Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Fred's Race

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1994.)

I WAS LATE to arrive at the New York City Marasthon. I’d waited until the 25th running to join this crowd.

Over the marathon’s lifespan the total entry list had passed a quarter-million. Each of these runners had stories to tell, and hundreds had already told them.

Now the race was over for me. I wondered while walking from the finish line back to the hotel: What do I say about the New York City Marathon that hasn’t already been said?

I wasn’t yet thinking about what to write but what to tell my wife by phone. My one-sentence summary to Barbara came out unrehearsed: “It was a one-in-a-lifetime experience.”

I meant that two ways. It was an awesome day, unlike any I’d ever known in running and one I’d never forget. And it was an overwhelming day that I never care to repeat.

New York City was my largest race ever, and I finished exactly in the center of its field of almost 30,000. This gave me a perfect typical-runner’s view of The Race That Fred Lebow Built.

I knew what to expect from watching and reading about this marathon for all its years. Yet I wasn’t completely prepared for being in the middle of it.

A race this size through a city this size might seem unworkable. But Allan Steinfeld and his army of workers somehow make it work. They see to every runner’s needs, which isn’t to say they can satisfy everyone’s wishes.

Everyone would like to walk to the starting line a few minutes before the gun (cannon, in this case) fires, find a spot on the front row, hit full stride right away and take a clear path to the finish. You can’t do that at New York.

In trade for running with so many people, and in front of hundreds of thousands more, you give up personal space and time. (My hotel-to-hotel round trip, for instance, took 11 hours.) This bothers you only if you let it.

I’m not normally a New York kind of runner. I favor smaller marathons in more rural settings. (My last was Big Sur and the next would be Napa Valley.)

A race this big doesn’t suit my style of running marathons. That is, to line up at the back, start slowly and work my way toward the middle while taking short walks at regular intervals. At New York this means waiting for miles before starting to move up – and even then doing it only by becoming a zigzagging broken-field runner who risks blind-side blocks.

It means risking rear-end collisions when stopping to walk. You run smoothly here only by going with the flow of the people around you. Which I didn’t.

I came away with a few bruises, and unavoidably delivered an equal number. I took 15 minutes longer than normal to finish, but it was time well spent. I had to see if all the fuss about the New York City Marathon was justified.

And it was. Running here was all that everyone had said it would be, and even more. Every marathoner should have this once-in-a-lifetime experience.


WHEN ANYONE asked the early 1990s, “How’s Fred?” I knew it could mean only one man. When someone left me a phone message on an October Sunday in 1994, saying that “Fred died today,” I knew instantly who she meant.

Fred Lebow wasn’t even his original name. He was born Fischl Lebowitz in Romania, in 1932. 

The Jewish boy scrambled to survive in Europe during World War II, then struggled in various enterprises before and after winding up in New York City. There he changed his first name to the one we would know him by, and dropped the final three letters from his surname (now correctly pronounced “LEE-bow,” though he didn’t mind being called the French-sounding “La-BOW”).

I first met him at the 1976 Boston Marathon, where we’d barely exchanged hellos when he announced, “We’re taking the marathon out of Central Park this fall and running it through all five boroughs. In a few years this race could become bigger than Boston.”

Dream on, I thought then. You can’t close down any city but Boston for a marathon. Nowhere but Boston will a race draw thousands of runners (and New York had only a few hundred at the time).

But Fred was right. Less than 10 years later Boston was suffering badly by comparison with New York City. Boston joined races all over the world in copying Fred’s model of the big-time, big-city marathon.

Meanwhile Fred became, in the words of USA Today’s Dick Patrick, “bigger than the race. He received more attention than the elite runners. His beard, cycling cap and sweatsuit were his public identity, along with his frantic windmilling arms at the marathon finish line.”

This was the public Fred. He became almost a caricature, an easily identified image of a man we didn’t really know.

His illness, which struck in 1990, introduced us to the real Fred Lebow. The Fred who, he now admitted, was six years older than he’d claimed.

This was the Fred who in 1992 ran his own citywide marathon for the first time, and it turned into a 5½-hour victory lap. The Fred who in 1993 returned with a few friends for an emotional visit to Fischl Lebowitz’s hometown in Romania.

