For every marathoner, there is a moment that makes running 26.2 miles worth it. For most, that moment is probably the finish line. For me, it is the highway run. In the several half- and full-marathons I've raced, there has always been a part of the course that is run on a temporarily closed-off highway. If it comes early in the race, the scene looks like nothing short of a pedestrian revolution—a pack of thousands of runners taking over the streets. If it comes at the end— and you are a back of the packer, like myself—the feeling is something much more post-apocalyptic: solitary, slightly dazed runners making their way across abandoned interstate overpasses. Either way, as a car-free person for 17 years, I realize at that moment that I had to pay a $75 entry fee, train six days a week for 18 weeks and commit to completing 26.2 miles on foot to see the same sight that millions of drivers see from the comfort of their car every day.
I've lived in four cities since my childhood in Syracuse, and in every one, I only know the landscape from a street-level view. Which is to say, while the actual area I am familiar with in these cities is usually limited in scope, I know every last detail of the homes and building—sight, smell and sound included—because I've walked them all on foot. Quite the opposite is true for Syracuse: while I can drive 81 and point out the hospital where I was born, I have never walked Adams Street or Irving Ave. All my years at Fairmount Fair and I've not a clue about the surrounding neighborhood other than the street signs and homes I've seen from the car window. In the context of Syracuse, this isn't particularly shocking—it's not so much a question of where would I go on foot, but why? Given that everyone needs a car in Syracuse to get from their home to any destination, only the brave would attempt to "explore" around any given location:
Beggars, if any, as well as horse drawn vehicles, baby carriages, bicycles, Henrys, push carts and foot passengers, must now not only stand aside on the main highway, but must thereafter advance cautiously, with one eye in the back of head to see what is approaching from behind. The main highway, interesting as it is for those who sit beside it, as Will O the Mill did in Stevenson's great story, provides poor picking for foot passengers (Syracuse Herald, September 5, 1920)
Of course, the situation becomes a little more disconcerting when the reality is that I've never even walked the roads in my own backyard:
We who go afoot have been crowded off into the back roads, but that is not a real privation, for the explorer of back roads finds plenty of adventure and reward...Onondaga Hill, not the highest, but the most interesting elevation in this part of God's green earth, is covered with back roads...Here's the information...about a few walks across and upon Onondaga Hill...
Go by Auburn trolley to Olney's, 2 3/4 miles south to Wellington's Corners on the old Genesee road, now called the Seneca turnpike. Turn towards Onondaga Valley for half a mile, then take the road south through Cedar Vale, one of the loveliest glens in Onondaga. At foot of the glen turn left and follow Pumpkin Hollow road to Marcellus, a walk full of interest every step of the way...If 13 miles is better than 7 1/2, turn to the left instead of the right at the foot of Cedar Vale and return by way of South Onondaga, Budlong's Corners and the Indian village to Rockwell Springs. The Hog's Back hill is within reach of South Onondaga, and Hitchings' orchards are only a mile from Budlong's Corner." (Syracuse Herald, September 5, 1920 and September 12, 1920)
Growing up, the roads described above—the roads of my neighborhood—might as well have been considered tributaries to Killer Creek: stand too close to the edge, and risk getting sucked into the wake of a speeding automobile. Nature meant scenery, a pretty backdrop for home and car windows. For this reason, I am grateful that of the many suburban/rural areas of Syracuse, I grew up in the one that is—as commented above—the most interesting elevation in this part of God's green earth. I mean, if the only time you can ever leave the perimeter of your property involves getting into an enclosed vehicle, you might as well have a nice, sweeping view.
And yet, it was only when more houses were built on the back roads off Seneca Turnpike that I got an opportunity to walk unencumbered along them. Although Syracuse now refers to any new building as green because it has choose-your-own-flush toilets, back in the '70s, similar developments were viewed as a threat to the very low-tech green innovations Syracuse already had to offer:
"The natural beauty of Onondaga County is in danger of being destroyed by real estate development, commercial enterprise and paved highways. Will you help us promote the preservation of a 'necklace of green' in the county?"
