma in 1974 led the end of Ted Corbitt’s stellar running career. The ailment continued to plague Corbitt for more than next two decades, but he has seen marked improvement recently. Last month, at age 81, Corbitt returned to ultra competition, completing 240 miles in the Sri Chinmoy Six Day race. UR’s Don Allison recently talked with Ted, to get his thoughts on the six-day race and other topics.

UR: Why did you decide to try the six-day?

TC: I watched the race last year. That got me interesting in participating this year. I was apprehensive because of my limited training, but then I saw a lot of them (the participants) walking most of it, not running. That made me think I could do it too.

UR: How was your training leading up to the race?

TC: I planned to get in better shape than I actually did. My longest walk in training was 17 miles. I had hoped to do some 30-mile walks, but I encountered a problem with my feet. Two toes on each foot curled up in my shoes, making it painful to walk for a long time. Even wearing oversized shoes did not help.

UR: How has your overall health and fitness been in recent years? I know you have suffered from severe asthma for many years.

TC: The symptoms have lessened quite a bit. I have reduced the amount of medication I've been taking. One thing that has helped is a breathing class I have been taking with Dr. Ery Ferentz, a chiropractor who helps the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. I've also taken advice from an Iranian doctor, who suggested to drink water with a little salt.

I have done very little running, however. For some reason I can’t bring myself to run. I suppose that with the reduced asthma, there is no reason why I can’t, but I guess if I did run, or run too fast, I would be courting disaster. I have lingering issues with my Sacroiliac joint and with my knees, that would be aggravated by too much running.

UR: How long have you suffered from asthma?

TC: Since 1974, when I did my last running race. I always thought it was from the pollution in New York City, but I recently learned my grandmother died of asthma, as well as two aunts. The lived on a farm, so were not subject to pollution. That's three females in my family that died of asthma.

UR: Did the six-day go as well/better than you thought it would?

TC: My goal going in was 301 miles, 50 miles per day. I thought that was realistic. I was on schedule for the first three days. I made 150, the cut-off for three days. After that however, I could only manage 30 a day. I was disappointed with that, but not devastated. Maintaining my balance became a big problem. I'd be walking and go right off of road, especially at night, but even in the daytime too.

Another even bigger problem was that my posture collapsed. I was bent forward, and therefore looking directly down at the ground. That really hampered my progress. Dr. Ferentz helped me get straightened out, but before long I would be bent forward again. It took a lot energy to keep going, constantly correcting myself. Pure fatigue would not have stopped me, but the other problems did.

UR: What kind of schedule did you follow during the race?

TC: Based on a suggestion from Rich Inamorato, I walked for nine hours, then rested for three. That worked well. I have a real problem in the middle of the night, around 3:00 a.m. I call it the 3:00 a.m. blues. On days five and six, I took a lot of brief breaks. I would lie down on a cot. That helped the posture some. I'll say this: the posture problem took my mind of the fatigue!

UR: What was the most difficult aspect of the race?

TC: Just keeping going, especially when I realized I would not make 300 miles. But Rich Inamorato said I should focus on reaching 240 miles. That is 40 miles per day, and has a nice ring to it. It was close, but I made it with a few hours to spare. I did find it incredibly difficult to keep going, but surprisingly, I found that the fighting spirit was still there, after all these years.

UR:. What's is your take on today's ultra scene?

TC: I'm surprised there aren't more runners trying to run faster than they are. It's almost like the marathon. Why aren't more gems being produced, if all these people are out there training? I think it may be a case that different countries each have their day in the sun. I was in Finland in 1952 (for the Olympics) and developed a friendship with another physiotherapist with whom I have kept in touch. I asked her, why are not there more Finish superstars? At one time they dominated the world running scene. She said that they couldn't get them to train.

UR: How do you feel about the popularity of trail running nowadays?

TC: It's really popular. I suppose it meets a need. Recently I was trying to get in touch with Marcy Schwam, a real good road ultrarunner in the 70s, in order to promote her for the distance running hall of fame. I found out she had gotten into trail running, and she loves it.

