The Man Who Runs Running

He's Fred Lebow, the impresario of the New York Marathon, the Fifth Avenue Mile and 220 other extravaganzas every year
October 26, 1981

It is nearing the noontime rush hour in the City Hall area. The fat receptionist has been patient, up to a point, but now she's ticked. "You mean to tell me," she says to the bearded man in front of her desk, "that you...you mean to stand here and tell me that you got no identification?"

The bearded man shakes his head.

"No driver's license?"

No.

She sighs at the wonder of it. She pokes a co-worker so that they can share this moment. This is the central police headquarters in one of the biggest cities in the world—maybe seven or eight million potential perpetrators milling around in it—and here is the one guy in town who can't prove who he is. In the po-lice station.

"I've got a business card," the man says.

"Honey, we all got business cards," the fat lady shoots back, "but that ain't identification."

Finally, the group surrounding the bearded man offers to vouch for him: This chap is, indeed, Fred Lebow, just as his business card says. He is, indeed, the president of the New York Road Runners Club, and he's expected right now at a very important meeting in the Traffic Division upstairs to discuss, among other things, the New York Marathon. And while the lady is filling out the visitor's permit, shaking her head, one of the group turns aside, speaking low. "Fred always travels light," he says.

Oh, absolutely. Fred is ready to break out running at any moment. He travels in baggy warmup pants over nylon running shorts, running shoes, sweat socks, a T shirt and the ubiquitous black plastic running watch. And an Italian-style bicycling cap, suitable for wearing frontward or backward. It's the particular magic of this style of cap that everybody thinks he looks good in one, when actually the exact reverse is true.

Every piece of Lebow's costume bears the insignia of some manufacturer, and everything is free. If it doesn't come free, Fred won't wear it; it's a matter of firm principle with him. He has huge stacks of warmup outfits in all colors and in various stages of repair, and he wears them to the office, on business trips, on planes, to lunches or dinners in the most elegant restaurants.

Upstairs in the police building, Lebow is smooth and expansive. He tells the Traffic Division chiefs what a wonderful job they're doing with the growing number of New York's road racing events, as well as the New York Marathon, and what an immeasurable service this is to the sport. The captains and lieutenants warily watch this Messianic figure in warmups. They already know what a wonderful job they're doing; New York Mayor Edward I. Koch recognizes that the marathon is a showcase for the city, and he has ordered that it be made to work smoothly. As for the sport of road racing—well. Most of the division's chiefs are overweight and half of them are chain-smoking. That's what they think about the sport of road racing.

After the meeting Lebow and his companions stand indecisively on a sidewalk near City Hall. This is on Lower Broadway, and their office is at 89th Street, maybe six miles uptown. "We can grab a cab back," says Lebow. "Or we can take a subway. Or"—he looks around at the midday crush of pedestrians—"or we could run up there."

Run up there. Seriously, now. You mean run through these teeming sidewalks all the way up to....

"Oh, all right," Lebow says. "We'll take a cab."

There was a time, not too many years ago, when the New York Road Runners Club was a quiet little organization. It had perhaps 300 members, which might seem big at first but which is little in a city the size of New York. The Road Runners sort of hung loose, and their byways were mostly sidewalks and jammed streets. The club's one big bash was the marathon, which was conducted entirely inside Central Park. The first one was in 1970—126 runners started and 72 finished—and it is a matter of unassailable history that most of the spectators were the gentlemen standing beneath the gaily striped umbrellas of their pushcarts, yelling, "So, what's the big rush? Stop and buy a pretzel, already."

It was a far gentler time, if things are ever gentle in New York. And there are many club members who recall such days wistfully, for look what they've got now: the biggest club of its kind in the world, a $2 million-plus-a-year operation with 21,000 members that stages 220 running events and clinics a year, including stunts like an annual dash up the stairs of the Empire State Building and, a couple of weeks ago, a very serious one-mile race down Fifth Avenue. There seems to be no end in sight: In 1984 the club will put on the world cross-country championships over a course inside Belmont Park Race Track.

