Winning the New York City Marathon is easy. Bill Rodgers has done it four times and Grete Waitz three. No one, however, has been durable or quite savvy enough to finish last even twice. I know, because I've tried.
Winning is the usual route to fame; one might even say it's boringly conventional. On the other hand, losing—and receiving acclaim for losing—is really something to be proud of. For all the thousands of runners entered in the marathon, only one can finish first and only one can finish last. The recent record shows that the latter may be more difficult.
On Sunday, Oct. 26, 1980 I set out to come in last in the marathon. In the 1979 marathon I'd come close to attaining that goal. When I submitted my race registration forms that year, I truly believed I could make myself undergo an intensive 12-week training program designed to prepare my mind and body for running a reasonably competitive marathon.
However, my devotion to training rapidly evaporated in the heat and humidity of the summer. Nonetheless, I somehow convinced myself that I could crawl out of bed in the wee hours of marathon Sunday and miraculously complete the 26 miles and 385 yards in 3:30 or less. This fantasy persisted despite a total lack of training until I attempted a long run two weeks before the marathon. After 12 miles I ran smack into the so-called wall. It finally dawned on me that it might be a wise idea to hang up my New Balances.
But when I learned that a local TV station intended to present a feature on the last finisher in the marathon, my interest was instantly rekindled. Suddenly I again felt equal to the formidable task of running the race. But I decided to have some fun and try to finish last.
That Sunday I started very slowly and made it rather easily to the back of the pack. No serious competition was in sight. I was creeping a beautiful race through the first 20 miles until I met a middle-aged man whose blistered feet made his pace even slower than mine. He posed a great threat to my quest. I couldn't allow him to fall behind me lest he somehow summon the wherewithal to finish the race.
I began faking great pain and walked with him for a while. We stopped for pastrami sandwiches and lemonade. After that interlude he pulled ahead of me near the finish line. Then, feigning pain and suppressing guilt, I limped heroically across the finish line 6 hours and 54 minutes after the start of the race.
As soon as I hit the tape, a microphone was thrust in my face. Celebrity status was mine!
"How does it feel to finish last?" the guy with the mike asked.
I innocently looked around. "Rodgers get here yet?" I asked.
"What's your reaction to Rodgers' two-hour and 10-minute finishing time?"
I responded that "anyone could fool around and run 26 miles in two hours or so, but it takes a real competitor to do it for almost seven hours."
For a full 10 minutes I was the darling of the press. I was the loser who'd finally hit it big. I was really having a good time. The score clocks had been taken down, and I would be known forever as the last-place finisher in the 1979 New York City Marathon. Arrangements were made by members of the press and television to contact me at home for further interviews and an in-depth feature.
And then, catastrophe.
I saw a female runner, gasping and panting, closing in on the finish line—and my newly exalted status. I fervently hoped that she had nothing to do with the marathon. When I saw her race number I moved sideways hoping that the remaining members of the press would fail to notice her. But they didn't. They dropped me like a hot potato and flocked around their new celeb. My glory became hers.
It turned out I wasn't even close to last; four other people finished behind me. As I walked disconsolately away, all I had to soften my disappointment was the old cry of "wait 'til next year."
I started training for the 1980 marathon early. I embarked upon a daily regimen of overeating that added 15 pounds of useless fat to my frame. On July 1,1980 I strategically chipped a bone and tore some ligaments in my left ankle while playing basketball. That lucky break enabled me to studiously avoid for weeks to come any exercise that might leave me in reasonably good condition.
For the '80 marathon I also had the advantage of a year's experience under my belt. I felt that the wisdom I'd gained would prove invaluable in the later, crucial stages of the marathon.
Not that I was leaving anything to chance. I carefully planned my race garb to ensure continual, progress-impeding conversation with the assembled multitudes along the course. I purchased a T shirt that bore a picture of King Kong (another famous loser) embracing the Empire State Building. And with the memory of my '79 fiasco firmly in mind, I had the words LAST PLACE OR BUST, AGAIN emblazoned on the lower portion of the shirt.
I was up about 5:30 a.m. on the day of the race and felt perfectly lousy. Things couldn't have looked better. On the bus ride from Lincoln Center to the starting point at the Staten Island end of the Verrazano Bridge, I was enveloped by a feeling of supreme confidence. I looked at the characteristic spindly legs and emaciated bodies of the dedicated runners around me, and it was easy to see that at least 95% of them could whip me even if I weren't trying to lose. I only had to worry about the 5% of slouches and goof-offs who might stumble across the finish line after me.
Before the race started, my fellow competitors were busy stretching or lounging all over the place. They were wiping blister-preventing Vaseline into and over every nook and cranny of their bodies. I casually stood around and ate donuts.
As we lined up for the start I tucked an unlit cigar into the corner of my mouth. I put some spare cigars and some donuts in the trash bag I carried. I then put on a Santa Claus hat to ensure a total loss of respectability. It worked.
