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Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers provided inspiration for runners in NY Marathon's infancy

Frank Shorter waves from the victory stand after

Frank Shorter waves from the victory stand after receiving his gold medal at the Munich Olympics for winning the marathon. (Sept. 10, 1972) Credit: AP, 1972

To the generation that only knows the New York City Marathon as it will look again Sunday -- more than 45,000 runners, north of 2 million spectators, a $100,000 payout apiece to the male and female winners -- Thursday's recollections by three of the sport's most recognizable pioneers are instructive.

In 1976, when the 26-mile, 385-yard race was taken out of Central Park and spread through the five boroughs for the first time, the marathon's amateur operation included housing Olympic champion Frank Shorter with New York Road Runners Club member George Hirsch.

And leaving Shorter and Hirsch to hitchhike back to Hirsch's place afterward.

Bill Rodgers, upon winning, immediately discovered that his car had been towed. (Then-race director Fred Lebow offered to pay the $90 to retrieve Rodgers' car.)

There were 2,090 starters that day; 1,549 finished.

That was in the midst of a decade in which Shorter and Rodgers ruled international marathoning, so that a teenage girl from rural Maine, Joan Benoit -- after watching the 1976 Montreal Olympics race on television -- was inspired to go for a long run "under the cover of darkness."

Shorter, Rodgers and Benoit (now Samuelson), who won the first Olympic marathon for women in 1984, on Thursday were inducted into the Road Runners Hall of Fame, along with the late Ted Corbitt, godfather of distance running who was known for his daily 31-mile runs around the perimeter of Manhattan Island.

To Shorter, whose 1972 Olympic victory often is cited as fueling the running boom, the "real paradigm shift" was the '76 New York race, what he called a "passing of the baton" from himself -- who hadn't lost a marathon in five years -- to Rodgers, and the mainstream attention it suddenly brought to the sport.

In the horse-and-buggy days of the marathon, "I don't think any of us knew it was going to evolve as it did," Shorter said. "And it didn't happen because we tried to control it. We just wanted to be part of it."

Rodgers had been a smoker in college but turned into a four-time winner of both New York and Boston. Benoit originally used running as rehabilitation from a broken leg suffered in a skiing accident. If her college, Bowdoin, had started its varsity women's soccer program a couple of years sooner, she guessed that would have been her sport.

"If you listen to Joanie and Bill," Shorter said, "we were a bit of nonconformists at that time, and it wasn't in a rebellious way. It was just sort of a lifestyle way. These were things we wanted to do.

"We weren't trying to make social statements. We were just trying to be ourselves."

Shorter turned 66 on Thursday and still runs ("as long as what I do isn't confused with walking," he said). Rodgers, 65, and Samuelson, also still run. She is entered in Sunday's race.

"Therapeutic," she said. "Fall leaves. It's why I run."

Rodgers recalled that "the fear you had in that first five-borough race was palpable." How could it work? "But that's the beauty of the New York race," he said. "Just go for it."

Only that last part hasn't changed.

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