Originally published on ESPN.com on Nov. 1, 2016.
On Sunday morning, Dave Obelkevich will pull on a white T-shirt that declares he has finished every New York City Marathon since 1976 and slip into his bright South African flag shorts.
He’ll pin some business cards to the inside of his hat, make certain his entry number is affixed to his shirt and head out the door of his Upper West Side apartment to make his way to Staten Island where the race starts.
“It’s his favorite party of the year,” says his wife, Lin Dominguez. “He wouldn’t miss it.”
Even among some 50,000 starters, Obelkevich will stand out from the crowd. The yellow, green, red, white and blue shorts help, of course, but it’s more than that.
At 73, he’s a running, smiling, storytelling link to the days when the NYC Marathon consisted of four-plus loops through Central Park, fewer than 260 finishers and a smattering of spectators.
Obelkevich, a trim 5-foot-8, 145-pound retired high school music teacher, has been finishing NYC Marathons since before defending champions Stanley Biwott and Mary Keitany were born.
Obelkevich completed his first in 1974. He had to drop out of the 1975 race but has finished every one held since. (Hurricane Sandy wiped out the 2012 race.) The soon-to-be-40-year streak is the longest in the history of the event, which began in 1970.
For years, Obelkevich didn’t realize he had a streak. The annual 26.2-mile race was just something he did with many of his friends from the Millrose Athletic Association.
“I didn’t even think of not doing it,” he says. “You know, you tie your shoes in the morning, you brush your teeth and you do the marathon.”
Plus, his hometown marathon was just one of many events he ran each year. He has raced in 65 other marathons and more than 200 ultramarathons around the globe.
Now he says the streak is something special, to be savored and continued for as long as possible. It’s an annual celebration of his beloved sport and city. It’s also another opportunity to make friends.
As he runs through the city’s five boroughs, he strikes up conversations with those running alongside him. Often he’ll reach up, pull a card from his hat and hand it to his new friend so they can stay in touch.
“Many years ago I heard about a high school track coach,” Obelkevich says. “He told his boys, ‘I don’t care if you come back from a meet and tell me you won every race you were in. If you didn’t make at least two new friends, consider yourself a failure.’ I’d never heard that before, but I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”
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Starting with one loop
Obelkevich first ran in the NYC Marathon in 1973. He didn’t officially enter but decided to go to Central Park to jump in. He figured if the runners could do four-plus loops of the park, he could do one.
“So I waited until I thought I could keep up with the runners, and I ran one loop of the park, which is 6 miles,” he says. “It took like 43 minutes. Then I went home.”
In 1974 he entered for the first time and finished in 4 hours, 20 minutes. That year, about half the runners dropped out because of the weather on a hot and rainy September day.
“I was just very stubborn,” he says.
He surprised himself by finishing, because he didn’t know how to train.
“I ran 6 miles a week,” he says, laughing. “I ran every Sunday.”
In 1975, the last time the event was contained to Central Park, Obelkevich began feeling dizzy late in the race. He lay down to rest and got back up three times. When he had to stop a fourth time with just 3 miles to go, friend and race director Fred Lebow drove by.
“I said, ‘Hey, Fred, give me a ride,'” Obelkevich recalls. “He should have said, ‘Hell no, Dave!’ But he said, ‘Get in.’ So I could have walked those last 3 miles and had 41 finishes in a row.”
In 1976, the course expanded through the city’s five boroughs. Obelkevich recalls running through parts of the city that he had never seen, although he had lived in the city since 1961. Staten Island, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens and even the east side of Manhattan were new to him. At one point, he recalls the runners being directed to a path along the river.
“You would see three or four people per mile,” he says. “Most of them were drunks wondering, ‘What the hell is going on?'”
Eventually, his training intensified. He did as many as 60 miles a week, mostly in Central Park near his home. Now he does 30 to 40 miles per week.
In 1982 he ran 2 hours, 40 minutes, his fastest time in New York. These days he just hopes to beat five hours. Last year he came in at 4:57.
That ’82 race is one of his favorite memories, partly because of his personal record, but also because he ran the first half with friend Leslie Watson, a top Scottish distance runner. He decided to run with Watson early because she usually paced herself and then came on strong over the second half.
The only time the streak almost died had nothing to do with Obelkevich’s endurance. Once in the early 1990s he received a letter saying his application had been denied. His wife suggested he write to Lebow to get it cleared up, but he never got around to it. Eventually she wrote to Lebow on his behalf, and Obelkevich was able to get to the starting line.
“If it weren’t for her, my streak would have been over,” he says.
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Obelkevich retired from teaching 15 years ago but says he’s never bored.
He plays violin or viola in string quartets and orchestras and enjoys bird watching and traveling with his wife. He also cycles—back in 1995 he pedaled across the U.S.—and runs. As much as he likes marathons, he likes longer races even better.
“That’s where the most fun is,” he says.
One of his favorites is the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, a 56-mile trek that dates to 1921. It was after doing his first Comrades in 2002 that he started to wear the South African flag shorts. He has finished Comrades 11 times.
He has several pairs of the shorts and wears them for all his training runs and races. He says they spark interesting conversations with other runners, usually starting with, “Hey, are you from South Africa?”
Dominguez says of her husband’s training runs: “It’s very rare that he comes back without having met someone new, and often someone from another country visiting New York. He’s always having fun meeting people.”
His race-day shirt is also a conversation starter. Designed by a friend, on the front the shirt reads: “Finisher every NYC Marathon 1976-????” On the back is a speed-limit-type sign that reads: “No Age Limit.”
“I would say 15 or 20 people during the marathon will say, ‘Do you really have such a long streak?'” he says.
Michael Capiraso, president and CEO of New York Road Runners, the group that organizes the race, says Obelkevich is a well-known figure among New York runners who is “inspiring to all generations of runners.” He says Obelkevich is one of more than 1,000 runners who have completed at least 15 NYC Marathons.
Two runners, David Laurance and Richard Shaver, are tied for the second-longest streak with 38 consecutive finishes.
Connie Lyke-Brown, who turns 73 the day before this year’s race, has the longest women’s streak at 37 races. She runs year-round but ramps up her training in July so she’s ready for New York, the only marathon she still runs. She had a personal best of 3:34 in the ’80s but now finishes in about 5½ hours.
“I’m at a point now that time isn’t that important to me,” says Lyke-Brown, a realtor in Sarasota, Florida. “Finishing and feeling good and having a great time is what’s important.”
As Obelkevich heads toward completing his 40th consecutive race and 41st overall, he says the race has changed in three significant ways from its early days.
- First, he has seen the crowds grow from just a few spectators to more than 2 million.
- Second, the participation of women has skyrocketed. Just one woman started the first race, and there were very few over the first few years. In 2015, there were 20,703 female finishers, the most in race history. Women represented 42 percent of all finishers.
- Third, the race has become an international magnet. Runners from 125 countries were in last year’s race. Over the past 10 races, 52 percent of runners have been from other countries.
Obelkevich loves the international flavor.
“You can go to any other major [U.S.] marathon and you won’t see one out of 10,” he says of the foreign contingent. “The leaders may be from other countries, but the others — the three-hour, four-hour, five-hour marathoners — you don’t find them in other marathons. That’s very exciting to me.”
Obelkevich wants to keep his streak going as long as possible. Running keeps him fit and energized.
“We joke that if you see someone over 60 and they look old, they’re probably not a runner,” he says. “Or maybe they were and their knees hurt and they don’t run anymore. Yeah, running keeps everybody young.”