Next Sunday brings the world's biggest and gaudiest marathon, with more than 16,000 runners from 57 countries flowing in a ragged stream through the city's five boroughs. That race involves shutting down 360 intersections to traffic, and it utilizes 1,460 police officers, 200 Parks Department and Sanitation men, hundreds of military and Red Cross personnel, more than 100 buses just to ferry the runners to the start on Staten Island, more than 500 medics and 400 portable toilets. The club provides 3,000 volunteer helpers, including 400 just to work the finish line in Central Park.

Last April, the New York Road Runners moved into a new $1,373,000 headquarters on East 89th Street, a pleasantly shabby, six-story, 40-room mansion that most recently was a psychiatric center. "This building has created a puzzling effect," says Peter Roth, the club's treasurer. Like most of the officers, he is an unpaid volunteer. His earnest, emaciated look bespeaks endless miles of running. "First we operated the whole club on top of Fred Lebow's kitchen table. Then we had a tiny room at the West Side Y. Now we've got this big clubhouse. But you could walk in and somebody might say, 'Well, whadda you want, fella?' And you feel like shouting, 'Listen, I'm a member.' It all represents progress, of course, but some of our members feel that the club has grown too big too soon."

Perhaps. But whatever has happened, for better or worse, Fred Lebow has had a finger in it.

Most of the time Lebow looks worried and maybe a little bit wounded. Certainly haggard. He's 49 years old and pre-leathery; he has a fine start on what one day will be deep seams in his face. He has pale blue eyes, thinning sandy hair and a sinewy, straight-up-and-down body. All in all, he has the look of a steady runner, and Lebow is as steady a runner as any and a whole lot steadier than most. Just now he peers contentedly around his big, jumbled office on the fourth floor, rear, of the old mansion, and smiles. "To think that when I started all this," he says, "all I really wanted was a desk somewhere and a phone."

Lebow took over as president of the club in 1972. In the years since, the club has taken over Lebow. Running the operation and making it worldwide in scope has become his obsession. He's at the headquarters every day, usually making telephone deals on one of the four lines that come into his office, and he restlessly prowls the darkened corridors by night, unable to surrender the place to a few hours of quiet. Occasionally he throws himself down on the lumpy couch in his office for a nap.

Lebow wasn't always so driven; indeed, there was a time when he fancied himself as something of a bohemian: "Sidewalk cafès in Paris, quaint little hotels in Barcelona—that sort of life," he says. And he made a determined lunge for it as a youth, but he never could seem to get the knack of hanging loose; probably because he had, what he calls, a bad case of "basic respectability." The Lebow family, Mom, Dad and five boys and two girls, were once the Lebowitzes of Arad, a small town in Transylvania. They survived the Nazi occupation but split up and made a run for it when the Russians seized Romania after World War II. Fred, who was 13 at the time, smuggled himself into Czechoslovakia and then to Holland with a group of refugees and finally wound up with papers as a stateless citizen of Ireland—"a nize Jewish boy like me." The rest of the Lebowitzes are now scattered around the U.S. and Israel. Fred, who has lived just about everywhere in the world, has been left with a strange, softly melodic accent, a blending of Slavic, continental European, upper British and Lower East Side. To Lebow, athletes are "af-leets," females are "vimmin," and every sentence he utters has "O.K." in it.

"So, O.K., so I made my fortune in the garment business," he says. After settling in Manhattan in the early '60s, Lebow attended the New York Fashion Institute (but didn't graduate); then in Cleveland he sold TV sets for a time and ran an improvisational theater. Back in New York, he hit it big in garment center knock-offs. "I was quite good at it," he says. "I got so good I became a high-paid consultant. It is my particular talent that you bring me a designer's original, a $200 garment, O.K.? And I would analyze it and produce the same garment, O.K.? The same garment for $49.95. Fourteen-ounce fabric? I'd change it to 12. Six buttons here; I'd put five. Real pockets became fake pockets; where there once was a lining, O.K., there'd be none. I'd go to Hong Kong or Italy to get them made—all for a handsome commission. I ended up wealthy, O.K., with a sports car, dating lovely vimmin, the works."

