How the NYC Marathon Works

By: Josh Briggs
NYC Marathon runners
Debra L. Rothenberg/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Runners stream across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to start the 34th annual ING New York City Marathon in 2003.

In 1896, one of the events included in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens was a distance race from Marathon Bridge to Olympic stadium in Athens covering 24.6 miles (39.6 kilometers). In 1908, 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) were added to this race at the Olympics in London to enable the royal family to view the finish from its box at Wembley Stadium. The modern marathon was born.

Marathon running is one of the most grueling tests of human endurance. At 26.2 miles, a marathon is equivalent to running around a 400-meter running track more than 104 times. But marathons are run through street courses and are anything but flat.

The New York City Marathon is the largest marathon in the world. More than 37,000 people (it's capped at 38,000) took part in the race in 2009. It's also one of the five World Marathon Majors -- the other four being the Boston, Berlin, London and Chicago marathons. When the World Championships and Olympics take place every four years, they're added as well.

Up Next
  • How a Marathon Works
  • How the Boston Marathon Works
  • How the Chicago Marathon Works
  • How to Train for Your First Marathon
  • What are the toughest marathons in the world?

The race is put on by the New York Road Runners (NYRR) -- a group of more than 300,000 dedicated runners -- and in recent years the event has been sponsored by ING. The first race, held in 1970, had 127 entrants out of which only 55 crossed the finish line. Over the years, the course has changed and the number of participants has grown exponentially. So has its popularity.

The NYC Marathon isn't just for elite runners either. Many participants are handicap athletes participating in wheelchairs or on handcycles (high-tech, hand-driven tricycles). Others simply walk it.

But before you can run the NYC Marathon, you have to get in. That's easier said than done, as you'll soon learn. So let's begin with learning how to get into the race in the next section.


New York City Marathon Entry

Winning the NYC Marathon is often the defining moment of a distance runner's life. Perhaps that's why it's so tough to gain entry. As many as 90,000 applicants apply for a spot in the race each year. With only 38,000 spots, not everyone gets in.

The lottery application gives anyone over the age of 18 (by race day) a chance to run the race. Applicants must submit their application before the deadline (in 2010 it was March 15). From there, NYRR draws entrants at random.

If you don't want to leave your NYC Marathon fate to chance, you can opt for one of several guaranteed entry options. As of 2010, applicants who fell into one of several groups were granted entry. The criteria are outlined as followed:

  • NYRR members chartered on or before Jan. 31, 2009, who completed at least nine NYRR-scored qualifying races and have volunteered for one event during the past calendar year or donated $1,000 to a NYRR-supported charity
  • Entered runners who canceled prior to the 2009 NYC Marathon
  • Veteran participants of at least 15 NYC Marathons
  • Applicants who were denied entry the previous three years and did not gain entry through any other method [source: ING NYC Marathon]

The following chart details the times you need to shoot for in qualifying races. It's also important to note these times must be verified by the NYRR:

Open (Age 18-39)


Masters (40+)



















Veterans (50+)


Veterans (60+)
















Veterans (70+)











[source: ING NYC Marathon]

Raising money for a prescribed charity offers runners an additional opportunity to be admitted to the NYC Marathon. Those charities are outlined each year in advance.

Foreign athletes can also gain guaranteed entry by going through an official international travel partner. Handcyclists are not allowed entry through this method though.

Fees are the same for both lottery and guaranteed applicants. For the 2010 race, everyone applying paid $11 for processing and one of three entry fees. U.S. residents paid $185 while NYRR members received a discount and paid $149. Non-U.S. residents paid $265 [source: ING NYC Marathon].

Once you've secured a spot in the NYC Marathon, it's a good idea to learn the course. As you'll see in the next section, it's one of the most unique of all marathons.


NYC Marathon Route

NYC Marathon participants in Brooklyn
M. David Leeds/Getty Images
Marathon participants make their way through the Williamsburg part of Brooklyn in the 2003 ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 2, 2003.

So much of the allure to the NYC Marathon is its route. It's run through one of the largest and arguably most popular cities in the world. In fact, the course is a tour through the city's different cultures as it winds through the city's five boroughs.

But the course isn't just unique. It's also tough. It's considered a slow, albeit technically challenging course due to the hills and bridges. When the race began in 1970, runners had to complete four laps and some change around Central Park to finish the course. Since 1976 though, that course has wound through the streets of Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan [source: ING NYC Marathon]. In order to weave its way through the five boroughs, the course incorporates five bridges. It's on these uphill bridges where runners often struggle. Let's take a look at the course route.

The race begins in Staten Island and immediately tackles the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge before entering Brooklyn. From mile two through eight, the course flattens out. Over the next few miles, the course weaves through Brooklyn before coming to the Pulaski Bridge. Another climb completes mile 13 and the course enters Queens. This section is tough, as it's mostly uphill. The route stays in Queens for a mere 3 miles and culminates with an uphill grind over the Queensboro Bridge. Once on the other side, the course hits Manhattan. This is where the crowd is the largest and runners creep up on hitting the wall (at about the 20-mile -- 32.2-kilometer -- mark). A tough section up the Wills Avenue Bridge takes runners into the Bronx for about a mile before a return trip into Manhattan via the Madison Avenue Bridge sets up the finish. The rest of the route travels through the streets of Manhattan before culminating in Central Park at Columbus Circle.

