Friday, July 27, 2012

Film Review of Run for Your Life

I had a bit of a accident involving a charcoal grill and lighter fluid. My face was really badly burned but it is getting better finally. Last night, I was feeling sorry for myself and tried to finish-off a running book that I wanted to share on this blog. In the end, I decided I needed some passive entertainment to lift my spirits. I opted to watch a 2008 documentary called Run for Your Life. It's the story of Fred Lebow and documents how he started the New York City Marathon. I knew nothing about the topic, so I thought it would be an educational film to help evolve my foolishness. If you don't want a spoiler, don't read this post!


Fred Lebow had a sad childhood but grew into a very positive and savvy adult with visionary ideas. NYC Marathon was not the first urban marathon but it is credited with starting the Worldwide urban marathon trend. Fred is also credited with being a pioneer of running event marketing and PR. I think it's fair to say that he is the Godfather of modern day running events.

Fred was born Fischel Lebowitz in Transylvania, Romania and did look a little vampire-like if you ask me. Fred's family split-up to avoid the Nazi's and he moved with an older brother to Czechoslovakia when he was 14 years old. He didn't reunite with the rest of the family until he was in his 30's in Brooklyn. Subsequently, he was a little distant from them and the fact that he had changed his name probably didn't help. He worked in the garment district of New York City and became an avid runner. The film doesn't go into when and why he became a runner but his older brother said that running was his religion. Fred claimed that there was nothing that couldn't be fixed with a run. There was a running scene in the Bronx but because of increased traffic and the decline of that borough, Fred suggested to the runners that they move to Manhattan. He had fallen in love with running in Manhattan when he ran around the Central Park reservoir (1.8 miles) in 1969.


Fred Lebow in his signature running hat.
As soon as Fred became the unofficial leader of the running community, he worked with the NYC Parks Commission to get permission to organize races. After a few races, he formed the New York City Road Runners Club. He had a vision to have a Marathon and in 1970, they hosted the first NYC Marathon in Central Park. It was a four loop course where you had to avoid strollers and horses. Fred had quit his job and put his personal effort and money behind the events. It was very bare bones stuff. The 1970 NYC Marathon winner said that Fred asked him to return the trophy because he was short one and needed to give it to someone else. Regardless of these humble beginnings, the running community had become fired-up and the club had brought people even closer together. Fred pushed women's distance running forward too. He was asked by a sponsor to host a women's only marathon but knew he could only get 5 or 6 runners. He hosted a 6 mile run and called it a "mini marathon". By doing this, he made it accessible to many more women and created a lot of press for women's running. Women wanted to prove that they could run distance - something that the racing organizations of the time were discouraging.

Gary Muhrcke winning the 1970 marathon.
Joy Spitz gave Fred the idea of making the 1976 marathon a 5 borough race in honor of the Centennial.  The idea was to do it as a one-off event. Fred took the idea and ran with it. He created a lot of spin around the event even though he did not have the funding or runners. He somehow convinced the City to host it, convinced sponsors to give him money and his stroke of genius was convincing Bill Rogers and Frank Shorter to go head to head at the event. This made the race something that World class runners wanted to be a part of and the press went crazy. Fred was concerned about the safety on the course because some of the neighborhoods were rough. He did a lot of grass roots work to build community support. The stars were aligning because it was a turning point for the City coming out of terrible economic troubles. The public were ready for something positive to happen. The race was a resounding success. Bill Rogers won and subsequently won the next four. In '78 Grete Waiz called to try to get into the race. The club secretary didn't know who she was but Fred called her back and invited her to enter. She won 9 of the next 12 Marathons and they became close friends. As the race evolved and marathons became big business, Fred vision became apparent. There was a bidding war between the NYC and Chicago races. Bill Rogers didn't like Fred's deal, so he decided to run in Chicago. That next NYC marathon was won in a course record time by Alberto Salazar. He broke the World Record at the event the following year and won again after that. You may think this was dumb luck on Fred's part except for the fact that Fred had personally recruited Alberto and had created a huge PR drive behind him.

I guess the rest is history. Fred became a legend Marathon Director and continued to lead the NYC Road Runners Club. He was also quite the celebrity and was incredibly popular with the ladies although he could not commit to a permanent relationship. The twist to the documentary is that Fred developed brain cancer. He continued to run when he was in the hospital and after surgery, he ran even though it was slower than his walk. He told his friend Nina that he liked the soothing rhythm of jogging. Fred said that cancer had made him milder in personality and had brought him closer to his family. In 1992, he finally got to run the New York City Marathon for the first time. He had run many marathons around the World but never his own. He bravely completed it with his friend Grete Waiz.


"In running, it doesn't matter whether you come in first, in the middle of the pack or last. You can say, 'I have finished.' There is a lot of satisfaction in that."
- Fred Lebow (1932 - 1994)



A few other interesting facts..

  • In the 60's and early 70's, running was not a hobby. The people who ran were serious and fast. The general public thought that road running was very odd.
  • Fred was not a fast runner. His vision was to bring running to people like himself - people who were not elite but wanted a challenge. He understood the trend toward a fitness lifestyle.
  • In the beginning, there were no World class runners, so local NYC runners won. How awesome it must be to have those memories.
  • Nina Kuscsik (who later won a NYC marathon) was meant to break 3 hours for PR in the 1970 race. She didn't feel prepared and gave up after 15 miles. She said that she was a little embarrassed because it went down in history that no women completed the first NYC marathon.
  • The first race included some steps. One of the runners said that when they ran up the steps, their thought was "Bill Rogers had to run up these steps too?"
  • It's great to think that a lot of the people who watched the 1976 marathon had never seen a competitive running race in their lives. It was a process of education to get people to understand it and get behind it.
  • When Fred met with important sponsors and NYC dignitaries, he always wore his running gear. He was really in-tune with the idea that his quirky brand helped the reputation of the Road Runners Club and the NYC Marathon.
  • NYC supported the Marathon for free until Fred wrote in a book about how he had fooled the Mayor because he was paying the runners and not the City.
  • Fred pioneered things like running up sky-scrapers, the corporate challenge and themed runs that have become the norm today. 
  • Fred was known for waiting at the finish line and giving high fives to all the runners as they came in. He loved the event and was often terribly depressed when it was over.

So, how did this movie impact me? Well, I loved Fred's character and courage. He was a bit of a tyrant but people loved him anyway. His staff stayed with him and learned from him. He was a man who knew what he wanted and went after it without apologies. You have to admire that. The documentary really made me want to run the New York City marathon one day. I lived in New York for nearly 7 years. I have experience with the boroughs. I lived for a short while in Staten Island. I worked in the South Bronx as a case manager for kids with developmental disabilities. I visited Queens often to hang-out with friends. I lived in Flatbush and Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn. I lived on the Lower East side and lived the longest stretch in the East Village of Manhattan. I would love to experience NYC in this unique way. I love that the neighborhoods come out to celebrate it. The scale of the city and the event would be pretty inspiring. Maybe one day...

You can watch the movie on Netflix here. It is an instant play as of right now.
You can buy the movie very cheaply on Amazon here.

See all the running movies I have seen to date.


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