Indeed, if it weren't for a seemingly innocent interruption at this point, Lebow would probably be a millionaire today, a shadow Ralph Lauren or Bill Blass. He talks about it matter-of-factly, wearing his usual distracted look, and the realization comes suddenly that Lebow doesn't fully see what has actually happened to him. "I discovered running..." he says, and his voice trails off as he looks into some private universe. It began so innocuously; Lebow started running to condition himself for tennis and, in a matter of months, the joys of running overpowered him. First he stopped playing tennis, and then in one year, 1970, he ran in 13 marathons. His times are, well, O.K. In 1970 he did a 3:19, his personal best, in Syracuse, N.Y., and this year he ran a 3:48 in Paris, a 3:47 in Oslo, a 3:49 in Stockholm and a 3:46 in Columbus, Ohio. He has now run in 30 marathons and two ultra-marathons, one of 50 km., another of 60.

Eventually, Lebow abdicated as king of the knock-offs because it interfered with his running. "In 1977 I started to work less," he says. "Then, in 1978, I did only one or two jobs; one in 1979. I haven't done any in the last two years."

Lebow isn't paid for being president of the Road Runners, having made a bundle in knock-offs, and he has developed an ascetic, almost monklike pride in how little money it takes for him to live. "So far this year I've spent a total of maybe $2,500 of my savings," he says. "I mean, look: I live alone in a rent-controlled apartment for $69 a month; it isn't fancy, O.K.? I sold my car long ago. I don't even spend money on cabs; I run to all my appointments all over town. I wear mostly running shoes and clothing, and they're all supplied free. I don't have any food in my apartment except maybe some fruit juice: I've never cooked a meal there, not even a cup of tea. I eat only two light, inexpensive meals a day, lunch and dinner, and people most often take me to these."

Every evening between 9:30 and 10, Lebow puts away his work and heads downstairs through the darkened club headquarters. He strolls to Central Park, where he runs six miles—a shadowy figure ghosting along in all kinds of weather. On Saturdays he increases the distance to 10 miles and on Sundays to 12.

Lebow does his heavy thinking while running, and there are times, he says, when an idea of such brilliance will leap into his mind that he'll stop dead in his tracks. At one time he would scratch the idea into the dirt with a broken twig, figuring he could later go back and read it. But then he discovered that, if he carried the twig along as a reminder, when he got to his desk, the idea would come back, full-blown, as one recalls a dream from a snippet of random conversation.

Back at his office, his sweaty running clothes tossed into an old cardboard box that serves as a hamper, he often works far into the night, scheming on how to make the Road Runners even bigger. Over the years Lebow has emphasized events for women—he's one of the pioneer backers of women's road racing, and he doesn't turn aside suggestions that this contributed to the inclusion of a women's marathon in the 1984 Olympics. The club also sponsors clinics and fun runs, a series for company teams, and breakfast runs, runs for twosomes, as well as midnight runs. The Fifth Avenue Mile might be joined by the Champs-Elysèes Mile in Paris next year—staged by the Road Runners—and Lebow wants to promote similar races in London and Tokyo and Lord knows where else.

In short, Lebow has put the club on a giddy promotional upswing. It is taking in a lot of money, yet operating slightly in the red. The figures are dazzling: The 1980 New York Marathon cost $502,717 to stage, but took in $454,879. This year several new sponsors have been added, and ABC will show it live, for an undisclosed fee. ("Not as much as you might think," Lebow says, "nothing like it pays for a football game.") So the race might finally show a modest profit. Still, expenses keep running ahead of revenues.

Lebow sees the national telecast of next week's marathon as a breakthrough for the sport. "It'll vibrate everywhere," he says, "and probably renew the running boom, O.K.? Maybe it'll start a whole new running boom like nothing the world has ever seen. Just think of it!"