UR: Did you ever try a trail ultra?

TC: No. I was supposed to go to one race down in Maryland, but could not do it because of a chronically sprained ankle. There was also the whole civil rights thing at that time. I would not have been a good candidate for trail ultras though, mainly because of the ankle.

UR: Do you think you would fare better in today's ultra environment? Do you feel you would be competitive with the USA's best?

TC: I think I'd be competitive yes, but winning? No.

UR: Do you ever look back and wonder how you achieved all you did in running? Do you feel you ran too much high mileage in your prime, or was it integral to your success?

TC: I made some mistakes. The biggest one was not resting enough before races. I always used to say that any time you do all of the training without getting injured, you cannot be overtrained. But I do also think I did not rest enough. There was some hidden fatigue there, which I either did not realize or I just ignored. I suffered from sleep depravation. At that time I was doing stuff for the NYRRC and the AAU standards committee, mostly developing standards for accurate course measurement.

I would come home from my job and running, then rest for ran hour or so. Then I'd stay up until 3:00 a.m. writing reports and working on projects. I'd sleep for about three hours, then get up to run and go to work. If I had it do over, I would do it all over again though. I feel the work I did for NYRRC and the AAU was far more important than any of my running accomplishments. I can't complain.

UR: What are some of your most memorable ultra performances?

TC: I'd have to say the London to Brigton races I competed in. I also ran a 100-mile race in England in 13:33. Then there was the 24-hour in England. It was miserable experience. I felt myself capable of 155 miles, but something wasn't right in training going into the race and it came back to bite me. I finished with 134.7 miles, but it was not a good race. I tried to get into top form every other year in my prime, not every year. I think that helped my performances.

UR: What was your training like back then?

TC: I ran a lot of mileage, but what saved me was that much of it was to and from work. In 1955, I moved from Brooklyn to Upper Manhattan, about 100 yards from the Bronx. I worked in Harlem, at the International Center for the Disabled, one of the oldest rehabilitation hospitals in the world. It was 11.6 miles from where I lived to work, but I would run all kinds of loops to get there, extending the distance.

Sometimes I'd run down into lower Manhattan. Occasionally, I'd make the run 30 miles by stopping en route and running 17 miles on the track. I left at 4:00 a.m. so I could get the run finished and to work by 9:00 a.m. Then I'd just have a quick shower and work a full day, on my feet for most of the day. I was born on a farm, so being on my feet with a lot of walking and running was nothing new to me.

UR: What advice would you give to an aspiring ultrarunner?

TC: I was an early advocate of weight training. I still am. I would start with a young runner by not having them running long distances. It's more important to improve speed and build strength. I'd suggest they spend time cycling, just getting stronger. Also do serious weight training for three or four months a year, then maintain it for the rest of the year. I would add flexibility training, help them survive the tightening of the hamstrings that comes with so much distance running. I'd suggest they become as good a runner as possible. Once you have that, then the endurance aspect will be easier.

For runners with goals that are not that ambitious, I'd say don't kill yourself. If you are in shape, you will suffer less. The fitter you are, the better off you'll be.

UR: How has you recovery been from the six-day?

TC: The recovery is good. I did some extra sleeping after the race. I have not done a training walk yet, just some short walks around the neighborhood. I'll be ready to walk again soon. I think I could run if I wanted to, but I am not sure I want to. It's easier to go out for a walk.

UR: What else are you doing these days?

TC: I am still doing some physical therapy, home care, a few hours per week. I retired from my job of 44 years at ICD in 1993. I am also studying computers, and plan to do some writing, a history of the NYRRC and on some subjects related to physiotherapy. I am still involved with NYRRC, as a member of the board of directors. I go to meetings.

UR: Do you have any plans for any more ultras?

TC: I am planning to go back next year and do the six-day again. Just one more year though. No more than that.

For a compete story on Ted Corbitt, readers should consult the biography by John Rhodes: Cor­bitt, The Story of Ted Corbitt, Long Distance Runner, 154 pp., paperback, published by Track and Field News.

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