SOMERS, N.Y. - For a man whose life is all about time, it should be no surprise that some of Dennis Fulton’s biggest moments have come down to seconds.
Fulton, the chief timer of the New York City Marathon for the past 40 years, recalls when, as a 38-year-old, he attempted to quality for the Boston Marathon, his lifelong dream. Back then, men of his age needed to complete a marathon within 3 hours to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Running in the Long Island Marathon after months of training, Fulton came down the home stretch and saw the clock at 2:59:40.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got 20 seconds to get in. I’m not gonna do it,’” Fulton said. “And I felt like I was sprinting, though I’m sure the feet were not going anywhere. But I just ran as hard as I could and just got across the line.”
Sure enough, he crossed the finish line at 2:59:59, and the next year competed in his first and last Boston Marathon.
“I made it and that was my goal and that was it,” Fulton said. “Eleven months later when I ran Boston, at that point I was just tired of training and had young kids. It’s hard. If you want to be good at it, you have to put in the mileage.”
Though not as a runner, the 37-year Somers resident has remained active in track and field as an official and a high school coach. This year’s New York City Marathon, which takes place on Sunday, Nov. 6, will be his final one as chief timer, a position he’s held since 1976.
Fulton also taught in the Harrison Central School District for 34 years, most recently as a sixth-grade science teacher. He spent 16 of his years there as a high school track coach. On the side, he worked as a track and field official in Westchester, a job he still does. Every year, his company works the Somers Library 5K.
The New York City Marathon, which started in 1970, originally took place in Central Park. In 1976, Fred Lebow, president of the New York Road Runners Association, moved the race to the five boroughs. At the same time, the Road Runners hired Allan Steinfeld, who became the marathon’s first technical director. He later succeeded Lebow as president of the Road Runners.
“When he came on, he had been a teacher here in Westchester, a coach and an official,” Fulton said. “So I had worked with him many times. When he got that position in 1976, he invited myself and a number of other timers down to participate, and they just never got rid of me.”
Forty years later, Fulton said it’s rime to say goodbye.
“Forty is a nice number,” Fulton said. “I’m 67 years old. I’m just getting to the point where it’s time to step aside and let somebody else take over. Who knows how long they’ll even need us if the technology keeps changing?”
Today, computer chips worn by the runners are able to track their progress at various points throughout the race and at the finish line; but 40 years ago, stopwatches used by Fulton and his crew were the definitive recording devices.
“You can go on your own phone if you know someone who’s running, just enter their bib number and see how they’re doing,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Prior to the computer chips, Fulton said, there were not many controversies under his watch. One of the larger marathon errors would have occurred with or without digital timing, he said.
“They have a big cannon at the start,” he said. “One year, they did a countdown, for some reason. They started counting 10, 9, 8... Of course, during the countdown, some of the runners are starting to break from the starting line. Some of them actually took off before the official start.”
Fulton’s crew was on top of it; the timers had about six stopwatches timed to when the first runners broke, and another six stopwatches timed to the official start. When world and course records are at stake, seconds are a big deal, Fulton said.
“I said [to Steinfeld], ‘It’s up to you guys. You guys make the decision.’ It was above my rank as far as what time they went with,” Fulton said.
Fulton, with a stopwatch in one hand and the finish line in the other, used to be visible at every finish line photo until the mid-80s, when then-Mayor Ed Koch unintentionally started the tradition of mayors and other celebrity figures holding the finish line.
“The job they [initially] gave to the mayors was to give the wreath and awards to the winners,” he said. “But one year, Mayor Koch couldn’t stay around to give out the awards...So, they said, ‘OK, we’ll have him hold the finish line. They bumped me off. Since that point in time, the mayor or chief of police or one of the big sponsors are now the people holding the finish line.”
Running has always been in Fulton’s blood. Raised in the Crestwood neighborhood of Yonkers, Fulton ran four years at Iona Prep. His father, who ran at All Hallows High School in the Bronx, was also a track and field official and one of the founding fathers of the Westchester Officials Association.
“It was just a sport I enjoyed,” he said. “When I was at college and home on vacation and my father was officiating meets, I’d tag along and I just fell into it.”
And so it was for Fulton’s children. His daughter, Amy, ran track in high school while his son, Tim, coached at Somers High School for 12 years. Today, Tim is director of high school track and field, timing and results at the Armory Track & Field Center in Manhattan.
Fulton said he will miss standing at the finish line of the New York City Marathon, a place that has hosted some exciting professional and personal moments.
In 2002, Jeff Eades, also a runner, told Fulton that he planned to propose to Amy after crossing the finish line. He asked Fulton’s help in making it happen.
“So that year, I made sure my daughter was one of my assistant timers,” he said.
As Eades was proposing to Amy, an NBC news crew happened to be in the area and began filming.
“They were on the news and my father was sitting at home watching this,” he said. “That same marathon, my son, Tim, that was his first marathon. So I went running back to the finish line to greet him.”
While 2002 is a personal favorite for Fulton, this year should also be special, as all three of Fulton’s children will be running in the marathon to honor their father’s final year. Even his son, Greg, who has never been a runner, plans on making the trip from San Francisco to run in the marathon.
As someone who keeps time for a living, Fulton joked that he is extremely punctual. In fact, for this interview, Fulton arrived exactly at the scheduled time—not a minute before or after.
“If I’m on time, I’m usually late,” he said. “My whole family’s kind of that way. It’s always been kind of important to me.”