Treasurer Roth and the hard core of folks surrounding Lebow are equally pumped up: Indeed, the entire mansion often seems to be populated with gaunt, hollow-eyed people gliding about silently in running shoes—and going off on "little runs around the park" instead of to lunch. Roth sees Lebow as a visionary spreading the word. "Fred's not altruistic," he says. "He's not getting money from this job, he's getting power. And through power, he has more influence on running than if he took a salary." And the small, dedicated band of insiders clearly feels the same. The club hasn't conducted a general membership meeting in two years, and where the membership once produced token candidates to run against Lebow, in the last couple of years there haven't been any elections. An election had been announced for April, but because of pending changes in the bylaws, it was postponed. Roth says that for those who don't understand that it's all for the good of the game, "some of this creates a vague feeling of unease." "Well," says Lebow, "it could be a cause for some concern if maybe I lived in a big penthouse apartment and drove a Mercedes."

Fair enough: Those ready to accept the big picture must make this key adjustment in their thinking: The New York Road Runners Club isn't really a club in the traditional sense; it's a tiny fiefdom just off Fifth Avenue, a monarchy run by a benevolent tyrant.

And now Lebow, in the still of a late evening, sitting in the mansion, reflects on the twists his life has taken because of his need to run; sometimes, it seems to have left some barren areas. At one point, about eight years ago, he was seriously dating just one woman—in fact, living with her. He takes her picture out of a desk drawer and stares at it. She looks softly feminine, not at all athletic. "She wanted a commitment from me," he says, "but somehow I kept putting it off. And then she gave me a sort of deadline: I would have to decide on our future by the end of the year. We would get married or go our separate ways. I agreed—but I had just started running seriously, and it sort of slipped my mind, O.K.? And then, this one day, I was flying home from a business trip. It was New Year's Eve—a bitter cold evening with gusts of sleeting rain. We had been invited to a black-tie dinner party; she was all excited about it. But I got to reviewing my running diary on the plane and..." Lebow pauses and winces at the memory. He had promised himself—he had sworn—that he would run 2,500 miles that year. And now, going over the figures in his diary, he was still 19 miles short. And the year had about run out.

"I hurried to the apartment," he says, "and she was all dressed for the party, in a stunning gown. It was about 6:30 p.m. or so, and the party was to start at eight. I slipped into my running clothes. 'Darling, just these last 19 miles,' I told her. And I went out to Central Park, in the most biting wet cold ever, and I ran as fast as I could. Then, just to make sure—I couldn't bear the possibility of coming up short—I ran a couple of extra miles. I came back at ten, O.K.?, showered as quickly as I could and got into my tuxedo. She was barely speaking to me; we arrived at the party too late for the lovely dinner. But there were still drinks and dancing. And soon after midnight—there among all the laughing, happy people and the hugging and kissing—I looked around and...she was gone."

Lebow tells of trudging home alone in the sleet and of finding his packed suitcase out in the hall and the door locked. "There was a note on the bag," he says. "As she had warned me, we were through. It was my fault, of course. And then, there was a P.S. After packing my bag she had re-added all the figures in my diary. 'Your actual mileage for the year was 2,531,' she wrote. Oh, my...."

Lebow believes he has learned something from that bitter experience. "I have started seeing other vimmin again," he says. The next time, the next love, will surely be different. "I was always in running clothes," he says. "Maybe she would have liked to see me wearing something else occasionally. I was not attentive enough to her; I was always distracted by running. I wonder if it's possible to love two things at once: a fine voman and running."

And Lebow puts the picture away. Next time will be different. Meanwhile, he looks around his office contentedly. Meanwhile, there is the club, the club, the club.

TWO PHOTOSLebow, perennial president of the New York Road Runners, helps paint the blue line that marathoners will follow. PHOTOLebow loosens up the field in a 25-km. October tuneup for next week's marathon. PHOTOLebow's presidential prerogatives include leading club staffers in stretching drills. PHOTOLebow heads off on nightly six-mile run around Central Park Reservoir.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)