For each of the 36 years that the New York City Marathon has existed as a five-borough race, Steve Mendelsohn could be found in the lead vehicle with the race director, cruising along with the lead male runner and relaying messages on his ham radio.
But in November, Mr. Mendelsohn will not be there. He died Wednesday morning of pancreatic cancer at his home in Dumont, N.J., said his wife, Heidi. He was 67.
As the marathon’s longtime communications director, Mr. Mendelsohn was in charge of the roughly 400 ham radio operators who provide the communications system for the race.
Mr. Mendelsohn may not have been a household name in the running world, but he was well known to the many race officials and volunteers.
He would start his work each summer, recruiting and organizing radio operators from across the country to be deployed along the racecourse to help with communications and to step in if cellphones failed. He would spend his weekends driving parts of the course to test radio coverage.
Mr. Mendelsohn put together the communications system in the early years of the marathon, when ham radios were needed to relay information about mishaps and the leaders as the race unfolded. He would program the hand-held radios and distribute them to operators who would shadow officials and keep them in radio contact. The operators would also provide information to medical personnel and others about runners who had dropped out or had been injured.
I met Mr. Mendelsohn shortly before the marathon last fall. As we walked around the finish area in Central Park, he spotted the statue of Fred Lebow, the marathon’s charismatic co-founder and longtime director.
Mr. Mendelsohn was alongside Mr. Lebow as he built the race over the years. And he watched him fight brain cancer after the disease was diagnosed in 1990. Mr. Lebow died in 1994. Mr. Mendelsohn walked up to the statue, gave it a loving pat and repeated the mantra — “Another year, my friend” — that they would greet each other with every year when reuniting for the race.
Mr. Mendelsohn confided then that the 2011 marathon would be his most meaningful one — simply because he had lived to see it. He said he was dying of cancer, having learned the diagnosis in January 2011 and been told that he most likely had only a few months to live.
“He felt he had to do at least one more for Fred,” Ms. Mendelsohn said in an interview on Wednesday.
In November, Mr. Mendelsohn had been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and he was down to 110 pounds and had trouble walking. He said he felt he had already outlived the prognosis. He attributed this to his enthusiasm about working another marathon and the support of fellow radio enthusiasts.
“All my ham radio guys are praying for me, and I feel that energy,” he said at the time.
He said he knew his days were numbered. He said he would use the 2012 marathon “as the hope for another year.” As it turned out, Mr. Mendelsohn wound up working several other races before he died, including a Miami marathon in January and a half-marathon and a triathlon.
“We would have lost him a year ago if it weren’t for him being able to keep working the races — he just loved the adrenaline,” Ms. Mendelsohn said.
“He was in no shape to do it, but he was determined to work them anyway, because he lived for these races,” she said. “No matter what he felt like, he just never missed anything. His attitude was, ‘As long as I am physically able, I’m just going to go out and do it.’”
Mr. Mendelsohn grew up in Amityville, N.Y., and built his own ham radio at age 14. He served as a cryptologist in the Navy and then worked in radio and television for CBS and ABC as a communications technician, helping to design the mobile production trucks for large news and sports events, including “Monday Night Football.”
He also served for more than a dozen years as the game-day frequency coordinator for the Jets, making sure the coaches’ headsets and walkie-talkies worked. Ms. Mendelsohn said Rex Ryan, the head coach, and Mark Sanchez, the starting quarterback, and other team members visited him at home while he was sick.
Mr. Mendelsohn’s work with the marathon began in 1975, when the marathon needed a city-mandated communications system as it prepared to expand beyond Manhattan, he said. Mr. Lebow had gone to a meeting of ham radio operators and met Mr. Mendelsohn, who recruited 30 volunteers to take positions along the course for the 1976 race.
“The Police Department’s citywide system couldn’t do it, so ham radios became the main communication to span the city” for the race, he said.
Mr. Mendelsohn was always leery of cellphone coverage, with thousands of spectators simultaneously using their phones near the finish line.
In November, he said he had surprised his doctors by surviving a case of sarcoidosis, a lymphatic system disease, five years earlier. He called his work on the marathons crucial to his survival.
“The enormous energy, like you feel at the starting line, gives me the power to stay live,” he said.