10/31/2014 03:26 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

The Moxie of Rosie Ruiz, New York Marathon Runner

Nearly a million runners have competed in the Marathon since 1970 when only 127 looped around Central Park (55 of them finished) in the first of the 43 races, so I was momentarily stumped while searching for a single object that epitomized this egalitarian spectacle that galvanizes New York.

Then I remembered Rosie Ruiz.

Most New Yorkers probably don't. Half the city's current population wasn't even born 35 years ago when Ruiz, a 25-year-old Cuban-born office worker in a Manhattan commodities firm, who had trained on an exercise bike and was running her first marathon, clocked in at 2:56 to finish 23rd among the women. (She had applied late, but apparently was given a reprieve because she claimed she was dying of brain cancer.)

Her 1979 performance qualified her for the Boston Marathon the following spring. She stunningly finished first -- until a freelance photographer revealed that during the New York race she had met Ruiz on the subway where Ruiz said she had dropped out with a sprained ankle after 10 miles. She took a 16-mile mass-transit shortcut and walked to the finish line, where she was apparently credited with her finishing time. (Her Boston time, apparently accelerated by another motorized detour, was a spectacular 2:31.)

Her stunt scandalized racing. Sports Illustrated called it the modern equivalent of "Pheidippides riding a goat partway from Marathon to Athens." Her New York and Boston certificates were revoked.

But Ruiz became a folk hero of sorts. A modern-day Butch Cassidy who almost bamboozled the public on her sport's biggest stages. She endured as a punch line and a metaphor. And on rap sheets. In 1982, she was accused of embezzling $60,000 from the Manhattan real estate company that employed her. She moved to Florida where 18 months later she turned herself in on a warrant accusing her of conspiring to sell cocaine to undercover agents.

Appropriately enough, she said she wanted to be an actress. Having mastered the roles of Zelig and Forrest Gump, she is 61 now and still lives in Florida. Messages left for her were not returned.

I couldn't compile my new book, A History of New York in 101 Objects, without including the Marathon. And what, for better or worse, epitomizes New York moxie more than Rosie Ruiz and her misbegotten certificate? Didn't she achieve every Walter Mitty dream of 15 minutes of fame? Even if she literally cut corners?

Remember, too, that the first New York City Marathon, in 1970, was won by Gary Muhrcke. Eight years later, Muhrcke, a retired fireman, also won the first race up 85 flights of the Empire State Building, only to have it revealed that he was receiving an $11,000-a-year tax-free disability pension for a back injury from the city's Fire Department.


Sam Roberts, The New York Times's urban affairs correspondent, is author of A History of New York in 101 Objects.