By Sal Citarella
I grew up in Yonkers and it wasn’t until long after I left that I learned the origin of the name.
The Dutchman who was first granted title to the land along the Hudson was known locally as the Jonkheer or Jonker, “young gentleman,” a derivation of old Dutch jong (young) and heer (“lord”); in effect, “Esquire“), a word from which the name “Yonkers” is directly derived.
In spite of my ignorance, Yonkers is the home of the second oldest marathon in the country. Even though I was living there, and ran in HS and college, to my regret, I never even went to see the event. A marathon? Come on, what kind of race is that? I ran cross-country at Van Cortlandt and 440s on the track. That was enough.
Years later, however, I did go back and ran it on three different occasions, finally getting to experience “The Course,” the one that made Johnny Kelley famous.
For many reasons, perhaps that marathons drew little interest, that Yonkers was a scenic but distant cousin of NYC, that no sponsor could benefit from one, etc., the course was reconfigured several times.
1907- first race started in Getty Square, the old commercial center of town.
1908- moved to the horse track; admission was charged.
1918 to 1934- no race. WW I interrupted not just Yonkers, but Boston as well.
1935- return to the raceway.
1948- no race.
1949- commencement of the famous, hilly route north and south through several towns along the river.
1964- the course was modified for this one year to better reflect the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
1972- it reverted to the raceway to ease traffic issues and race management.
1977 to 1994- return to the famously hilly course.
1995- modified to a two-loop route through town.
Got that? Notice that “second oldest” doesn’t necessarily mean consistent nor continuous. The same would apply to Boston but to a much lesser extent.
Yonkers was recognized as the national championship and Olympic qualifier for several years, in spite of its hilly course of the time.
When I was a kid, John J. Kelley (Kelley the Younger as opposed to John A. Kelley, The Elder, of Boston fame) ran it nine times and won for eight years straight from 1956 through 1963. His 1960 record of 2:20:13 on the hilly course I grew up with, was never beaten.
Ted Corbitt ran Yonkers 26 times.
I finally ran my first Yonkers in 1974, when I was living in MD. It started and finished at Yonkers Raceway on a deep, slow horse track. Ron Wayne and John Vitale entered the track essentially neck and neck but Wayne went directly to the finish, whereas Vitale set out on a lap of the track. What a bummer! Winning time was 2:18:53. (This doesn’t beat Kelley’s record as it’s a different course.) Norb Sander (my HS teammate) and Nick Marshall from Harrisburg A.A. were also there.
In 1975 the race was initially canceled due to the cost but another organization stepped in to save it. I ran it again.
In 1994 I finally seized the opportunity to run the famous and hilly course. There were only 211 finishers, with Trevor Murray winning in 2:40:25; only eight men broke three hours and I was not one of them.
I’ve lost touch with Yonkers and the state of its marathon, but for those of you who live closer to it, keep it in mind. The 2018 winning time of 2:55:56 and only 88 finishers, would indicate a not quite stellar field. It’s got a rather tortured and interesting history and, who knows, you might run a new course.