NEW YORK - The first New York City Marathon, in 1970, was somewhat of a fringe event. The course was contained entirely inside Central Park, where 127 runners, who had paid a buck each, lined up at the start. Just 55 athletes finished.
These days, what is now the world's biggest marathon isn't just about the race itself. New York Road Runners—the organization that puts on the TCS New York City Marathon (as it is officially known)—has shepherded the evolution of that first quaint event into a global multi-day celebration of the stamina, drive, and heart you need to cover 26 miles and 385 yards, whether it takes you about 2 hours or 12.
Signs already line the five-borough course, promotional billboards and posters adorn subway cars and stations, barricades are up in several neighborhoods, and a two-story temporary pavilion stands on the west side of Central Park. And more than 50,000 athletes (who paid considerably more than $1) from dozens of countries have descended on the city. Many of them crowd sidewalks, streets, and park paths as they shake out their legs for a few final training miles.
Oh, and they talk and post about the race. A lot.
The 200-plus employees of New York Road Runners plan a year or more for the marquee event. At the helm of all of it is Peter Ciaccia, race director of the marathon and president of events for NYRR. Here is our interview, edited for length and clarity, about his experience over 17 years.
How has New York Road Runners evolved its digital presence in terms of apps, social media, and website?
CIACCIA: We've got storytelling, we've got information sharing, and we've got engagement. And we put that all together and want to make that fun. For example, a lot of our professional athletes are engaged with us building up to some of our races so we engage with them to tell our story through their eyes. We get to see what they are interested in, what's exciting for them to come to the race. Some of what you'll see, this year especially, is more user-generated videos.
For the marathon, we have a campaign: "It will move you." We're asking runners to post videos—as they're building up to the race or the journey or experience after the race—spectators, friends, families and hashtag #movedme so we will curate all of that and put it up on our site.
We've created something called Cheer Cards. And this is a real social way to be able to engage with the runners while they're running their race through digital content that's going to be curated and put up on digital signs along the course. So for example, we've given the runners several templated options with photos that they could use. So the message would be "Run, blank, run." So a family member could fill that in—"Run, Dad, run," "Run, Mom, run"—and as the runners come through a flash point, which is where data collects for the runners, about a hundred yards away from the screen, that message will be put up. So it's a connection.
So the world-famous TCS New York City Marathon is about more than just running. It is a multimedia experience now.
%INLINE% CIACCIA: Data has been the basis of everything that we do for many, many years. We collect all this data through the runners' transponders on their bibs and we know exactly how many runners are out there and what they're doing. Besides socially, we use it operationally. So we are able to track the runners wherever they may be on the course so if they step off the course and go into a medical tent, we know where they are. We've ramped up our medical operations by incorporating a new real-time tracking system for runners. And then we've taken that concept and we put it out to our spectators and through the app. You can track your runner as they move along the course. Last year, we had well over 300,000 downloads of the app. People are engaging with us. It's really phenomenal.
Have your apps been popular with the running community?
CIACCIA: Our premier partner Tata Consulting Services, who is our title partner in the marathon, TCS, has really worked with us over the years to create a year-round app that's very engaging and very robust in terms of pulling all the data in. Runners can go and see their results in real time. In April, we launched another level of our results system so that runners can go back into their results and compare their fastest times on distances, their fast times against each other. So it's becoming a real social thing. So it's a lot of fun for me to pull your data in and talk to you about what you did in the 10K in Queens and I could say the same about what I did.
You've been at the helm of the marathon for years. Has it been fun? Have you been pulling your hair out?
CIACCIA: 17 years. So it's been it's been an amazing experience. We have a great team and we could not do what we do without the kind of creative, hard-working, dedicated individuals that we have. And of course working with the city. Most importantly, we don't own the venue, right, so we're running through the streets of the five boroughs in the city's been that really very close partner of ours.
When you say "pulling your hair out"—we don't usually pull our hair out too much. But we do worry. The devil's in the details. We really do have an extensive checklist we go through. And the planning, actually, for next year's marathon starts on marathon day, for us. We're executing but we're also looking at what's going on and what we think we could make better for next year. We never sit back and just cut and paste. We don't sit back on our laurels. We always wanted to be the safest and best experience for the runners out there.
You're known for cheering people on to the very end of races and even running in with the final runners. In fact, I've overheard runners in the back corral saying "My only time goal today is to not get "Ciacciaed." I think they mean it in a cute way—they don't want to be that last runner. But we slow runners also appreciate that kind of support for everyone in the last corral—especially the last one. How did you cheering for and running in with the last few runners start?
CIACCIA: Well I've been doing it for years. It's just been this kind of cult movement kind of thing for the marathon. We would actually wait for the last runner because, first of all, it's a safety thing—we want to make sure the runners get in safe. These runners are out there for 14 hours on the course. We want the experience to be the best experience for the first runner to the last runner. And we don't view the last runner as, "Oh my god, it's the final runner." We want to celebrate with them. And it's that kind of celebration that makes it really special for the runners and for the staff that'll stay there—especially for me. I just love doing this. I love celebrating with them. I love going out and meeting with them and running in with them—and it gives me some exercises to go back and forth. But that's the truth. This year, we're going to try to do something a little special at the marathon. The professional athletes saw me do this last year and they didn't realize I was doing it and they actually want to come out at the marathon and maybe take part in a little bit of greeting of those final runners.
I got to tell you, man, it's very emotional. It really is. It's a great way to share a whole week of building up. And for me—that's my marathon right there—crossing that finish line with the people in and out. That's how I feel I ran the marathon.
Arun Kristian Das is a producer for Fox5NY.com and related social media platforms. He is a member of Hellgate Road Runners, a club based in Astoria, Queens. On November 5, 2017, he will try to run from the edge of Fort Wadsworth to just outside Sheep Meadow in his second New York City Marathon. Although he is quite slow, he doesn't think he will get Ciacciaed.