Grete Waitz came to see Fred the day before he died. She brought him 10 roses, one for each of her New York City victories and the last for their 1992 marathon together. Though he was barely conscious, he appeared to have known it was Grete.

All runners knew him. We honor Fred for making the sport better.


Photo: Fred’s victory lap through New York City, accompanied by that event’s greatest winner Grete Waitz.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]



Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Last Supper

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1993.)

WHAT IF someone threw a party in your honor and no one showed up? That was George Sheehan’s fear when local friends approached his son George III in early 1993 about organizing a dinner for The Doc (as they called him).

Young George then broached the subject with his dad. Dr. George’s first reaction: “Definitely not.”

“Fine,” said the son, “it’s your call.” The next morning “Dad came to the office with 10 pages of notes. They told where the party could be held, what the program might be and who should be invited.”

Later Dr. George started to worry that no one would come. “I gave a recent talk in Florida, and only a dozen people showed up,” he said. “What if that happens here?”

“No chance of that,” the son reminded the dad. “We’ll draw a crowd with the Sheehans alone.” Just to be safe, they extended the invitation list and published an announcement in local newspapers.

By the time I left home for New Jersey, the guest list stood at 300 and was still growing. Young George said, “We could top 400.” The crowd would grow to 500.

Paying tribute to George Sheehan took a long time. He had lived almost 75 very full years, and the program planners couldn’t leave out any of his phases. The program took three hours to cover them all.

Finally, on the far side of 10 o’clock, George himself took the stage. His voice came out quiet, slow and hoarse at first.

But as he warmed to his topic and his audience, this became the George Sheehan we’d always known: lively, eloquent, funny and heartfelt. Everyone else had taken care to avoid the subject that brought us all here.

George himself didn’t hesitate to mention what everyone knew he faced. He said, “Dying [of advanced prostate cancer] is my current experience. I’m going to face it and find out what it’s all about.”

With his finish line in sight, George felt fortunate. He’d had an early wake of sorts, when he could be there to enjoy it with 500 of his nearest and dearest. We should all be so lucky.


NO RUNNER wants to leave anything unfinished. Dropping out goes against our training and our nature.

George Sheehan worried in his last months that he would leave work undone. He wanted to finish one more book.

He called it his “death book.” Knowing that no publisher would accept that stark a title, I suggested that it be “Miles to Go.”

That line comes from a Robert Frost poem: “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” It best describes how George lived with the prostate cancer that had spread into his bones and was inoperable when discovered in 1986.

In fact, he used Frost’s words himself when first revealing his illness. George went those miles.

He spoke for all runners when he told me in an interview several years earlier, “What we are interested in is performance. Our consuming concern is getting up in the morning and doing our best the rest of the day.”

Speaking for himself, he said, “At my age I could be retired, I could be sitting by the ocean, watching the waves roll in and out. But I feel I’ve never achieved all that I could. If you take less of a view than that, you’re finished.”

He kept performing in the face of his cancer. He demonstrated what he called “a healthy way to live.” He wrote hundreds of articles, gave dozens of speeches and ran scores of races in the next six years.

Two new Sheehan books came out right on schedule during that period, as he took the usual three years apiece to fill them. Maybe he couldn’t do his all-time best after the cancer struck. But he still tried to do the best job he could with the tools at hand.

George fought the cancer to a standstill for six years after his diagnosis. It hadn’t advanced, but neither had it retreated. The final battle began in 1992 with news of further metastases.

He continued to race until August 1992, finishing the Crim 10-mile before the disease took him off the road. He continued to speak until spring 1993, talking at the Boston Marathon before the disease took him off the stage.

George continued to write into that fall, turning his back on the ocean view until he’d gathered enough columns to fill the next book. While Random House expressed interest, it still hadn’t offered a contract by fall. George was weakening by then.

Finally, in October, an editor planned to bring an offer to George’s Jersey Shore home. This was one of his bad days physically and he felt like canceling the meeting, but he had promises to keep. He would reach this finish line no matter how hard the final miles felt.

George called me on October 20th to say, “We made the deal.” He sounded as exhausted yet ecstatic as a marathoner at race’s end.

Now he could sit and watch the waves roll in and out. He could rest in the glorious peace that follows a big effort.


