73: The 100-miler: Part 20 (1978-79) The Unisphere 100
By Davy Crockett
1978 was a year when new road 100-milers started to spring up across America, put on by independent race directors. Most of these races were available for the non-elite long-distance runners to give the epic distance a try. These 100-milers were held in Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Maryland, Missouri. One race in particular was established that would eventually become a national championship event: the 100-miler at Flushing Meadows in Queens, New York. Going forward 100-mile or 24-hour races would be held at this venue into the 1990s. World and American records would be set on the grounds normally used by thousands of park visitors.
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Flushing Meadows Park was created in 1939 for the New York World’s Fair and was also the venue for the 1964 World’s Fair. The races’ namesake, the Unisphere, a massive spherical steel representation of the Earth, was created as part of the 1964 World’s Fair. It is 140 feet high and 120 feet in diameter and weighs 700,000 pounds. The rings around it represent the tracks of the first men to orbit the earth, celebrating the beginning of the space age.
The course for the 1978 100-mile race was a flat, but uneven, 2.27-mile loop that went closely around Meadow Lake. The race included a strong field and was an invitational race where participants needed to have previous ultramarathon experience. Twenty-two qualified runners participated although few had ever run the 100-mile distance before. Five of these runners deserve to be highlighted.
Park Barner (1944-), “The Human Metronome,” was a computer programmer from Pennsylvania. He was the pre-race favorite for the Unisphere 100. Barner had served in the Army and was stationed in Germany during the late 1960s. While there, he watched a movie that inspired him to start running and set a goal to run a marathon.
At the 1971 Boston Marathon, he met ultrarunning legend Ted Corbitt (1919-2017) and asked him, “How do you run 100 miles?” Corbitt’s reply was, “You just have to tell yourself to keep going.” Barner at the age of 27, in 1971, started running ultra-distance races and quickly became the greatest American ultrarunner of the 1970s. In 1976 he gained fame by running 300 km on the C&O Towpath in Maryland, in 36:48:34. During that run he reached 100 miles in 16:14:10.
On August 16, 1975, Barner ran his first formal 100-mile race. It was held on a quarter-mile track at New York’s Queensboro Community College, put on by the New York Road Runners. There were only seven starters and all but Barner dropped out along the way. He reached 50 miles in 6:32 but without any competition, he faded the second half. He won with a time of 13:40:59 for a lifetime best.
By 1978, Barner had finished 41 races of 50 miles or longer and won 19 of them. Barner’s 41 finishes was incredible for a time when relatively few ultras were being held. For more about Barner, see episode 51.
Nick Marshall (1948-) was from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. He was an athlete in high school on the track team and the statistician for the basketball team. In his yearbook he was quoted, “I don’t want to be an engineer, I’d rather be President.” Marshall started running marathons in 1973. He realized that the longer the race, the better he could compete. He said, “I was motivated by a simple curiosity over a basic question: How far can you go?” He set his marathon best of 2:41:15 in 1975 at the Harrisburg Marathon.
Marshall’s introduction to ultras came in 1974, at the C&O Canal 100K on a point-to-point course from Washington D.C. to Harpers Ferry. He finished in second place to Park Barner and was then hooked on ultras. By 1977,