NYC Marathon "Streakers" Going Strong, Especially Michael Capiraso

Friday afternoon in New York City I learned for the first time that the NYC Marathon has an annual gathering for streakers and long-timers--those who have run at least 15 NYC Marathons. I’m a big fan of road-race streakers, so I hurried over to the Tavern on the Green to meet a few. 

In 1993, the year before his death, Fred Lebow greeted
New York City Marathon finishers for the last time.
I found a large room bustling with more activity than I had imagined. There must have been two hundred people in attendance, maybe more. They were milling about, chatting boisterously, sipping water, and eating light snacks at dozens of small tables.  

It didn’t take me long to recognize 74-year-old New Yorker Dave Obelkevich, whose 41 straight finishes made him the leading streaker. We had first met a decade earlier in the middle of South Africa’s Comrades Marathon. I asked Dave to point out Connie Brown, 73, who had run 38 in a row. The Sarasota, Florida, resident looked 10 years younger than her age, popping up out of her chair for our introduction.

Next I searched out an old friend who I don’t see much any longer. Will Franks, 69, had run 29 straight NYC Marathons, making the annual trek from his home in Frederiksted, St. Croix. This year was more grueling than most. After Hurricane Maria, his house still had only half a roof and no electricity at all. “I can’t cook, we don’t have refrigeration, and I’m getting tired of hauling water out of the cistern,” he said. “It hasn’t been my best preparation for the marathon.” 

From left: Michael Capiraso, Mary Wittenberg, George Hirsch,
and Peter Ciaccia.
Moments later, Michael Capiraso, 55, grabbed a microphone to welcome everyone to the meeting. This was a revelation. Capiraso is the President and CEO of New York Road Runners, and a streaker to boot. In two days, he’d be running his 26th straight NYC Marathon.

Later I learned that this makes him the exception to the rule. It turns out the NYRR prohibits staff from entering the Marathon. It’s a day for all hands on deck, not for feet on the blue line. When he was hired six years ago, he was “grandfathered” out of the rule due to his already established 20-year running streak.

I find it easy to like the idea of a race director who runs his own race, though there haven’t been many, at least not in the big-time marathon world. In 1992, during a respite from the cancer that would claim his life two years later, NYC Marathon founding race director Fred Lebow famously ran his own event with Grete Waitz. They finished with a hug and tears in both sets of eyes. Which was likewise the condition of all who witnessed them.

In Boston, race director Dave McGillivray has completed 45 consecutive Boston Marathons, but most have come in solitary nighttime darkness a half-dozen hours after the day’s 30,000 runners have reached downtown Boston. “Running in the middle of the pack could give me a great perspective,” he said. “But I feel my first obligation is to monitor the start, the middle of the race, from a lead vehicle, and the finish. As far as Michael goes, there’s definitely value in experiencing what all the runners in your race are experiencing.”
Dave McGillivray, Boston Marathon
race director.

Mary Wittenberg is an ace runner, but during her decade at the helm of the NYC Marathon, she never entered the event. “We had a much smaller team then, so it really wasn’t possible,” she said. “Besides I loved race directing, and being there for everyone else.”

Wittenberg says she seriously considered running the Marathon just once, in 2011, six months after nine-time winner Grete Waitz passed away. That November, Waitz’s husband, Jack, ran in his wife’s honor. “I came super close to running with Jack,” Wittenberg said. “I really wanted to. But in the end, I knew my role was to support everyone else, and to be at the finish for Jack, a moment I will never forget.” 

Despite her own choices, Wittenberg supports the notion of race directors taking part in their own events. “It’s a great way for the leaders to really know their city and the runner experience on race day,” she said. “Michael works super hard before the marathon, and purposefully doesn’t take any time off on marathon week. He’s on his feet and with the team as much as anyone else.”

Capiraso spent Sunday morning not just on his feet but working his butt off. For 25 miles, he ran at about 8:45 pace, just a tick or two slower than his PR, 3:49:45. The last mile rolls upward along Central Park South, then up again into the park itself to finish at the Tavern on the Green. Somehow, despite his weeks and months of intense marathon prep with hundreds of other New York Road Runners staff, Capiraso dug deep. He clicked off a 7:36 final mile to eclipse his best time by three seconds. I don’t think Shalane Flanagan pushed any harder.

NYRR’s chairman of the board, George Hirsch, and race director, Peter Ciaccia, were there to greet him. There was no time for high-fives and back-slappings. Capiraso went down hard. “This was one of those full-out collapses,” Hirsch said. “He couldn’t have stood on his own. He looked so pale and drawn, I was actually worried about him for a few moments.”

An hour later, reached by cell phone, Capiraso sounded fine, entirely composed. “I knew I was close to a PR that last mile, so I closed with everything I had,” he reported. “I worked really hard this fall in my training, with added strength work. I wanted to prove to myself that it had all paid off.”

Let’s review. Twenty-six years later. Age 55. A new marathon PR. That doesn’t happen every day. It never happens in the small group of major marathon executives. 

“When it came up six years ago, we didn’t have to debate long about giving Michael his exemption,” said Hirsch. “We’re runners. We understand streaks. These things are important.”

Dave Obelkevich finished in 6:25:46. Streak intact at 42 straight.

Lively Connie Brown finished in 6:04:02. Streak intact at 39. “The New York spectators outdo themselves year after year,” she said. “They give me so much energy as I run. By the time I reached the finish line, my cheeks were sore from all the smiling. I’ll come back as long as I am able.”

Paul Fetscher doesn’t have a streak, but the 71-year-old from Long Beach, New York, has more NYC Marathon finishes than anyone else. He missed the inaugural 1970 marathon totally within Central Park--the marathon didn’t extend to the five boroughs until 1976--but has started every NYC Marathon from 1971 onward. Fetscher has suffered blips along the way--several DNFs due to injury--but Sunday finished for the 43rd time in 5:27:42.

“I still enjoy the people and the sport so much,” he said. “As I was walking to the start, I must have exchanged, “Hey, good to see you are still out here” greetings with about 20 other runners. You get slower with age, but if you just keep moving, sooner or later you get there.”

My friend Will Franks from St. Croix had the toughest battle of them all, finishing in 6:39:10. “After my various food problems back home, I caught a bug or food poisoning on Saturday before the marathon,” he said. “I couldn’t keep anything down. I literally had no fuel on board Sunday. I had to walk the last 10 miles. On any other day of the year, I would have spent the day in bed.”

But not on NYC Marathon day. Especially not when you’re a streaker.