Runner’s High: Long Island Marathon Fever on the Rise

There’s something mystical about a marathon. A 26.2-mile test of both physical and mental stamina pushes runners through a lot of walls, building the kind of confidence needed in all areas of life. Paul Fetscher would know. The inaugural Suffolk County Marathon this past September was his 281st time running the distance. “I always say that there are two things out there that everyone understands: the four-minute mile and the marathon,” Fetscher said. Though the four-minute mile is out of reach for most casual runners, the marathon is there for any runner willing to put in the work.

“A marathon is just a matter of deferred gratification. If I’m willing to do work now, I’m going to have a bigger benefit later,” Fetscher said. “That tenacity that will serve you well in anything you do is something that really comes home for a lot of people.”

Runners who have learned this while prepping for the races culminating in Eisenhower Park each May owe a debt of gratitude to Fetscher, who brought the marathon to Long Island in 1973. He is its first race director and at one time held the race record of 2:21.49.

The Long Island Marathon actually began in the Bronx in 1958 as the Macombs Dam Park Marathon, later named the Cherry Tree Marathon. It moved to Central Park in April 1970, rebranded as the Earth Day Marathon. When Fetscher was chosen as vice president of the New York Road Runners Club in 1972, he mentioned to president Fred Lebow that there weren’t enough races on Long Island.

Lebow suggested Fetscher take the Earth Day Marathon east. The following year, the event was run at Long Island’s Roosevelt Raceway before moving to Eisenhower Park five years later when it was finally dubbed The Long Island Marathon. To fill the gap, Lebow founded the New York City Marathon, which has become a nationally televised, international spectacle.

Our local race closes major county roads, brings on both national and regional sponsors and requires more than 700 volunteers. This May, approximately 1,000 people will run a 26.2 mile loop through Nassau County that spans from Jericho Turnpike to Sunrise Highway before finishing in Eisenhower Park.

“Because we’re right next door to New York, we’re all too often compared to New York,” said race director Jason Lipset of the Nassau County Department of Parks, Recreation and Museums. “That’s a world-class event, but their whole purpose is much different than ours. The Long Island Marathon definitely caters to and likes to see our local hometown athletes.”

There has been talk over the years about offering prize money in an attempt to lure top runners, but with that comes the fear that the marathon would lose its identity as a local event.

“We don’t want some professional runner from somewhere else in the world coming in and dominating the race course and pushing out a Long Islander who might have that opportunity, so we’ve always tried to keep it a hometown race,” Lipset said.

But Fetscher has mixed feelings. On one hand, including more top-notch competition could bring out the best in local runners, all while making the marathon a bigger draw to the media and spectators. “The flip side is what are these goals about? Someone who runs a sub-2:30 isn’t a better person than someone who runs 3 hours or 4 hours. All those come out to be huge wins over sitting in an armchair,” Fetscher said.

He remembers the days when he’d see someone on the street and try to recruit them to join a local club. In 1973, there was only one long distance running club on Long Island, the Long Island Athletic Club run by legendary Wantagh High School cross country coach Mike Byrnes. Today, there are about two dozen. Both Fetscher and Lipset pointed out that running has permeated society and the clubs fan the flames with a sort of positive peer-pressure.

“When it comes to running, it’s something everyone can do to your own level and nobody’s judging you or telling you to buy more expensive equipment,” Lipset said. “It’s always a very personal experience.” An experience Lipset is always looking to improve for runners and spectators during the Long Island Marathon. Over the years, he’s added shorter races to appeal to all athletic abilities and booked musical acts to perform along the racecourse. This year, the Nassau County Department of Parks, Recreation and Museums has added a kick-off weekend. “I’m hoping that the runners can get a sample of the finish line and it will get them excited about what it’s going to be like a week from then when there are hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators lining the finish line area,” Lipset said.

Of course, for the 1,000 marathoners, the following weekend’s trek will be a full 23.1 miles longer, but that’s part of the allure. “It’s the ultimate test,” Fetscher said. “You’re going to ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’ You have to reach deep inside of you.”

Long Island Marathon Weekend includes a half marathon, 10k, 5k and mile run that culminates in Eisenhower Park. According to race director Jason Lipset of the Nassau County Department of Parks, Recreation and Museums, 78 percent of participants will be from the Island—a stark contrast to the 125 countries represented by runners of the 2015 New York City Marathon.

The growth of distance running on Long Island is part of a nationwide trend. In 2014, 550,600 people finished a marathon in the United States, up 2 percent from the year before. More than 2 million finished a half marathon, an increase of 4 percent according to Running USA. Compare that to an estimated 353,000 marathon finishers and 500,000 half-marathon finishers in 2000.


beth ann clyde

beth ann clyde

Beth Ann Clyde is a social strategist of Long Island Pulse. Have a story idea or just want to say hello? Email or reach out on Twitter @BAClyde.