NYRR in the 1970s: Through the Eyes of Fred Lebow

NYRR in the 1970s: Through the Eyes of Fred Lebow

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In his first New York Road Runners race, in 1969, Fred Lebow finished second-to-last. “If I had been dead last in my first race I would have been so discouraged that I would have given up running,” Lebow wrote. Instead, he joined NYRR and ran every race on the calendar, including the 1970 Cherry Tree Marathon, held on Washington’s birthday in the Bronx. “There were no spectators. Automobile traffic was difficult. Some kids threw stones,” he recalled.

Lebow got the idea of staging a marathon in Central Park. Together with NYRR President Vince Chiappetta, he overcame significant obstacles (no money, no publicity, no media interest, and absolutely no idea what he was doing) to put on the first New York City Marathon on September 13, 1970. There were 55 finishers.

Distance running changed completely over the next decade—and so did Lebow. From complete novice and outsider, Lebow transformed himself into the year-round, full-time salaried president of NYRR and race director of the New York City Marathon and dozens of other annual events—positions he would hold for the rest of his life. His vision and determination seem larger-than-life, yet Lebow was a real, imperfect individual whose path followed many twists and turns.

 Fred Lebow (far right) runs the inaugural New York City Marathon in 1970.

Fred Lebow (far right) runs the inaugural New York City Marathon in 1970.

A Life on the Run

Born in 1932, Lebow survived World War II and its chaotic aftermath in Europe by learning to think on his feet, bluff his way through danger, and break rules if needed. He made a living as a diamond smuggler before coming to America on a student visa. Later he worked in the Midwest as a salesman for a wholesale television distributor, then helped manage an improv-comedy theater. That gig brought him to New York, where he fell into the garment business, producing “knockoff” apparel—cheap copies of expensive wear.

Forthright and headstrong, Lebow put on the 1971 New York City Marathon essentially on his own, more than tripling the number of finishers, to 164. Among the runners were four women, despite a ban on women running long-distance road races put in place by the Amateur Athletics Association (AAU), then the national governing body of track and field. Lebow used his own money to cover budget shortfalls that year and in 1972. He exploited opportunities for media attention, such as supporting a “sit-down strike” by the women at the 1972 race to protest an AAU requirement that women and men start separately. He aggressively pursued sponsorship, such as the women’s shaving gel Crazylegs to sponsor the first-ever women’s road race, the Crazylegs Mini Marathon (now the NYRR New York Mini 10K), with 72 finishers and six Playboy bunnies at the start.

Going for the Big Time

When American Frank Shorter won the 1972 Munich Olympic marathon, Lebow saw grand opportunities. “I thought a running boom might be imminent,” he wrote. “I wanted to capitalize on that right away.” Elected president of NYRR that year, he secured a $5,000 Olympic Airways sponsorship for the 1973 New York City Marathon, which the company increased in 1974. In 1975 the marathon had its biggest field ever—339 finishers—and hosted the women’s national championship. Also that year, NYRR moved from Lebow’s kitchen table an office at the West Side YMCA, near the marathon finish line in Central Park. Though Lebow continued to work full-time in the garment business, “I was getting more calls in my office about running than about clothing,” he recalled.

The 1976 New York City Marathon, run through the five boroughs with 1,549 finishers, stretched Lebow’s capacities for hard work, determination, and ingenuity. “We had become the world’s largest marathon,” he recalled. “Nobody before had ever had to manage the complexity of such a field of runners over that distance anywhere, and we were doing it all within a major city. A challenge unimaginable to me just a year before.”

Leading with Vision

In the months before the marathon, his duties at NYRR having become all-consuming, Lebow quit his garment-industry job. The day before the race he was on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, taping plywood over the expansion joints.

The 1976 New York City Marathon was wildly successful, yet Lebow saw vast room for improvement—the start and finish were chaotic and throughout the race he knew almost nothing of what was going on along the course. Over the next few years he found technical experts to create systems for registering, timing, and scoring thousands of runners and protecting their health and safety on race day.

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A Bright Future

NYRR membership exploded during those years and would surpass 20,000 by 1980. Lebow added innovative races—the Empire State Building Run-Up in 1978, the NYRR Midnight Run in 1979—and lent his expertise to events all over the world. He led the organization in making running as inclusive as possible by expanding the Mini to thousands of runners, launching adult running classes and kids’ “pee wee” runs,” and partnering with Achilles International to include athletes with disabilities in races and programs. He brought the best runners in the world to run in New York, including Norwegian Olympian Grete Waitz (above), who set stunning world records at the New York City Marathon in 1978 and 1979.

Lebow had his detractors, mostly for his autocratic leadership style. In 1978 he rebuffed an effort by NYRR’s board of directors to curtail his powers. “Some of them didn’t like that I made unilateral decisions,” he wrote—adding that he believed every decision had benefited the organization and the overall running movement: “The biggest crime I’ve committed is that we’ve been successful.”

The success that was Lebow’s life’s work continued into the 1980s and beyond, until his life was tragically cut short by cancer in 1994—and he believed the future was even brighter. “What we have seen so far,” he wrote, “is modest compared to the boom that is yet to come.”

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