Fred Lebow: The Father of the NYC Marathon

"Run for Your Life" tells Lebow's inspiring story

Fred Lebow, New York City Marathon father
Photo Courtesy of Screen Media Films

The New York City Marathon has become so famous and legendary that even non-runners have heard of the annual November race. This might not be the case had it not been for a man named Fred Lebow, who started a running revolution in New York City and all over world.

A Big Dream

The documentary, Run for Your Life, tells the story of how Lebow took the NYC marathon from a small, unknown race and turned it into the worldwide, celebrated event that it is today.

A native of Romania, Lebow (then Fischel Lebowitz) immigrated to New York in 1949, Americanized his name, and started running. He joined the New York Road Runners, a New York City running club, in 1969 and soon became club president.

Lebow was not a competitive runner and he wanted to inspire average people -- fellow back-of-the-packers -- to take up running. His biggest dream was to take the marathon out of Central Park, an 800-acre park in Manhattan, to the city streets of all five boroughs and make it a citywide celebration

Through the use of archival footage and interviews with running legends such as Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Grete Waitz, Nina Kuscsik, and Kathrine Switzer, the film explains how Lebow ignored many naysayers and galvanized support for his big idea to make the dream a reality in 1976. In the process, he united and inspired a city that was in dire economic straits and brought running to the common person, sparking a worldwide fitness boom.

Lebow gave New Yorkers something to celebrate and inspired casual athletes to take on a challenge.

Passionate About the Marathon

To those who knew him, Lebow could be charming, pushy, manipulative, loveable, inspiring, and hotheaded, and filmmaker Judd Ehrlich does an excellent job of capturing his essence.

Lebow never married or had children, but he loved and nurtured the marathon like it was his child. The film shows how his fervent passion for the marathon meant that he always worked non-stop on race day -- taking charge at the starting line, making sure the race went smoothly, and staying at the finish line past dark to congratulate runners.

Runners who experienced the first running boom of the 1970s will definitely get nostalgic over Run for Your Life, and runners of other generations will undoubtedly be educated and inspired by the film. And whether you're a runner or not, you can't help but be moved by the movie's emotional climax, when Lebow finally gets to run the five-borough race in 1992, two years before he lost his battle with brain cancer.