Photo: George A. Sheehan, M.D., died at home on November 1st, 1993, four days shy of his 75th birthday. His wife Mary Jane and their 12 children were at his bedside in a room looking out on the ocean. His final book would come out the next year under the title Going the Distance.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]



Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Road Hazards

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1992.)

ONE MOMENT all can seem right with your world. The next instant it can spin out of control. Literally, in this case.

My life was going superbly as 1992 neared its end. Barbara and I had settled into a new house, one that we agreed we never wanted to leave. We had a flight to Honolulu scheduled the next morning, a respite from Oregon’s darkest and rainiest month.

My son Eric, now 15, had joined his 10-year-old sister Leslie at the Oregon School for the Deaf in Salem. The school nurse called that afternoon to say, “Eric has the flu. We can’t keep him in the infirmary overnight, and he can’t go back to the dorm, so you’ll need to take him home.”

I made the hour’s drive north on Interstate 5, then reversed course with Eric dozing semi-reclined in the passenger seat. I planned to drop him at his mother’s house.

The trip seemed no less routine than dozens of others I’d made on this highway. Then came a sudden “Whomp!” A speeder had rear-ended our little Honda, which now fish-tailed out of control and onto the muddy right shoulder, where it rolled.

Our car came to rest upside down, leaving me hanging suspended by the seatbelt. I looked over to see Eric dangling the same way.

He spoke first: “I’m okay. Are you okay?” I was. We released each other’s belts and lowered ourselves to the ceiling.

Eric kicked open his door but mine wouldn’t budge, so I crawled through his side. Only on the outside did we realize how lucky we were, and how shaken.

We stood in a puddle, wondering what to do next. Eric finally announced, “We survived,” then threw up.


A State Highway Patrolman arrived promptly, from his headquarters just across the freeway. A witness identified the culprit, who hadn’t stopped, as driving an American-made muscle car twice the size of mine and going at least 25 miles an hour faster.

The cop let me call my wife, then offered to take us to a nearby restaurant to wait for her. I took a last look at the crumpled Honda. Its final act was its best, as it protected us from serious harm.

The crash didn’t cancel the Hawaiian trip, only delayed its start by a day. I still ran the Honolulu Marathon as planned, just slower than hoped and feeling as if I’d recently played a football game without pads.


DRIVING THE roads is risky enough. Running them is far worse, though we tend to take too lightly the threats zipping a few feet (or inches) from our unprotected flesh and bones.

As runners, the roadways are never ours, no matter what the laws say about shared access and rights-of-way. The roads belong to the vehicles, if only because they’re built at least 10 times our size and powered to travel more than 10 times as fast.

Most of us still run on the roads because they’re always right outside our door, they offer smooth, all-weather surfaces, and (in town at least) they are lighted for early-morning and late-evening runs. We hit the roads for this convenience, and in doing so we court their dangers.

Most runners can recall near-misses in chilling detail, as in one example among many of mine. One morning I shuffled into an intersection on a green light. From the left, through the red light on the otherwise empty street, came a taxicab at full throttle.

The cabbie saw me too late. His tires screeched and smoked as he slid past the spot with the invisible “X” where I would have been if my brakes hadn’t worked. The driver looked at me with an embarrassed shrug, while I put a hand over my heart in relief.

This incident didn’t result from the driver’s intent to do great bodily injury, but from his inattention or impatience. That’s the case with most road collisions. Our best defense as runners, then, is to stay hyper-attentive and extra-patient ourselves.

We see drivers much clearer than they see us. We see them rubbing sleep from their eyes or checking their faces in the mirror.

We see drivers with the day’s newspaper folded across the steering wheel. We see them eating, drinking, smoking – sometimes all at once – or holding a cell phone in one hand and gesturing to the unseen listener with the other.

Drivers speed as if the limits were the slowest pace they could legally travel. Drivers wander into bike lanes, which serve equally well as running lanes.

Drivers turn without signaling for mere pedestrians, or drive at dawn or dusk without lights. Drivers gun through yellow lights and coast through stop-signs without looking to see who might be about to dash across their path.

If it makes you feel better, point a warning finger (no, not that finger) at the offending driver. But don’t shake a fist or shout an obscenity – and please don’t pound the side of a car or run over the hood like a steeplechaser on the water jump. This is the runner’s version of road rage, and it can have dire consequences when drivers hold a deadly weapon in their hands.

