On a Thursday night, I watched a well done documentary called Run for Your Life, at the Brooklyn Museum. There were about 30 people in attendance to watch a movie that describes Fred Lebow’s mission of growing the NYC Marathon into what it is today and how running was transformed.
I missed about the first 15 minutes but that part basically goes over the early part of Fred Lebow’s life. He spoke Hungarian and English, since he is from a border town between Hungary and Romania, and looked like an “old school” runner. He always had his trademark beard and hat, but knew how to get things down the right way.
During the scenes before the first marathon, which took place in 1970, only in Central Park, I was reminded that my dad told that when he used to run in Central Park back then people used to give him strange looks. People did not really run for fitness back then, they mainly played other sports. Lebow used his never surrender attitude to convince city officials, including Mayor Ed Koch, to expand the marathon outside of the the park into the five-boroughs of NYC.
This took some time because city officials and normal citizens thought he was crazy at first. However, Lebow thought it was his mission to get as many people to have the benefit of running as possible, and his rationale for having the marathon in all five boroughs of the city, starting in Staten Island, would allow everybody watching to catch on.
This task by Lebow, who would be the President of the New York Road Runners Club, would not be easy as that first marathon in Central Park was in 1970 but the first five-borough marathon was in 1976. Clips would also show that the amount of runners in the marathons in 1974 and 1975 would prove to almost necessitate a different venue for this event.
1976 would bring a picture perfect day to revolutionize what we now know as the best marathon in the world. Lebow was at the start in Fort Wadsorth, Staten Island, trying to make sure everything went according to his plan. He had a loud speaker trying to make sure the approximately 1,000 runners had a professional race experience. Lebow was able to make sure everybody thought he knew what he was doing because he obviously had not orchestrated a race like this before. People truly were running for their lives in those beginning stages because some poeple thought they were crazy running in a race through the streets of NYC, but many people did indeed come out and watch and this would start to inspire New Yorkers to get out and run. The documentary pointed out that many “Baby Boomers”, who were otherwise out of shape, would take up running.
Also, the documentary points out that there were about one-quarter the amount of women as men in the first five- borough marathon but that number would start to increase exponentially. One woman, who reflected on Lebow’s life in the documentary, is named Grete Waitz. She is Norwegian, so she represented the beginning of the international phenomenon of the marathon. She would set the women’s world record with a time of 2:32:30. In addition, Waitz would win the NYC Marathon an eye opening nine times and would be instrumental in increasing women to participate in running, as well as marathon events.
To try and increase participation overall the movie showed fascinating clips of all kinds of different races that the visionary, Mr. Lebow, would stage to increase the popularity of the sport. Scenes were shown of a bagel and coffee race, the Empire State Building race, a New Year’s day race as well as many others. This would help make Fred Lebow into a celebrity and he would think to himself that he needed to be famous for the New York Road Runners Club and the NYC Marathon to be famous.
The next major event was pulled by Cuban American Rosie Ruiz who, according to Lebow, would make a mockery of the sport in its early stages. She tried valiantly to persuade the race organizers that she did not cheat but she in fact did take the subway helping her finish with a time of 2:56:29. Lebow insisted that the cameras did not see her for the duration of the course, so he successfully got to the bottom of the stunt and she had become the most notorious cheater in marathon history. This stunt had Lebow furious but it likely did increase the awareness of the marathon itself.
Another individual that proved the international phenomenon of the NYC Marathon was none other than the Cuban born, Wayland, Mass. raised, Alberto Salazar. He is shown in the movie as one of the first truly elite male marathon participants. He finished with a time of 2:08:13, in 1981. Right about this time the documentary shows Lebow networking with as many companies as he could to try and get sponsors in order to attract even more truly elite runners from around the world. He thought that prize money was the only way to truly pull this off. This would take off in earnest in the mid 1980’s. In 1987, Ibrahim Hussein from Kenya, would be the first African to win the NYC Marathon. This would foreshadow what was to come as 11 times from 1997 to 2010 the winner would be from Africa.
He was a true visionary because NYC would be the model for every urban marathon. At the time, this would especially include London and Chicago. He would get into somewhat of a friendly battle with the organizer of the Chicago Marathon to see who could have the number one marathon. Chicago tried to buy stars and Lebow had a very fitting response to that. “New York doesn’t buy stars, New York creates them.” It makes sense that the Windy City and NYC were competing in the 80’s because they are two of the best cities in the United States and both take place in the fall, but New York will always be the best marathon. (The Marine Corps Marathon, in D.C., which was just staged for the 35th time, is an awesome one as well but doesn’t pay the winners like NYC and Chicago.)
Another memorable quote that Lebow said during this time that applies to every marathon participant is, “We can’t all be actors, we can’t all be singers, but those 26.2 miles, that is our stage”. That couldn’t be more true because by the end of the 80’s the marathon had become a day where the city came together as one, to celebrate, party and cheer on strangers and friends at the top of their lungs. Lebow still had not run the race, that he was instrumental in creating and making a monumental success after achieving the “American Dream”, but he would run it a few years later under somewhat sad but hopeful circumstances.
Lebow had never run the marathon partly because he was so busy making sure it went according to plan but would enter himself in the 1992 event two years after falling victim to brain cancer. He, along with everybody else who runs a marathon after going through cancer is very inspiring. Unfortunately, two years later he would die only four weeks before the marathon in 1994.
He proves that if somebody has a vision and the will to make something happen then greatness can be achieved. I take it as a lesson to not give up while trying to think positively because in the beginning people thought he was out of his mind but he was steadfast in the face of adversity.
I am not sure he could have predicted that 45,103 people would finish in 2010, but his ability to grow the event from an only Central Park one in 1970, to what it was in 1994, was remarkable. This documentary that took 15 months to finish, did an excellent job talking about his life, love for running, as well as picking the right people to interview. I give it a 9.5/10. The only way it could have reached the 10/10 status is if it showed some of the progression after 1994.
I also like the title “Run for Your Life” since it reminds of the phrase run for the gold and the line, “You have to set a goal, and keep your eyes on the prize”.