Queens Half-Marathon marks 25th anniversary

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Leo Nicholas and the College Point Road Runners will celebrate the running of the 25th Annual Queens Half-Marathon Saturday, May 17, a race that has traveled a long and sometimes bumpy road since its inception a quarter of a century ago.

But no matter how many highs and lows the race may have seen over the years, it cannot compare to the journey of Nicholas, the 63-year-old president of the College Point Road Runners who escaped the war-torn streets of Northern Ireland to find peace and prosperity in a little corner of northeast Queens.

“I have no complaints,” said Nicholas in a thick Irish brogue. “This country has been very good to me.”

Nicholas was born in Tyrone, Ireland, a county in the extreme north of the island nation. But while Nicholas is proud of his heritage, as a young man he and many others his age could not wait to leave.

“There were no opportunities in Ireland, especially if you were Catholic,” said Nicholas, citing the long strife between the Catholic and Protestant sects in the English-controlled north. “Then, as soon as kids were 17, 18, they left.

“I was never out of work (from) the day I left till the day I retired,” he added of his time in America.

Nicholas came to America in 1957 at the age of 17 and has “never regretted it.” After holding some odd jobs, Nicholas eventually entered the computer industry, working for several big companies including Ross Perot’s EDS, or Electronic Data Systems, before settling as a vice president for CitiCorp.

A father and grandfather, Nicholas started running about 30 years ago just to stay in shape, he said. But one day in the late 1970s while jogging through the streets of College Point with friend Roy Roberts, the two hatched an idea to hold a race in the suburban community.

Originally, the idea was to house a full-fledged marathon, something the two quickly dismissed as impractical, he said. So the idea eventually morphed into a half-marathon, a 13.1-mile race that would encompass the communities of College Point and neighboring Malba.

“He and I spent four to five weeks measuring it,” Nicholas said of the course. “It does enclose the entire town for four or five hours.”

Nicholas and the rest of the College Point Road Runners distributed leaflets throughout the borough, handing some out and leaving others in sporting goods stores. The race, originally called the College Point Half-Marathon, was held for the first time in 1978 with a field of about 800 participants.

The race begins just outside of McNeil Park on Poppenhusen Avenue between 119th and 121st streets. The race proceeds south on 122nd Street before turning east on 7th Avenue to 130th Street. From there the course runs along Powell’s Cove before turning back just short of the Whitestone Bridge on Parsons Boulevard. The race then heads west on 14th Avenue to 129th Street and south to 25th Avenue all the way to the water before heading back to the starting point.

By and large, the community has been behind the annual race, even though it does play havoc with traffic. But, Nicholas said, “a lot of people are happy because the streets get cleaned, the pot holes get filled, the park gets cleaned. We do a lot of that.

“It gets bigger every year,” he added. “It’s too big for the neighborhood, actually.”

With the continued development of the College Point Corporate Park, the original course that had runners traversing 20th Avenue has been changed, but, for the most part, the actual course remains largely the same.

What has changed is the level of the competition and the interest in the event. Over time more and more runners register, prompting the race to be turned over, in part, to the New York Road Runners, who time the race every year.

“It became too big for us to score,” Nicholas said. “The technology today is awesome. The scoring can be done in a few minutes as opposed to an hour years ago.”

The race officially changed its name to the Queens Half-Marathon so that police from throughout Queens, and not just the 109th Precinct, would monitor the event.

Despite a dip in interest in the early ’90s, the race is bigger than ever. This year Nicholas expects as many as 4,000 runners to take to the streets for the half marathon, which is also part of the New York Road Runners Grand Prix Series and offers $2,000 in cash prizes to the first three men and women to finish.

Another 500 runners are expected for the satellite Skaggs-Walsh 5K Road Race, started just prior to the half marathon.

The Skaggs-Walsh Fuel Co. is the major sponsor for both races and has been for 19 years, while the College Point Board of Trade will again donate two $250 scholarships to the first male and female full-time students from Malba or College Point to finish the 5K.

The 5K is slated to begin at 8 a.m., with the half marathon to follow at 8:10 a.m.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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