Before George Spitz came along, the New York City Marathon course consisted of four laps around Central Park. The race was founded in 1970, when only 55 of the 127 starters finished. By 1975, with 339 finishers, it was thought to be outgrowing the park’s confines. In the lead-up to the 1976 running, Spitz suggested expanding the race route to cover all five boroughs, as a celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. At first, NYRR president and marathon co-founder Fred Lebow was skeptical, but Spitz—tenacious to a fault—persisted. The rest is history.
The King of the Gadflies
Spitz was born in New York City in 1922 and he died there, from complications of pneumonia, on March 27, 2015. He had a reputation for speaking his mind, fighting for what he believed in, and running—unsuccessfully—for public office. In 2001, when he ran for mayor of his hometown, he told the New York Times he was the “only vegetarian, only road runner, only veteran of World War II, only senior citizen, only union person, only Orthodox Jew, and only high school dropout in the race.” The paper had its own label: “The King of the Gadflies.”
Spitz didn’t win the mayoral race—nor had he claimed victory back in 1968, when he launched his first political campaign, this one a bid for State Assembly. He lost that contest by a mere 1,220 votes, and in subsequent years, he ran again for Assembly (1974), State Senate (1970 and 1976), and City Council (1980 and 1995), losing each time. He had also, as he once told the New York Daily News, been fired from “well over 10 jobs.”
Nevertheless, Spitz left an indelible mark on his hometown. After serving as a radio mechanic with the Air Force in World War II, he graduated from Columbia University in 1949. He majored in economics and accounting—disciplines that informed his later work as an auditor for the New York State Department of Social Services. In 1968, he devised the idea of delivering welfare checks via automatic bank deposit—a system the city finally adopted in 1981.
A longtime Upper East Side resident, Spitz ran more than two dozen marathons, and the role he played in transforming the New York City Marathon may well be his greatest legacy. After devising the idea of the five-borough course, he brought the concept to Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton, and together, they secured funding from real estate magnates Jack and Lewis Rudin. The five-borough race has since grown into the world’s largest marathon, and has been a model for big-city road races across the globe.