The movie Run For Your Life chronicles the life of Fred Lebow, who was one of the most influential people that brought road racing and major city marathons to the public consciousness. Fred founded the New York City Marathon at a time when the city really needed something positive, and was one of the catalysts for revitalizing New York.

(Click here to skip over Fred’s life and the plot summary and straight to the movie review.)

About Fred Lebow

The movie begins by describing the running scene in the 1960’s, and introduces Fred as an outsider who gets involved with the running community and helps to move them from the Bronx to Central Park after traffic and crime begin to get to the point where its no longer safe to run. Fred worked in the fashion industry selling cheap designer clothes, but his real passion was for running. He built up the Central Park marathon and made it successful, and really wanted to bring running to the the masses.

Fred helped empower women in the sport, creating the first long distance women only event that was wildy successful. He began his interactions with the media by convincing a group of PlayBoy bunnies to promote and compete in the 6 mile race.

After a couple of years, the marathon in Central Park had outgrown its course. There were too many runners for the officials to keep track of what lap everybody was on in the 4 loop course of the park. New York City was suffering from a financial crisis, and the problems with crime and arson were at an all time high.

Fred used the tough times to help sell the city on a race that went through all 5 boroughs, and used a lot of smoke and mirrors to bring everything together. He did such a great job convincing everybody that he had the numbers he needed, even before he did, that they all came together and actually put the fantasy he was spinning into reality.

“26 miles, 385 yards, no one was mugged, no one was hit by a taxi. For the city of New York and Bill Rodgers, the marathon was a resounding success.” — Dick Schaap, NBC News, New York

The first 5 boroughs marathon helped to revitalize the city. There were 2000 runners, the sponsors came through with plenty of race support, and Fred empowered all of the neighborhoods to come out and cheer on the runners and to clean up their streets for the race. Fred brought in Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter, the 2 best American marathoners in the country at the time and used them to promote their rivalry through the media.

Halfway through the movie, the marathon has been run through New York a few times and Fred has become a full time race director. You get to see some of the wacky races that he put on, and are introduced to some of his innovations. Some of the innovations stuck, such as the pasta dinner, and others have largely disappeared, such as the world’s largest urinal trough.

“I can still hear the voice of the commentator, ‘Who is number 1173? She’s going to win the race, set a world record…'”

Grete Waitz almost wasn’t invited to the race. She was a European track star who had never run more than 11 or 12 miles at a time, but Fred brought her to New York and helped to define her career from that point forward. Despite saying she’d never run another marathon after that first win, she went on to win the race 9 of the next 11 years.

Fred built up his own fame and reputation as well, as he went under the assumption that in order for the club and the race to be famous, it needed somebody who was famous at the helm.

He was a schemer and a manipulator, and was often referred to as a dictator or as the “running czar.” He thrived on people criticizing him as long he managed to get publicity out of it, and he had no trouble handling the media and controlling what went out through his antics.

Despite being best friends with Bob Bright, the founder of the Chicago Marathon, Fred and Bob had a rivalry in the media and were thought to be bitter foes. Fred knew that the more coverage their rivalry received and the more the two races competed with one another, the larger they would both become.

The last 10 or 15 minutes of the movie chronicle Fred’s diagnosis of brain cancer, and his positive attitude in fighting it. He was absolutely sure that he would beat it, and defied his doctor’s diagnosis that he only had months left to him by living for another 5 years. He measured out the distance in the hospital hallways, and would run laps between surgeries.

“He got to feel what everybody who ran his race felt.”

In 1992, Fred finally got to run in his own race for the first time. The movie ends with him crossing the finish line with Grete Waitz, both of them wearing their ages as their bib numbers, with a very obvious crowd that followed him for the entire distance.

About the Movie 

Run For Your Life DVD JacketI really enjoyed watching this movie. The first 2 to 3 minutes are very slow and the music is very in your face and forced, but once the story moves beyond running in general and begins to focus on Fred’s life and his contributions to the sport it becomes very engaging. For the most part, the music does a good job of setting the mood for a scene without calling attention to itself.

The movie did two things exceedingly well, and that was the use of old video footage and photographs.

It was very cool to be able to see actual video footage of the majority of the events as they took place, especially for the first running of the marathon through the entire city.

The use of photographs was also well done, often seeming to be more video footage despite being stills. The photos were given a life of their own as they were on screen.

Throughout the movie, there were shots of political cartoons of the day and newspaper headings and articles flashed onto the screen, which give you a good sense of the times and how the world was reacting to Fred and his race.

Many of the interviews were filmed for this movie, but there were also interviews of Fred from years past and of other prominent people that were featured in the movie. I especially enjoyed some of the live news coverage from the races, especially the bloopers from Bill Stewart as he tried to describe the finish line and Fred making fun of Tom Brokaw for not finishing a marathon whereas his wife had.

The DVD of the movie goes on sale on October 28th (available for preorder at Amazon) and there are some limited screenings next week from October 29th through November 6th in New York City, the week before the marathon this year. There are also screenings in Philadelphia and Israel this weekend.

I’d like to thank Carly Weisenberg of Screen Media Films for providing me with a screener’s copy of the film, as well as 5 copies of the DVD that I will be giving away through the website next week. Come back on Monday for your first chance to win one yourself!