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From handing out water to making sure exhausted New York City marathon runners stay on their feet, 90-year-old Barbara Rubenstein has done it all in the past 30 years as a volunteer for New York Road Runners.
Even when she’s been standing in snow or rain in Central Park, Rubenstein has loved every moment of meeting new people, seeing old friends, and high-fiving runners at finish lines.
“I just came to love all the runners,” Rubenstein told Women’s Running by phone from her apartment in Manhattan.
Last week, Rubenstein was one of 11 longtime volunteers honored by New York Road Runners and inducted into the new Volunteer Hall of Fame, which will eventually include a wall of honoree names in NYRR’s RUNCENTER in Manhattan. Volunteers for the inaugural class have 40 or more years of service at the New York City Marathon or have volunteered at least 2,500 hours at the marathon and other events.
“I can’t believe that I’m actually being recognized for something I love doing,” says Rubenstein, who is New York Road Runners’ oldest volunteer in its history.
NYRR Interim CEO Kerin Hempel said in an email that the group is very grateful for Rubenstein’s contributions and commitment.
“We are thrilled to induct Barbara into the inaugural NYRR Volunteer Hall of Fame and congratulate her on behalf of the thousands of runners who have been greeted by her smiling face at the finish line,” she said.
With the New York City running scene such a huge part of Rubenstein’s life, one can imagine her devastation last year when the COVID-19 crisis upended the world, forcing everyone to stay home and canceling in-person races, including the New York City Marathon, her favorite.
“You have no idea how I miss the races. I don’t think there is anyone who misses them more than me, even though I’m not a runner,” says Rubenstein, a retired garment showroom manager who grew up in the Bronx and moved to Manhattan in her 30s. “At this point, I don’t have any family whatsoever. My family is the people I met at [New York] Road Runners. When you see the same people week after week, year after year, that’s your family.”
Decades of memories
In 1990, Rubenstein saw a poster in her apartment building mailroom calling for volunteers for a running event in Central Park. She decided to see what it was all about.
At her first race, Rubenstein was assigned to a water station and immediately enjoyed chatting and getting to know everyone.
“I was having such a ball, and I remember asking [my supervisor], ‘Do they have more races like this?’ And she said, ‘Call the club. They have a race every weekend.’ I didn’t even know what club she was even talking about.”
She soon learned about The New York Road Runners Club, as it was called then, and that her neighbor, V.L. Swanson, was also a regular race volunteer. She was the one who had put the volunteer flyer in the building’s mailroom.
“She has said to me: ‘It’s all your fault.’ Because I got her involved in this 30-year journey,” says Swanson, also a veteran NYRR volunteer. “It’s been fun, and she’s been a good friend.”
Rubenstein has also become a bit of a celebrity among the local runners, who expect to see her at every race finish line and worry if she’s not there, Swanson says.
At the NYC Marathon expo, where Rubenstein has volunteered every year it has been held since 1990, she’s also a familiar face to the international runners.
“One girl said, ‘You should be the face of the marathon,’ and I said, ‘I think they can get a better face for the marathon,’” she recalls.
In the ninth decade of her life, Rubenstein says she feels strong and healthy, though she does get a little more tired when she’s on her feet a long time.
“People expect when you are 90 that you should be in orthopedic shoes and a polyester house dress,” she says. “I’m still wearing the tight jeans, and my hair is blonde from the bottle. I don’t exactly look 90 years old.”
Rubenstein has so many volunteer experiences that the years, races, and memories blend together.
She remembers working alongside the legendary Fred Lebow, the marathon’s founder, and the time Joe Torre, the famous New York Yankees manager, held the marathon finish line tape.
One year she tripped over a wire near the marathon finish and hit her head. She wound up in the medical tent, where she assured everyone she was fine; she didn’t want to miss meeting her friends for Chinese food that night.
“And the next year I was back at the marathon again,” she recalls.
A long-awaited reunion
While Swanson and Rubenstein have remained close friends during the pandemic, Rubenstein is eager to reunite with all her runner and volunteer friends as races gradually return.
To be able do that, she’s made sure to get vaccinated. In fact, she received her COVID-19 vaccination at the Javits Center, where NYRR’s holds its marathon expo.
“Oh my God, it was emotional,” she says. “I could see the exact spot I stand at when I greet the runners when they come in.”
Although the marathon was canceled last November, she and Swanson still went to the marathon finish line in Central Park and cheered on runners doing the virtual race. Because of the pandemic, Rubenstein couldn’t high-five anyone, but she left a glove on a pole for runners to tag.
Hopeful that the marathon will return this fall, Rubenstein is ready to take her place once again at the finish line. She’ll be 91.
“Sometimes I think it’s Road Runners that has kept me going all these years,” she says.