By LISA KLEIN
Connie Lyke-Brown finished her 42nd New York City Marathon on Sunday, Nov. 7, making her the all-time record-holder for the woman with the most consecutive runs.
This year also marked a milestone for the marathon as it celebrated its 50th anniversary: Brooklyn-born, Sarasota, Florida-based Ms. Lyke-Brown has been there for most of them as a witness to both the changes and long-lasting camaraderie of the race.
“It’s a funny thing, because it’s what I do every year and it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but other people keep telling me it’s a big deal,” Ms. Lyke-Brown, an agent with Michael Saunders & Company said.
The marathon was organized by a local running club, the New York Road Runners, in 1970 with fewer than 200 runners. In 2021, the marathon attracted a grand total of more than 1.3 million all-time finishers.
Since her first race in 1978, Ms. Lyke-Brown has not missed a single year, except for when the marathon was cancelled in 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and 2020 in the aftermath of COVID.
In her youth, Ms. Lyke-Brown played every girl’s sport at her school, although pre-Title IX their teams were not allowed to even practice until the boys’ teams were finished or had an off-day.
“It wasn’t thought of as weird; it was just the way it was,” Ms. Lyke-Brown said.
“But my mother didn’t think that was right,” she said. “She was very progressive for someone at that time in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do.”
Later, as a physical education teacher in New York, Ms. Lyke-Brown started running clubs for her students and was invited to join a running group by some of their parents.
“They were all training for marathons — it seemed like a fun thing to do,” Ms. Lyke-Brown said, attending the 1976 and 1977 races as a spectator.
“I said OK, I want to do this,” she said. “I saw other people who didn’t look like superstars, they just looked like regular people. And so I thought if these regular people can do it so can I.”
While she was training for her first marathon in 1978, her mother passed away after batting cancer in May.
There were about 7,000 runners at that fateful race, at least 90 percent of them men.
“The joke at the time was if you were single and you wanted to meet a man, run a marathon,” Ms. Lyke-Brown said.
As she crossed the finish line, she says all she could think of was her mother and how right she had been about doing anything you put your mind to, female or not.
“It was a great feeling of accomplishment, and it was also a testament,” Ms. Lyke-Brown said. “For me this was something that really brought it home.”
Aside from the satisfaction of finishing, marathons were just fun, and Ms. Lyke-Brown has now done almost 120 of them across the country including her 42 in New York.
After moving to Florida in 1981 she kept running the New York City Marathon as part of her yearly visit back home to see her friends and family, especially her father.
“I always said I’d go back as long as my father was there,” Ms. Lyke-Brown said. “Then my dad passed away [in 2001] and I realized I had this streak.”
Ms. Lyke-Brown pointed out that the second-place record holder for women has 37 marathons under her belt.
“I have to keep going to keep in front of her,” she said.
While her streak brings her back every year, the friendships she has formed with other longtime runners is no second fiddle.
“When you have something in common with somebody you have a special kind of bond,” she said. “It’s great.”
Miles of memories
Even after running so many of the same marathon, many still stand out.
“New York is great because every year it’s a little bit different,” Ms. Lyke-Brown said.
Right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the marathon carried on, beginning with a moving speech by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani.
“During the race, there were firefighters running in their full gear, running in memory of people who had lost friends and family,” Ms. Lyke-Brown said. “People had pictures and names of those people on their back, and they were trying to honor them through their running.
“It was very touching, and sad and memorable,” she said.
Smaller moments remain with her too, such as talking with other runners to make it through the tough points.
When the 2020 event was cancelled, Ms. Lyke-Brown could not simply miss her beloved marathon that year, organizing a run in Sarasota and logging it with the New York Road Runners.
Signs at mile 13 and 21 marked where runners normally leave Brooklyn and enter the Bronx, and her tennis club set up an authentic finish line complete with Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York playing.
“If you have anything left in you at that point, it really perks you up,” Ms. Lyke-Brown said of the marathon’s final-mile tradition. “You’re dragging your legs, and then you hear Frank Sinatra, and you just pick your knees up.”
Nothing has brought her down since 1978, including a broken arm and a cancer diagnosis 11 years ago.
“I was diagnosed in September, and I told the doctor, but I have to run the marathon!” Ms. Lyke-Brown said, starting her successful radiation treatment after the race.
“When I tell you I’m lucky, I’m lucky,” she said. “There’s no other explanation.
“I do know that when I’m outside, and it’s a beautiful day, and I’m running, I just feel very happy. And when I don’t run, I feel like I’m missing something.”
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