When you point a finger, remember that three fingers point back at yourself. You drive more than you run, and probably make the same mistakes that infuriate you in other drivers.

Examine your own habits, both as a driver and a runner. Then promise yourself and those who love you that you’ll drive more courteously and run more defensively – and vice versa.

Run as if the drivers can’t see you. Drive as if the lives of fellow runners are in your hands.


Photo: A hard-earned shirt from the Honolulu Marathon, run five days after my auto accident.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]



Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Broadway Night

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1991.)

YOU NORMALLY can’t underdress among runners. Dressing up for a running party usually means wearing pants not made of lycra or denim, shoes other than nylon, and a shirt with a collar and without a race logo.

This night, though, a rumpled businessman, ending his workday in New York City, shoved into the crowded hotel elevator and studied his fellow passengers. Everyone but him wore a tuxedo. 

He didn’t notice that the most decorated American track Olympian, Carl Lewis, was onboard. “What is this,” the man groused to no one in particular, “a convention of headwaiters?”

A better guess would have been Halloween partiers. The night was October 31st, 1991, and these men were in most unusual costumes for them.

Halloween night, the runners went formal for a party in a theatre a half-block off Broadway. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of Runner’s World.

I was a typical runner. I didn’t own a three-piece suit, and I’d gone through two proms and two weddings without ever wearing a tux. Until this night.

The invitation read “black tie optional,” but this manner of dress wasn’t an option for the RW staff. Only one exception was made – for George Sheehan. He compromised on his costume here, saying no to a tux but trading his usual jeans and sweater for a blazer and tie.

This event was lavish but tasteful. It might have become a two-hour infomercial for the magazine, but instead became a celebration of the sport’s past quarter-century.

It was a night for gawking at and talking with many of running’s biggest stars. Seldom if ever had so many from so wide a distance (both racing and geographical) and time span gathered in one place.

Fifteen Olympic medalists attended, along with assorted world champions and record-holders. So deep was the guest list that many U.S. Olympians and Boston/New York winners didn’t get speaking roles. Nor did any of the current RW staffers other than publisher and event host George Hirsch.

The night featured an Oscars-style awards program. Marty Liquori and Toni Reavis MCed, and Bud Greenspan supplied custom-made films.

The awards were a vehicle for bringing the stars onstage so the crowd could see how they looked and sounded. Presenters spoke too, and they made as illustrious a group as the receivers.

Prize-givers included both Olympic women’s marathon champions to date, Joan Samuelson and Rosa Mota, along with world record-holder Ingrid Kristiansen… Jim Ryun and Kip Keino, the man who beat Ryun in the Mexico City Games 1500… American legends Mary Slaney, Alberto Salazar and Bill Rodgers… three of the last four men to win Olympic marathons, Frank Shorter, Carlos Lopes and Gelindo Bordin.

Most of these runners were still active, some still at or near their best. Ironically the years had treated most harshly the man known as the “ageless wonder,” Lopes.

After winning the Olympics at 37 and setting his world record at 38, he had quit running at 39 and had puffed up dramatically at 44. He gave proof that fitness can be more fleeting than fame.

As the program ended, dozens of guests came onstage for a curtain call. None better marked the spirit of the night than Johnny Kelley.

RW publisher Hirsch noted that Kelley had run his 35th Boston Marathon, at age 58, the year the magazine launched. In 1991 he ran his 60th at 83. The parade of stars on RW anniversary night showed that running’s leaders come and go with the seasons. Johnny Kelley showed that the running itself can last, even as it slows.


NONE OF THE people who had the most to do with Runner’s World surviving its early years, when circulation was small, profit was slim and pay was slight (if any) spoke during that anniversary celebration. Only George Sheehan, the magazine’s top writer and the sport’s best speaker, was acknowledged, and he accepted his award without comment.

Other longtime writers, myself included, merely sat in the audience. The only person who deserved credit and received none was Bob Anderson, who created this magazine in 1966 but wasn’t even invited to celebrate what he had started.


Photo: Bob Anderson, the father of Runner’s World, received no invitation to or mention at the 25th anniversary gala.



[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]