The chill of Halloween still lingered in the air on Sunday morning as the 18th New York City Marathon flowed across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and onto Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue. It was clear enough to see the Manhattan skyline and cool enough—55°—to raise some goose bumps on the 22,509 starters. "A good Colorado day," thought 42-year-old Priscilla Welch as she raced to the front of the women's field. "I'm feeling strong."
Welch, an Englishwoman who lives and trains in Boulder, was about to turn a potentially lackluster New York marathon into one for both the record and actuarial books. By the four-mile mark she had opened a lead of 400 yards on Belgium's Ria Van Landeghem and was on pace to break the course record of 2:25:29 set by Allison Roe of New Zealand in 1981. Not bad for a woman who eight years ago was an overweight, non-running, pack-a-day smoker cleaning houses for a living in Norway.
An amazing-but-true story like Welch's was just what Sunday's race needed. It had attracted so few big names that there was no solid men's favorite and, among the women, only Welch, Roe and some solid though unspectacular Europeans were of any note. This was no fluke, either. Even as New York has grown and prospered—Sunday's field was the largest ever for a U.S. marathon—its elite fields have been steadily eroding, mostly because the rival America's Marathon/Chicago has outbid New York for top talent.
But this time Chicago wasn't to blame: That marathon wasn't even held this fall because it lost its sponsorship. Instead, New York race director Fred Lebow had simply decided to cut back on appearance fees, arguing that they reduce a runner's motivation to win. Having spent $200,000 on such fees last year, Lebow paid out only $40,000 this time, to former New York champions Roe, Gianni Poli, Orlando Pizzolato and Bill Rodgers, and 1972 Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter. No one else. "It's important that we finally make a statement," said Lebow.
November 9, 1987
Mind you, this was not exactly Martin Luther nailing up his 95 Theses. "Fred doesn't need appearance money this year," said veteran marathoner Greg Meyer, citing the fact that many top marathoners ran at the World Championships in Rome and weren't going to run anywhere this fall. The real test of Lebow's resolve on the issue will come next year and the year after.
Welch's resolve, meanwhile, was clear from her steady, purposeful strides. As she cruised along through Brooklyn, men's leader Pat Petersen was struggling. A local favorite from Ronkonkoma, on Long Island, Petersen had burst to the front as if shot from the starting cannon and had built a 150-yard lead in the first four miles. He was trying to become the first American man in nearly four years to win a major international marathon, and after eight miles he was on a world-record pace, a minute ahead of the field. But his body was starting to strain. Tall, balding, naturally awkward in style, Petersen worked his fists high by his face and rocked from side to side as he ran. He knew he was a sitting duck. "It was the most lonely feeling in the world," he would say later.
Behind Petersen, waiting for him to falter, lurked Kenya's Ibrahim Hussein. Hussein, 29, who lives in Albuquerque, was a steeplechaser at the University of New Mexico. He had not run a marathon since last December, when he won the sweltering Honolulu event in an impressive 2:11:44.
He caught Petersen just past the 14-mile mark in Queens, paused for a moment, then surged ahead. "It was like a burden was lifted off me," Petersen said. "I just hoped I could stay with him." But that was not to be. Hussein stretched his lead coming off the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan at 16 miles. By the time Hussein passed 22 miles in Harlem in 1:48:21, he was almost a minute ahead.
The day was now warming uncomfortably. Welch led her closest pursuer by three minutes as she raced through the Bronx. "I had no idea how far ahead I was," she said. "I was just trying to go like a jackrabbit."
The 5'5", 108-pound Welch had been a 140-pound British Royal Navy petty officer when she met her husband-and coach-to-be, David, an army officer and avid athlete, in Norway in the late 1970s. Unable to obtain a Norwegian work permit for a full year after her enlistment ended, she had grown bored and "miserable" doing domestic work on the sly, so David convinced her to try running. He knew she had grown up in the tiny northern English village of Upper Dean (pop. 100), which offered no organized sports but plenty of exercise.
"Living in a village that's in the middle of nowhere like that, you do a lot of walking," says David. "It was 12 miles to the nearest town."
The Welches faced athletic hardship together in 1981 when David transferred to the rugged Shetland Islands for two years. They ran together there despite snow, dark winter days and winds that sometimes reached 100 mph and literally blew them off their feet. "It was just like a rock, a volcanic rock, with some peat on top and sheep hanging off and a lot of alcoholics," recalls Priscilla. In winter the Welches ran in spiked boots and wore miners' helmets to light their paths.
After David retired from the military in 1985, they moved to Boulder so he could study neuromuscular therapy at the University of Colorado and so she could train at high altitude. Before Sunday she had run 25 marathons, the fastest being a 2:26:51 in London in May.
Given the absence of eight-time New York champion Grete Waitz, who was sidelined with a stress fracture of her right foot, Welch's chance for victory in New York was greatly enhanced. She prepared for it like no race before. Now it paid off. When she crossed the line under a rainbow arch of balloons in 2:30:17, 1:05 ahead of Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºoise Bonnet of France, she became the oldest New York champion ever. Only countrywoman Joyce Smith, who won the London Marathon at age 44 in 1982, had accomplished such a feat at so advanced an age. "I don't know how you're supposed to feel at 40," said Welch.
Hussein had already wrapped up the men's title in 2:11:01, 52 seconds ahead of runner-up Gianni DeMadonna of Italy, to become New York's first African champ. Petersen had been passed by both DeMadonna and third-place finisher Pete Pfitzinger in the final 200 yards to end up fourth.
"This has never been a race of names," insisted Lebow. "This event has always created names—Salazar, Pizzolato, Poli, Waitz, Roe." Add to that list Welch and Hussein, each of whom received a first-prize check worth $25,000 and a new Mercedes.
"This is still new to me," said Welch, sounding and looking like a woman 10 years younger. "I'm still having fun with it." On Sunday, the record book will note, she shared that fun with the Big Apple.