The New York City Marathon in Pop Culture

As many pieces of pop culture have aimed to recreate what it’s like to live in New York City, a number of movies and television shows have featured the New York City Marathon as a cultural touchpoint in their story arcs. Here’s a look at some of the ways the race through the five boroughs has made itself a part of the wider world of entertainment.


The “show about nothing” had two episodes that involved the New York City Marathon. The first, season 2’s “The Apartment,” has Jerry and George joining Elaine at her friend’s First Avenue apartment for a Marathon watch party brunch. Elaine’s friend expresses to Jerry that she wishes she had a view of the finish line, to which he replies:

“What's to see? A woman from Norway, a guy from Kenya, and twenty thousand losers.”

We at New York Road Runners would never refer to the non-first-place finishers in such terms, but for the first part of that sentence, he’s not too far off! This episode aired in April 1991, and the men’s winner of the 1990 race, Douglas Wakiihuri, was from Kenya; in addition, Ingrid Kristiansen from Norway had won the women’s race in 1989 (and Grete Waitz, also of Norway, had won nine of the previous 11 races before that).

However, that November, the winners of the race were Salvador Garcia, from Mexico, and Liz McColgan, from Scotland.

Perhaps the more famous Seinfeld–Marathon connection came in season 7’s “The Hot Tub,” which aired in 1995. In that episode, Elaine houses one of the race’s elite entrants, Jean-Paul. (To note: That is not how NYRR's Professional Athlete Group team arranges housing for athletes, but that’s a whole other topic.)

Despite arriving to the race late due to an alarm clock mishap, Jean-Paul catches up and finds himself leading the race in Central Park. He looks to the sidelines for one last drink to fuel him to the finish, and he grabs a cup from Kramer. It turns out to be hot tea. Jean-Paul does not win the race.

But what can present-day runners learn from Jean-Paul's experience?

  1. Set an alarm, and maybe even set a backup, too. The TCS New York City Marathon takes place on the same day that the clocks "fall back" an hour to standard time. Your cell phone’s clock should account for this automatically, but a hotel alarm clock may not. Since the time change takes place at 2:00 a.m. ET, you may need to turn your clock back an hour the night before the race to compensate.
  2. Take the bus or take the ferry, but don’t take a car to the start. Because he’s running late, Jean-Paul gets a ride from Jerry to the start on Staten Island. While there are designated drop-off zones for cars near the Start Village, we strongly recommend using the provided transportation methods: The Staten Island Ferry or the charter buses from Midtown Manhattan and New Jersey.
  3. Stick to the official aid stations. The TCS New York City Marathon brings out a spirit of community in New Yorkers, but for the best results, take your drink cups from tables stocked with trained volunteers. Gatorade and Poland Spring water are available at nearly every mile marker, Honey Stinger Organic Energy Gels are offered at miles 11 and 18, and miles 20 through 23 will be stocked with Chiquita bananas. There will be enough offered at the official aid stations that you won’t need to run the risk of accidentally downing a cup of hot tea mid-race.

A TCS New York City Marathon volunteer holding out a Gatorade cup If you're running this year and need some mid-race hydration, look for someone dressed more like this and less like Kramer.

So we’ve covered a show where the characters watch others run the Marathon, but what about an episode where one of the main characters personally runs the Marathon? For that, we turn to:

How I Met Your Mother

In the second season of the show, the episode “Lucky Penny” (first aired in 2007) follows Barney Stinson as he sets out to win a bet over whether he can finish the New York City Marathon with no training.

There are a few problems with this right from the start, namely:

  1. Barney gets his spot in the race because Marshall, who was entered, becomes injured and lets Barney use his bib. Folks, don’t do this. If you’re injured, you can defer your entry to next year. If you sell or give away your bib, or if you run with a bib that wasn’t assigned to you, you run the risk of getting disqualified from the Marathon and banned from future NYRR races.
  2. He doesn’t train. Yes, it’s part of the bet, and it is possible to run 26.2 miles without training for it, but we recommend trying something like NYRR Virtual Trainer, which creates a customized training plan based on your running background. Barney soon learns that on zero training, your body will feel it after the race, as evidenced by how...
  3. After the race, Barney rides the subway, as Marshall tells him that on Marathon Sunday, runners can ride for free; Barney boards the 6 train, but he's unable to get off the train later because his legs are so tired and sore from running the race without training. Also, in reality, runners still have to pay the subway fare—medal or no medal—but we’ll let you in on a little secret: If you want to take another ride on the Staten Island Ferry, just show your medal there and you can ride that for free! 😉

A TCS New York City Marathon runner taking a photo on the Staten Island Ferry, with the Lower Manhattan skyline in the background

For a recommended follow-up read, check out this post, where NYRR staff dispel more common Marathon myths.