This plea, sent out by Onondaga Audubon Society member Karen Slotnick in 1972 to school children throughout Syracuse, served as the initial launch for the Walk to Save the County, a fundraiser designed to "raise funds for the purchase of lands to keep areas of the county forever green and a natural haven for bird and animal wildlife...[to create] a 'necklace of green' to serve as a buffer against air and water pollution and to preserve and protect the natural habitat." (Syracuse Herald-American, April 27, 1980). The first year, students were asked to walk one of four routes "12 to 15 miles long" (Syracuse Herald-Journal, April 22, 1972), with secured pledges from sponsors who promised to pay at least 25 cents per mile completed. Participants were also given bags for litter pickup along the way. The event would be held rain or shine, and on Earth Day, 1972, despite a "cold pouring rain that at times was mixed with hail and snow," (Syracuse Herald-Journal, March 1, 1973), over 3,000 school children and their parents showed up at one of the four starting points: Van Buren Elementary School in Baldwinsville, Jamesville Elementary School, the Bear Road Elementary School in North Syracuse and Marcellus High School. The large majority—2,000 of the 3,000 total—walked the Marcellus route. The following year, the walk was moved to a new date in hopes of better weather, and over 5,000 walkers turned out on a sunny day in early May. Once again, the greatest number of walkers showed up on the Cedarvale/South Onondaga route, the new route for Southern Onondaga County schools. Throughout the '70s and early '80s, the walks were an annual success; by the mid-80s, the walks had raised over half-million dollars, and 630 acres of land had been bought and preserved for public use, including Baltimore Woods in Marcellus, Beaver Forest Wetland in Cicero, Old Fly Marsh in Pompey and Carpenter's Pond in Fabius. (Post-Standard, May 2, 1986). Though there are plenty of cause-related 3Ks and 5Ks these days (which led to the decline and eventual end of the Walks in 1997), there is something remarkable about several thousand students giving up their entire Sunday afternoon to walk ten miles to raise money for the rather abstract idea of "saving the county." Maybe it was the sense of competition: the Golden Boot trophy was awarded to the school with the greatest percentage of student participation (my district, Onondaga Central, won the award for several years; in 1975, for example, one-third of the student population walked (Syracuse Herald-Journal, July 8, 1975)). Or maybe it was because for the first time, kids—with "crossing guards, uniformed policemen, adult supervision, trained first-aid personnel and medics" (Syracuse Herald-Journal, April 17, 1972) as protection from passing traffic—could explore the very roads they had lived on all their lives. Maybe it's as simple as Karen Slotnick wrote in a letter to the editor to Herald-Journal on August 18, 1980: "We do not delude ourselves that all students know, or even care, why they are walking. Some just have a wonderful time."
Or maybe it was the Slotnicks themselves:
"When you go into your first marathon it seems like it's an unattainable goal to run 26 miles," Slotnick reminisced. "But when you complete it — well, there's no feeling that can duplicate what you feel after running a marathon...There is a great deal of exhilaration, a feeling of euphoria. Something happens to you psychologically and emotionally after running that far. I realized it at that finish line in 1971, and I knew there was no turning back." (Post-Standard, December 14, 1978)
At the same time Karen Slotnick was organizing the Walk to Save the County, her husband Mel Slotnick—lawyer and son of the founder of Slotnick Enterprises (owner of Carrols Restaurants and several movie theaters, including Lakeshore Drive-In and Cinema North)—played a vital role in drawing attention to Syracuse as a potential running mecca.
In 1970, Syracuse hosted the first annual Salt City Marathon. While the marathon only drew 40 entrants, most notable was that it was one of the few marathons in the world at the time that welcomed women participants—a year earlier than the Boston and New York Marathons opened their fields to women. (In fact, the amateur rules at the time prevented women from running for more than a mile and a half in competitive races.) Syracuse had reason to be progressive: Syracuse University student Kathy Switzer had been the first official woman runner at the Boston Marathon three years earlier, having entered the race under the name "K.V. Switzer." Though Boston attempted to literally pull her from the race, Syracuse welcomed her with open arms, and she was the sole female runner in 1970. The race—run along a loop route from Liverpool to Baldwinsville and back again—took on new sponsorship the following year (First Trust and Deposit Company, now Key Bank), and the number of entrants more than doubled to ninety-six. After this race was termed "an artistic success by competitors and officials," the North Area YMCA, coordinator of the marathon, and Mel Slotnick, YMCA volunteer, "made [plans] immediately to bring a world-class event to Syracuse" the following year, extending an invitation to the National Amateur Athletic Union to hold their 1972 Marathon Championship in Syracuse (the winner of which would gain a spot in the Olympic Marathon Trials)(Post-Standard, May 10, 1971). Not only were they successful in this campaign, but the Championship race also turned out to be the first in which the NAAU recognized women as competitors, drawing even greater attention to the race and Syracuse. The marathon registered 200 runners (including four women)—another 100 percent increase in participation.
Throughout the 1970s, the marathon continued, although with various changes in sponsorship (most comically, the 1978 and 1979 Burger King Marathon—though this may have also been a Slotnick connection). Entrant totals increased, with a few notable runners toeing the line: Kathy Switzer (who ran the race several times), Pete Pfitzinger (ran the course as part of the National Sports Festival) and former Syracuse City School Superintendent Lionel "Skip" Meno, who ran the inaugural race. Other races and promotional events were held in tandem with the marathon: mini-marathons for county schoolchildren, 1 and 5 mile runs, 10K road races, a 30K and 50K cycling competition. In 1981, the course hosted three separate marathons during the course of the summer: the newly-sponsored Milk Run, Empire State Games and National Sports Festival. Once again, Syracuse was on record pace to becoming the "national amateur sports capital."
And then they hit the wall.