Mayor Koch fired the opening cannon, and we were off across the bridge. I once again headed to the very back of the field. The spectators along the route were enthusiastically responsive. After all, who could possibly root against Santa? Many offered me a match for the cigar; the more conservative cautioned that smoking was bad for my health.
I ran at a very relaxed pace for almost 10 miles through Brooklyn and learned that Alberto Salazar had already won the race. The crowds were all but gone now. This was a definite signal to me to show my true competitive strength. I broke into a walk.
During my lonely stroll toward the Queensboro Bridge I overtook an English runner named Eric, in no hurry himself. When I told him about my quest, he decided to join in, much to my chagrin. Fortunately, the chilling winds buffeting the bridge persuaded him to drop out of the race, and I breathed a little easier. I treated him to a hot chocolate at a coffee shop near the 17-mile mark, in Manhattan, and, like a reasonable person, he returned to the warm comfort of his hotel.
I was now entering the strategic phase of the race. The task ahead of me required nerves of steel. Would I be tough enough? As I walked up First Avenue I came across a 25-year-old New Yorker who stood about 6'3" and weighed in at something near 275 pounds. Although a competitor, he was at this point walking the course with a 12-year-old boy from Poughkeepsie.
The pace set by this Mutt and Jeff convinced me that they would prove to be stiff competition. I walked with them for half a mile until I was greeted by two friends who appeared on the course at a prearranged place. We chatted for a while, allowing my competitors to move on and develop a slight lead.
Several minutes later I continued my promenade. But then, one of my friends ran up to me and said that a young woman was several blocks behind me. I walked just slowly enough to allow her to overtake me at the 19-mile mark. She eventually joined up with Mutt and Jeff, and that weary trio, some 75 yards ahead of me, edged ever so slowly toward the finish line in Central Park.
I would have been content to maintain that distance for the remaining five or six miles, but the day's light was dwindling. I started to fear that at the snail's pace the threesome was setting, we'd cross the finish line to find a deserted park. Thus I reluctantly joined my fellow runners in the hope that I could speed them up. I even offered to give the plucky youngster a piggyback ride, but he'd have none of it. We finally hit Central Park and had about three miles to go. Evening had fallen, and it was bone-chillingly cold. Although I feared that my companions would try to upstage me by coming in behind me, I valiantly outlasted them and they eventually edged ahead.
I finished some 10 yards behind the woman and just in front of an ambulance that signified the end of the race. It was 6:07 p.m. and I had spent seven hours, 37 minutes and 42 seconds on the course.
The television cameras were long gone and only a handful of people were milling around at the finish line when I finally arrived. I was declared the last-place finisher and some race officials briefly interviewed me.
I was hoping for a larger reception from the media, but was buoyed by my ability to match my boast and finish last. Victory was, at last, mine!
To my joyous surprise when I returned home that evening, I was interviewed over the phone by the Associated Press and The Miami Herald. The New York Post sent a photographer over after midnight to get me with my Santa Claus hat and victory cigar.
The following day I came to understand the joys and strains of celebrity status. Nearly every TV station and newspaper in New York City called me at work requesting an interview. My boss told me that I was disrupting the office (even more than usual) and that I should take a vacation day and go home.
During this hectic activity a staffer from a local TV station, while arranging an interview with me, mentioned that a check of the computer showed that someone else had finished last, but that they would interview me anyway. I confidently shrugged off the suggestion that anyone could have lost to me and thought to myself that this must be a feeble jest.
I spent the rest of the day taping interviews, posing for photographs and then watching myself on the early evening news. Two promoters actually called to tantalize me with the possibility of endorsements, wealth and national fame. It was reassuring to see awfulness so richly rewarded.
But I was surprised, to say the least, by what happened next. On the late news, Salazar was shown with the last-place finisher in the marathon, and I astutely observed that he wasn't me. The world was informed in no uncertain terms that Anthony Geremia, a 38-year-old engineer, was the official last-place finisher. About that time I began to suspect that the television staffer hadn't been kidding me. My phone stopped ringing.
The final blow came in the following day's edition of the New York Post. It carried an AP story with the headline WEISBERG LOSES LAST PLACE FINISH. The story said that my claim to fame as a last-place finisher in the New York Marathon had been undermined and I was declared to be "a loser all the way around." Apparently, the ambulance had lost track of Geremia and on Monday race director Fred Lebow declared him to be the last-place finisher. The promoter who had promised to get me endorsements for a thirst-quenching beverage and a line of durable sporting-goods equipment didn't return my phone calls.
People on the streets of New York were ignoring me again. The only phone calls I got were wrong numbers. My friends stayed up late to watch Geremia on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder.
But, if my fame was gone, I still had a book full of newspaper clippings with which to impress girl friends and to silence doubts of future friends about my moment of glory. And, of course, there is still this year.
A few days after the last clipping was pasted into place, thieves slashed their way into my 1972 convertible and removed my radio and all of the contents of the car—including my marathon scrap-book. Now I'm sure that I was the biggest loser running in the 1980 New York City Marathon.