Pioneer Club, Ted Corbitt, NYRR & the NYC Marathon

It seems I have been doing more reading than running of late. Some of that reading is recent news of changes within the New York City Marathon organization where it’s reported people in upper management weren’t playing nice. As the dust cleared, Ted Metellus, a New York City native and previously vice president of events at New York Road Runners was named the new Marathon Director. An ESPN article points out that Metellus is the first Black race director of any of the Abbott World Marathon Majors.

While reading about these changes, I also ran across an article about another Ted, distance runner Ted Corbitt. The NYRR recently honored his contribution to distance running. Corbitt was many things and did many things. He was an Olympian, a physical therapist, and was heavily involved in the development of standards to accurately measure courses and certify races. (Photo credit: NYRR. org)

Then, while learning about him, I continued backward in chronology and found that in 1947, Ted Corbitt found his way to the Pioneer Running Club, at that time the only integrated running club in the country, welcoming runners of every background, amateur and professional. (photo credit:

Go back another 11 years to 1936. I also happened upon an article that led me to the origins of the NYRR and the NYC Marathon. It seems that ten years before Corbitt joined the club, the Pioneer Club was founded in Harlem by three black men, Joseph J. Yancey, Robert Douglas and William Culbreath, all athletes in their own right. They were engaged in varying professions and served the club as coaches, administrators and leaders. The motto for the club spoke of the community:

To encourage and further the ambition of our youth for higher education that they might become intelligent, civic – minded citizens, and to work toward a better racial understanding through the medium of education and sports.

Leadership of the Pioneer Club was intent on developing gentlemen first, athletes second. They were successful at doing both. The club continued to grow with black and jewish members that then expanded into a fully integrated club. Pioneer athletes held their own in running competition with several of the exclusive and well-funded running clubs in New York.

So, this Pioneer Club, built as a community running club in the best sense of the word, was the genesis of the New York City Marathon. Harlem World Margazine explains that without the Pioneer Club there would be no NYRR. And without NYRR, would there be a New York City Marathon?

This club of runners not welcome in the well-funded and well established running clubs of New York, established a club welcoming all runners, creating a running foundation that would eventually morph into the giant NYC Marathon. Now, runners from around the world cross their fingers hoping their application will be accepted in the lottery. For marathon weekend, the event boosts the NY economy, fills hotel rooms, airlines fly runners in from who-knows-where, restaurants are crowded, vendors sell the latest in sunglasses, running wear, energy foods and just about anything tangentially related to running.

I was fortunate to be one of those runners filling New York City streets for the 2014 Marathon and was totally ignorant of this interesting and motivating history. My guess is most runners participating in this historic event are equally ignorant of its history.

Tracksmith, an independent running brand, in celebration of 50 years of the NYC Marathon and inspired by the legacy of the Pioneer Club and Ted Corbitt has developed a collection based on the Pioneer uniforms.

Ted Corbett’s son, Gary Corbett, has developed, an archive of information on his father’s history as well as the history of other black distance runners. The word ‘archive’ sounds rather dry, but this collection of information is not. It provides background on the Pioneer Club, and much on the professional life of Ted Corbett, his running career and accomplishments and a strong sense of who this incredible man was as a person. If you would like to explore further, Gary Corbett’s archive is interesting and well done.

This deeper story of New York Road Runners and the New York City Marathon makes it all the more important and historic. Congratulations to Race Director Ted Metellus. I won’t be running in New York on November 7, but I will be watching and cheering for those who are.


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