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.]