As a fun sidenote, Barney was played by Neil Patrick Harris; there was a Neil Harris who ran the New York City Marathon in 1985 and 1986, but the actor would have been 12 and 13 at the time. Doogie Howser might have been a doctor at age 14, but he was not a marathoner.

But a marathon takes hours to run, and a 21-minute episode of a sitcom couldn’t possible capture all that goes into finishing a race of that distance. For that, we turn to the silver screen.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Released in theaters this summer, this feature film chronicles one New Yorker’s path from zero running to 26.2 miles’ worth. Scenes from the movie were shot during the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon, and the plot is based on an actual runner’s journey to the finish line.

In fact, the “real” Brittany came back to run the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile this past September!

And now we move from Fifth Avenue to another famous roadway:

Sesame Street

In 1983, as part of the show’s 15th season, Sesame Street aired an episode that followed two of the street’s residents as they ran the New York City Marathon: Gordon and Mr. Snuffleupagus.

The two finish in last and second-to-last place, but not before overcoming a number of setbacks along the five-borough route.

For Gordon, it was a case of leg cramps causing him to slow down in the later miles. Still, he pushes through, and once he crosses that finish line, a race official who appears to be Fred Lebow himself is there to place a medal around his neck! (And as this video shows, Gordon did train for the race—unlike Barney Stinson—but leg cramps can happen to any runner out on the course.)

In Snuffy’s case, it was a combination of getting to the start after every other runner, and then later, coming to a stop sign along the roadway and believing he’s supposed to stop. But with support from Big Bird, he starts up again and continues through the night until he reaches that finish line.

For Big Bird, his main conflict in the episode is that he can’t tell when Snuffy would be passing by different points on the course. In 1983, that was an issue for spectators and supporters, but in 2019, we’ve got the TCS New York City Marathon App Powered by Tata Consultancy Services, where you can:

  • Track runners’ progress along the course
  • Create Cheer Cards Powered by Biofreeze to send them a message of support on the course
  • Create a Spectator Guide to plan out where to see your runner and how to get to each location

But Sesame Street isn’t the only show to have placed a focus on the race’s final finishers.

Saturday Night Live

The New York City Marathon takes place on a Sunday morning, but in 1990, the following week’s episode of Saturday Night Live included a special “Weekend Update” segment on the course with the race’s “final finisher,” approaching the finish line a full six days later.

As Chris Farley—or Rick Decatur, as he’s known in the sketch—celebrates his accomplishment, he is surprised to learn of his finish time (or date, in this case). He then explains what took him that amount of time to finish:

“I didn't know; I'm sorry, it was just so much fun, and there are all these people cheering. . . I just wanted to talk to ’em.”

We would agree with him to this point—the spectators make the race an unforgettable experience—until he continues: “They took me to these intense bars in Brooklyn, and we went to this rib joint.”

We’re sure there are great watering holes along the route in Brooklyn, and likely, rib joints as well. But it’s best if you stay on the course during your run and leave the urban exploration for after the race.

Unconventional as his course may have been, Farley—we mean, Decatur—did raise a few points about how to run a marathon. Let’s break those statements down:

“I did it to prove a point, that anyone can run in a marathon.”
This is mostly true! The TCS New York City Marathon welcomes runners of all backgrounds, ages, and paces.

“It doesn't matter if you're out of shape, or if you don't have any stamina, you can do it. You just have to believe you can do it!”
Well, sort of, but it helps to have some amount of training to base that belief on (see our plug above for the NYRR Virtual Training program)

"You don't have to prepare, either—don't let anyone tell you that you have to prepare!"
He might be going a step too far here. Yes, it is possible to run 26.2 miles without training (see our section above on Barney Stinson), but it's really hard and your body is going to feel it for a long time afterward. For your legs’ sake, please, please train for the race.

“That's negative, man—and you gotta take those negative thoughts and just get 'em out of your head, 'cause you can finish!”
He has a decent point here! Self-talk is important, and keeping the tone of that self-talk positive can make a difference in how you handle the tougher parts of the race.

“Just take your time—that's the key thing—just have fun, no rush, baby.”
Well, yes, and we do celebrate all of our finishers, but we also have to re-open the streets at some point. Please have fun on the course, slow down if you need to—or if you just want to take in the moment—but for your own sake, don’t lose track of time. You don’t want to find yourself at a rib joint in Brooklyn on Wednesday with 14 miles still left to run.

Runners approaching the finish line of the TCS New York City Marathon in Central Park

Want to watch another instance of the TCS New York City Marathon on TV? You can catch the 2019 race live on ABC7 in the New York metro area, or on ESPN2 nationally.

About the Author

Ted Doyle

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