Celebrating the Father of American Distance Running

The official distance of the full loop around Central Park drive is 6.02 miles, according to the park conservancy’s map. For generations of New York runners, this paved stretch has been the city’s premier training and racing destination; countless quads have been hammered into shape on the anvil of its undulations. Long before they were Strava segments, the drive’s modest ascents were already lodged in the psyches of local endurance freaks. There’s Cat Hill and the Three Sisters for those running counterclockwise; in the opposite direction, there’s the short section from the park’s Columbus Circle entrance to Tavern on the Green which constitutes the tortured final yards of the NYC Marathon. I vaguely remember lumbering up Harlem Hill on the northwestern corner of the park when I visited the city as a high school tourist in the summer of 1998. That was my first-ever New York City run—a steamy circumambulation around hallowed terrain. To the extent that it is within my control, I would like my last run in the city to be along the same route—ideally when I’m a spry 90-year-old on psychedelics and not sometime next week—so I can be tormented by visions of my younger, faster self. Like any popular running route, the Central Park lap is haunted by many pasts

It’s only appropriate, then, that the six-mile stretch has just been officially christened the “Ted Corbitt Loop,” in honor of the man once called “the father of American distance running.” In a press release last week, the New York City Parks Department announced that it would be installing six “scenic landmark signs” along the drive bearing Corbitt’s name, as well as another sign at the base of Harlem Hill detailing the route. 

“As an avid runner, I am incredibly proud to commemorate the contributions of a man that inspired me and countless others to push through boundaries and live more abundantly,” parks commissioner Mitchell J. Silver said at a ceremony for the unveiling of the first sign. 

Theodore “Ted” Corbitt, who died in 2007 at age 88, was the first Black man to represent the United States in an Olympic marathon (Helsinki, 1952), the co-founder and first president of the New York Road Runners, and an early proponent of U.S. ultra racing and run commuting. According to his son, Gary, Corbitt ran twice a day, every day, for 13 years, commuting from his home in the Bronx to the International Center for the Disabled on 23rd Street and 1st Avenue, where he worked as a physical therapist. There were days when he would start out running north into Yonkers to increase the distance so that his morning commute would be over 20 miles. “Sometimes, his second workout would be just running to the subway,” Gary told me. “But it was still two runs a day for 13 years, never missing a day.”

He was also prolific in his racing. According to his obituary in the New York Times, “by his own count, Corbitt ran 199 marathons and ultramarathons . . . and never dropped out of one until he was 75.” (On a tribute website to his father, Gary has the total at 223, to also account for his father’s “marathon and ultramarathon walks,” once his running days had ended.) This impressive tally includes Corbitt’s participation in the inaugural New York City Marathon, held on September 14, 1970, on a Central Park course that he designed. In the race, Corbitt wore bib No. 1, and ran 2:44:15 for a fifth place finish. He was 50 years old at the time. 

Despite occasionally being touted as “distance running’s Jackie Robinson,” Corbitt’s legacy has been comparatively quiet, even by the standards of a niche sport. The New York Road Runners race named in his honor is an under-the-radar 15K held in mid-December. There’s no bronze statue in Central Park, as there is of Corbitt’s one-time colleague, New York City Marathon founder Fred Lebow. (Lebow, incidentally, is the person credited with calling Corbitt the father of U.S. distance running.) Gary attributes this relative lack of attention to the fact that his father wasn’t big on self-promotion. More broadly, Gary says, the sport of running has “not done a great job of preserving its history in a coordinated way.”

Knox Robinson, the founder of the Black Roses running collective and an outspoken keeper of the Corbitt flame, is less generous towards the institutions which, according to him, had missed an opportunity, if not an obligation, to celebrate a giant of the sport.

“It’s appropriate, but I will say it’s late in coming,” Robinson told me, referring to Corbitt’s new namesake running path. “The New York Road Runners and New York City had their opportunity to embrace Ted Corbitt when he was alive,” he added, before noting that it took 2020’s fevered racial justice movement to get the man his due.

Gary agreed that the Black Lives Matter protests had fueled a greater interest in his father’s story; indeed, the Ted Corbitt Loop is part of a recent New York City Parks campaign to rename sights around the city after notable Black Americans. (Gary, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, did not attend the christening, but is optimistic that there might be another ceremony post-COVID.) “All New York runners, whether residents or visitors, will have run in Central Park at some point, some portion of that loop,” Gary told me. “So to have that named after him is a very strong compliment, a powerful addition to his legacy.”

Perhaps someday we’ll also see Corbitt’s likeness in bronze, looming over a portion of the drive like the cougar statue that gives Cat Hill its name. However, such idolatry might be inappropriate for a man who, as his son tells it, was less invested in his own celebrity than in organizing races, and participating in them into his mid 80s. Seen in this light, the Ted Corbitt Loop feels like a suitable tribute—a cherished running route is now named after one of the sport’s most devoted practitioners. 

For his part, Robinson believes that “the godfather of ultrarunning” still needs an event that does more justice to his stature and competitive pursuits.

“It’s cool that there’s a JFK 50-mile, but Ted Corbitt dedicated his life to ultra and ultra distance efforts,” Robinson says. “We need to have a monumental ultra race named after Ted Corbitt to signify his monumental efforts. A 15K with an ugly T-shirt halfway through December? That ain’t it.”

Outside Magazine: Health

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