The Jewish-Romanian Fred Lebow (born Fischl Bebowitz) emigrated to Manhattan in 1949, at the age of 17. He made a name for himself in New York's garment business making knockoffs before falling madly in love with running in his mid-30s. Lebow joined the New York Road Runners running club in 1969 and funded the first New York City Marathon in 1970 out of his own pocket. That first marathon attracted only 127 competitors, less than half of whom completed the race. Yet from such humble beginnings the NYC Marathon grew exponentially in its early years.
Under Lebow's leadership, the NYC Marathon expanded from a minor race within Central Park to a world class race through all five boroughs. Lebow's passion became so overpowering that he soon left the garment industry to became the first full-time president of the New York Road Runners and promoter of the NYC Marathon. Until shortly before his death in 1994 from brain cancer, he relentlessly worked to improve the marathon by courting the media, wooing sponsors, and cajoling elite runners.
Among the elite runners enlisted by Lebow were Norweigan Grete Waitz and Cuban-American Alberto Salazar. Waitz set the women's record in 1978 in her first NYC Marathon (2:32:30) and went on to win the race nine times by 1988. For his part, Salazar set the world marathon record in his first NYC Marathon in 1980 (2:09:41) and went on to win in 1981 and 1982 too.
Though Lebow ran in more than 60 marathons around the world, he did not run in his own race until 1992, when he was already sick from the brain cancer that would kill him two years later. Despite the advanced state of the disease, Lebow completed the race in 5:32:35. Never a particularly fast runner, Lebow's dedication to the sport has been and continues to be an inspiration to back-of-the-pack and elite runners alike.
Filmmaker Judd Ehrlich combines new interviews with Lebow's siblings and colleagues, including elite runners Grete Waitz, Alberto Salazar, Bill Rodgers and Kathrine Switzer, with archival video to tell Lebow's story. Though mostly positive, Ehrlich's portrait doesn't shy away from the darker side of Lebow's larger-than-life reputation as an aggressive, manipulative hothead and Lothario with a penchant for considerably younger women.
Viewers interested in Run For Your Life may also enjoy Spirit of the Marathon.