In 1980, the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council assumed sole sponsorship of the Syracuse spring marathon (the North Area YMCA was a co-sponsor with varying corporate sponsors from 1971-1977). Based on the successful 1981 season, Dr. Donald Maron, a local podiatrist who had served as one of three selected podiatrists for the 1980 Olympic Marathon Trials, suggested to Race Director and Dairy Association employee Christine Hubbard to submit an application to The Athletic Congress (an outgrowth of the Amateur Athletic Union and then- governing body for the sport of track and field) to bid for the TAC National Championship. Just like a decade earlier, Syracuse was chosen to play host, selected over cities such as Cleveland and Ottawa that also ran marathons at the same time (and still do). Unlike 1972, the sport had undergone many political and financial changes. Although runners did have corporate sponsors, much of their income came from prize monies or appearance fees. The top runners of 1982, such as Alberto Salazar and Bill Rogers, had nothing to gain from running a championship race where the prize was the mere honor of winning (and a "trip to the Catskills," the prize for the top four male and female finishers); at the time, Salazar had just won the Boston Marathon a month earlier, and was world-record holder for the fastest marathon time (run six months earlier at the New York Marathon). Without the appearance of these runners, the championship was just that in name only, and would not draw any national attention to Syracuse.
From the beginning, Hubbard insisted she would not pay big name runners to enter.
"My main concern is for the average runner—they're happy to break 3:30—not for the person who can run 2:15," Hubbard said. "This marathon is really for the average runner." (Post-Standard, May 14, 1982)
It's true that Hubbard had a very prescient point—recent commentaries have called into question the necessity of appearance fees for elite marathoners, as there is not necessarily more money to be made by doing so, and the increased popularity of marathons for various other criteria reduces or eliminates the need for elite marathoners for publicity. However, at the time, Hubbard had placed a bid for a national championship, and then publicly championed runners who could barely run three and half hour marathons. Needless to say, Maron, who pushed for the bid, voiced his anger:
"We couldn't have gotten a Salazar, I know that," said Maron, "but we could have gotten world-class in here...she had nothing (advertised) in Boston. She had nothing in Buffalo. All of it is an embarrassment to a lot of people, even the city of Syracuse. She made this thing into a nothing." (Post-Standard, May 14, 1982)
"I'm going to do what I always do, which is run a good race. I'm providing the arena for a championship event, but I don't feel it's up to me to go out and recruit the runners." (Post-Standard, May 14, 1982)
Both then and now, it actually would be the job of the race director—Hubbard's title—to recruit the runners, even those of average status. A race director would have difficulty gaining corporate sponsors—Hubbard's other title—if the runners weren't there to make sponsorship worthwhile. And yet, Hubbard was both race director and corporate sponsor, which meant that as soon as corporate sponsorship disappeared, so too would the race. So when Maron "promised..to bring the marathon championship back to Syracuse next year, preferably on a different date with a different sponsor...going to try and talk Budweiser into sponsoring it next year," it's not surprising to learn that after the results (won by 24-year old federal employee Joel Menges, in 2:32:37, approximately 24 minutes slower than Salazar's Boston Marathon time), there is no further mention of a Syracuse spring marathon in the newspapers.
As we know, notable races did not disappear entirely from Syracuse: the Mountain Goat Run, started during the late '70s running boom, continues to this day, as well as many local shorter distance races. The week following the May 16, 1982 marathon debacle saw the inaugural running of the Dynamis 15K, a road race held in Manlius that featured Dick Beardsley, one month after his second-place finish in the Boston Marathon, and winner Herb Lindsay, who was on pace to finish in American record time, until—in what only seems appropriate for car-centric Syracuse—a tanker truck allowed to travel along the race route forced Lindsay to stop and let the truck pass. In a complete twist from the Milk Run scenario, Dynamis was willing to spend $5000 for top runners (the reported appearance fee for Bill Rogers for the 1983 race)(Post-Standard, May 20, 1983), but Manlius fought holding the race in the town, citing concerns of "vandalism" by spectators (Post-Standard, April 29, 1982). The race reached national status as one of Runner magazine's "top competitive men's master races," but was discontinued in 1985, due to lack of funding.
In the 1970s, when the city looked arguably worse (there was a gaping hole in the ground, for goodness sake!), Syracuse celebrated the outdoors. Yet as the willingness to pay disappeared, so too did the opportunities. Not the payment of cash to elite athletes or neighborhood schoolkids for walks or races, but payment of time, risk and comfort to get a pedestrian (runner, cycling, etc. friendly) community. Just as school kids didn't walk 10 miles without giving up their Sunday afternoon, or marathoners didn't run 26.2 miles without giving up every day but their Sunday afternoon, Syracusans may have to give up some commuting time and take down the elevated 81 in order to get a thriving downtown. Runners risk injuries from minor muscle strains to major stress fractures just to cross the finish line; Syracusans may have to risk a bad hair day by walking in a shopping environment that is not climate-controlled. But maybe to get to that Syracuse of tomorrow, we have to hold a walkathon or marathon on the streets of downtown Syracuse—including the elevated stretch of 81—today. At the very least, it would guarantee an annual cleanup of the streets (after all, you can't expect thousands of cars to drive over discarded water cups the next day). Most importantly, it would allow people to fully experience the street-level views of Syracuse, both good and bad. To appreciate what works, and as for what does not—well, there would be 26.2 miles of running and walking to think of what could be.