Don't worry about running out of gas during the race. Beverage stations can be found all along the route. Beginning at mile three and set at each mile thereafter, more than 1.6 million cups filled with special Gatorade heavy in potassium and sodium is available to runners. Runners can also snag an energy gel from the food station at mile 18. Both the food and beverage stations are secured from outside influence.

Perhaps nothing helps an athlete push through to the end of an extreme exercise regimen more than music. That's why more than 100 live bands show up to play along the route. Spread out at regular intervals, bands play music as motivation, and a special stage near the finish line at Columbus Circle serves the same purpose for runners nearing the end.

For runners who are injured or who have hit the wall during the race and need medical attention, several medical stations adorn the course beginning at mile three. These medical stations are spaced roughly a mile apart thereafter.

While everyone sets out with the same goal -- to finish the race -- not everyone will. Therefore sweep buses follow the pack along the route at roughly a 15-minute mile pace. These buses are intended to pick up participants who are either injured or drop out of the race.

That's the nuts and bolts of the course. Now let's take a look at how the race has gone over the years in the final section.


NYC Marathon Results

Paula Radcliffe
AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File
Paula Radcliffe leads a pack of elite women across the Verrazano-Narrows bridge in 2008. She has won the race three times.

Winning the NYC Marathon brings with it fame. It also banks some serious coin. The purse in 2010 topped $800,000 with the winner of the men's and women's open division taking home $130,000 ($200,000 if he or she is a previous winner) [source: ING NYC Marathon].

Prize money is distributed through the various divisions for different places. For instance, the top 10 finishers in the men's and women's open division get paid. Here's how it breaks down:

Open Division

 Prize Money
 First $130,000
 Second $65,000
 Third $40,000
 Fourth $25,000
 Fifth $15,000
 Sixth $10,000
 Seventh $7,000
 Eighth $5,000
 Ninth $2,000
 Tenth $1,000
 Total $600,000

[source: ING NYC Marathon]

In addition to a nice payout, the top three men and women in the open division as well as the first place male and female finishers in the wheelchair division, take home the prestigious Samuel Rudin Trophy presented by the Rudin family and a silver tray designed by Tiffany & Co. Other top finishers receive awards, too.

Runners may receive time bonuses as well. A sub-2:07:30 time will net the men an additional $70,000, while for women, a sub-2:22:00 time garners the same bonus. Time bonus money is paid out in declining increments all the way down to $5,000 (2:11:30 for men and 2:29:00 for women) [source: ING NYC Marathon].

Norway's Grete Waitz won nine races from 1978-1988 and remains the most decorated runner in NYC Marathon history. American Bill Rogers holds the mark for the most wins on the men's side with four while Tesfaye Jifa of Ethiopia holds the record for the fastest time having run the race in 2:07:43 in 2001 [source: Encarta].

Great Britian's Paula Radcliffe, the world marathon record holder who set the mark with a 2:15:25 in the London Marathon in 2003 is the most accomplished marathon runners ever. She's won the race three times and is the only woman to post three sub 2:18:00 times. Her time of 2:23:09 in 2007 is the race record for women [source: Encarta].

Several celebrities have run the NYC Marathon. Actors Edward Norton and Ahthnony Edwards long with musician Alanis Morrisette completed the race in 2009 while actor Ryan Reynolds ran it in a respectable 3:50:29 in 2008 [source: Freydkin]. Actress Katie Holmes walked the race in 2007 and musician Sean Combs is also a NYC Marathon alumnus, having completed the race in 2003.

While winning the race is realistic for world class marathoners, just finishing is an accomplishment. Unfortunately that doesn't always happen. In fact, some participants have even perished in the race. In 2008, two runners died from cardiac arrest in the hours following the race [source: Robinson, Wilson and Litsky]. Two others fell out after suffering heart attacks during the same race but were revived before being taken to the hospital.

If you'd like more information on distance running, take a look at related articles in the next section.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • How a Marathon Works
  • How the Boston Marathon Works
  • How the Chicago Marathon Works
  • How to Train for Your First Marathon
  • How Advanced Marathon Training Works
  • How Intermediate Marathon Training Works
  • What's a green marathon?
  • What are the toughest marathons in the world?


  • Adventure Marathons. "ING New York City Marathon 2010." (Aug. 8, 2010)
  • Athens Marathon. "History of Athens Marathon." (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Encarta. "New York City Marathon Winners." (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Freydkin, Donna. USA Today. "Hollywood Harriers Line Up for NYC Marathon". Nov. 1, 2009. (Aug. 8, 2010)
  • Galloway, Jeff. "Athens, Greece Marathon." (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • ING New York City Marathon. "History of the ING New York City Marathon". (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Kemp, Ian. Cool Running. "The Great Marathon Myth". (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • Robinson, Joshua; Wilson, Charles; Litsky, Frank. The New York Times. "Race Officials Confirm That 2 Died After Marathon". Nov. 3, 2008. (Aug 8, 2010)