CLAIM TO FAME: Arnold Obey ’68 holds an elite standing in the world of marathon runners. The retired Staten Island public school principal, who celebrated his 70th birthday this year, has completed 37 consecutive New York City Marathons.
THE MARATHON LEADERBOARD: Today’s TCS New York City Marathon started in 1970, and Obey has run every one since 1980. According to marathon records, 21 people have completed 35 or more; the top finisher has run 41.
EXCEPTION: Obey (pronounced “OH-bee,” as in Obi-Wan Kenobi) kept his perfect record of consecutive marathons despite suffering a stroke and undergoing heart surgery in 2012. The marathon was canceled that year because Hurricane Sandy had devastated large portions of the city just days earlier. Staten Island, where the marathon begins, was especially hard hit.
PAIN? WHAT PAIN? After Obey tumbled out of bed one night in February 2012, half-paralyzed from a stroke, he learned some new things about his body. For example, he had a congenital hole in his heart. Despite his many years of high-level athletics, it had never bothered him. Or maybe he had just ignored the signs. There was an incident a few years earlier, on his regular Sunday afternoon group run, when suddenly his left leg “froze.” He stopped running and told the group, “Go on, I’ll catch up with you.” After some time, he was able to start running again. He ran back by himself — about 7 miles. In hindsight, he had likely suffered a small stroke.
“YOU’RE OUT OF YOUR MIND!” Obey grew up in the Bronx and came to Wagner for the opportunity to attend a small college on a basketball scholarship. During his sophomore year, he tried out for the track and field team to keep up his conditioning after basketball season ended. He ran sprints and also did the long jump and triple jump; he held the school record in the triple jump for over 30 years, with a leap of 44’ 11 ½”. (In 1991, he was inducted into the Wagner Athletic Hall of Fame for his basketball and track and field achievements.) “When I saw the long distance runners — the guys running a mile, 2 miles — I said, ‘You’re out of your mind!’”
BECOMING A LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER: That changed after he graduated. Besides teaching in Staten Island public schools, he coached basketball and was a high school referee. But, he wasn’t playing, and he wanted to stay in shape. So, he joined a neighborhood running group. His wife, Cheryl, would run with him; it turned out to be a good time to “solve the world’s problems,” as he says jokingly, or at least to talk through family issues. Daily at about 5:30 a.m., he started with 3 miles, before building up to 5 miles, 7 miles, a half marathon, and finally a marathon.
BEST OF ALL: Obey has completed multiple Boston Marathons as well as the Disney World and the Philadelphia marathons, but NYC remains his favorite because of the crowds and entertainment all along the way. And that’s the simple reason why he keeps doing it, year after year: “I enjoy it, it’s a good time.”
FAVORITE SPOTS: One of Obey’s favorite scenes comes right at the beginning, when the runners cross from Staten Island into Brooklyn on the Verrazano Bridge, and he looks at the view of Manhattan across the harbor and the FDNY boats shooting out red-white-and-blue-colored water down below. Other favorite mile markers are 16, when he crosses the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, and 22, when he runs down Fifth Avenue from the Bronx into Central Park. “You know you’re almost home.”
MEMORABLE MOMENTS: Obey has run the marathon in the pouring rain with lightning flashing down First Avenue in 1997. He has run the marathon in the record heat of 1984. He has run the marathon with his wife and with two of his daughters, Celisse ’89 (also a star of Seahawk basketball) and Tonya. He saw boxer Floyd Patterson, two-time world heavyweight champion, running the course with him in 1983. His favorite run of all was 1982, the year he achieved his best time: 3:31:54.
NOTABLE CHANGES: In 1980, Obey’s first year in the marathon, 12,512 people finished the race; last year, that number was 51,394, again setting the record as the world’s largest marathon. The numbers of bands playing and spectators cheering along the route have multiplied proportionately. Obey also notes the increase in women’s participation — they made up only 12 percent of the field in 1980, and 42 percent last year. Technological changes have meant that he now gets an accurate accounting of his time. Each runner has a chip in his or her bib that records exactly when they cross the start and finish lines. It also allows friends to follow a runner’s progress through the marathon’s mobile app and on the website.
HOW TO BECOME A MARATHONER: According to Obey, it’s no big secret. “One, you have to start running. You’re not going to get out of bed and run a marathon. But if you can run 3 miles, you can build up to run a marathon.” He recommends a 16-week training program you can find online.
NO PLANS TO QUIT: Obey runs almost every day — but since he retired, in 2002, he doesn’t have to go out at 5:30 a.m. anymore. He still runs with his Sunday group that meets in Clove Lakes Park. How many more marathons is he going to do? “I don’t know. My back is starting to bother me, so we’ll see.”