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March 18, 2017

Artin Black: WWII-era NYC’s Forgotten Running Folk Hero

While looking for archival photos from early runnings of the NYC Marathon, I stumbled across the image on the left on the New York City Department of Records website. I was intrigued. And I had to know more.

There’s a lot to unpack from this annotated photo.

First, who was this “Artin, calisthenic marathon runner?” What was his “coast to coast… no hitch hiking” aim? And why send a partially clothed beach portrait to Fiorello H. La Guardia, the 5’2″ Republican dynamo mayor of New York, now perhaps best known as the namesake for the city’s shittiest airport and Nicki Minaj’s high school alma mater?

So I got to digging and this is what I found.

There isn’t a ton of information on Artin Black, as I discovered his full name was. But what’s there, is extremely bizarre and funny, and makes me think he’s the forgotten running folk hero and patriotic weirdo we need, but don’t deserve.

A February, 1944 New Yorker profile summarizes his origin story:

Four years ago, while waiting on a woman customer in a shoe store he owned in the Bronx, he was seized with an uncontrollable desire to run somewhere. Leaving his customer he ran out to Brighton Beach & ran up and down the beach for several hours. He works eight hours a day as a long-shoreman for the N.Y. Central & other companies, making practice runs during his lunch hours. At the close of the day he goes to the Luxor gymnasium, changes into his running togs, & is off for 5 to-seven mile patriotic spin before supper.

Okay. It’s worth noting that the run from really anywhere in the Bronx to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach is gonna be at least 20 miles long. But the biggest takeaway form that incredibly dense paragraph are that he abandoned his small business to scratch an impulsive itch. Let’s also revisit the phrase, “patriotic spin.”

From that same article, we learn that he:

…devotes at least two hours of each day to running thru the streets advertising worthy causes on the front & back of his sweatshirt. There’s nothing in it for Black, he just loves to run & be helpful. Today it’s for War Bonds, tomorrow it’ll be the U. N., the day after that, the WACS.

And that:

He owns more than 20 sweatshirts, each emblazoned with a different pair of messages. He’s spent $200 on his equipment. He always carries two-pound dumbells on his journeys & continuously tosses them up in the air.

But this New Yorker piece pales in comparison to an extremely funny article that ran in the April 29th, 1945, edition of the now defunct Brooklyn Daily Eagle, titled “Little Man Will Be There in Trunks to Aide Bond Sales.” Here are some excerpts, sans context, and I assure you, they are all real; old newspapers used to be very awesome:

“Residents of the Coney Island area are hereby warned not to be alarmed if they see a stocky little man clad in running trunks and emblazoned sweatshirt scurrying along the beach and simultaneously manipulating a pair of steel dumbbells.”

“…from the front view, it appears that the runner is urging support for the 7th War Loan, while from the rear, it is evident that he is sponsoring the United National Clothing Collection… the runner’s sweatshirt is designed to catch you coming and going with a different message.”

“He is known as the only ‘Calisthenic Marathon Runner’ in America, and perhaps in the entire world. Modest forbids [him] to say. [He] was turned down by the army  because he had insufficient teeth, and the running is his personal contribution to the Home Font.”

“Neither snow, nor cold can stop this fleet-footed carrier of war slogans. Only Rain. ‘I never run in the rain,’ he said, although he will swim in December.”

“Black is also a masseur. He became exasperated after waiting in line at a bathhouse. He grabbed a towel and began massaging people. After a while he got a job there…”

The article also mentions his desire to run to the top of the Empire State Building.

As luck would have it, an elevator operator strike the next year granted Artin his wish of ascending the staircase of the Empire State Building. From the press clips (on the left) we also learn that he always ran with a prune in his toothless mouth, which seems like something the Daily Eagle article should have mentioned.

And that’s where the Artin Black trail went cold. For about half of a glorious decade he periodically popped up in local newspaper articles. He was championed as an eccentric exerciser and hellbent on advocating for the United States’ wartime efforts. I want to know more, but I’m afraid before the age of 24-hour new cycles and internet record-keeping, incredible human interest stories often wound up forgotten.

Here’s hoping our quirky, stocky boy continued to play by his own rules. That he crushed patriotic miles well into old age. And that he eventually went coast to coast, with no hitchhiking.

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