Monday, April 28, 2008

"run for your life" fred lebow documetary: movie review

yesterday was the world premiere of "run for you life" at the tribeca film festival. this documentary on the life and times of fred lebow was a fun, insightful and well constructed examination of lebow the man, the marathon he created, and the world-class event it's now grown into after almost four decades. the film works especially well as it blends archival footage, which was no small feat to assemble, with present day interviews of lebow's family, friends, and co-workers. among the notable runners in the audience was national distance running hall of famer nina kuscsik, who, among her impressive achievements, ran the first nyc marathon and won it in 1972 and 1973.

the film started off with images of men running laps of yankee stadium in the bronx of 1969. fred, then working in the garment industry, made his way into this off-beat group of runners and, through sheer force of personality, convinced them to not only move their runs down to central park, but to actually stage the first ever marathon there. i won't recount the evolution of the nyc marathon from the 4 loop course of central park to the current 5 borough extravaganza; that story can be found a few mouse clicks away thanks to the internet.

what isn't easy to find, and probably wouldn't be found but for this film, are the real world interactions among the organizers and participants. one throw away line where someone said, "it (holding the marathon in central park) would never work because we can't keep count of the laps?!" just one of the seemingly logistical nightmares that seems quaint in the "chip" age. watching footage of the early races, that were put together shoestring budgets before computers and the internet, with handwritten entry blanks, and manual score keeping, transports us to another era of running which is barely a generation removed, but light years apart from what one would experience in a race held in central park today.

the film also captured a less than flattering aspect of lebow's character. the women's mini-marathon, a breakthrough for women's road racing in the early 70's, had fred recruit playboy bunnies to increase awareness of, and participation in, the event. today, that juxtaposition could be viewed across a spectrum from quaint to sexist, depending on the lens of political correctness that defines the viewer. that episode, and the even more startling revelation (confession) that with respect to his personal relationship with women, fred was only interested in the initial challenge, but not the subsequent relationship, hardly speak well of the man.

but then there are the altruistic moments, the scenes where fred is constantly seeking to promote running and racing in an effort to expand participation in our sport. there was his foresight in the decision to buy the building that currently houses the new york road runners club. and then his just plain dumb decision to publish a book that bragged about paying elite runners appearance fees "under the table!" that came as news to the new york city officials he enlisted to put together the marathon, without charge to the nyrr for the city services. the revelations in his book resulted in then-mayor koch's edict that the city had to receive an amount equal to the total sum paid to the elite runners. a costly price to pay for "bragging."

the film, primarily via interviews with fred's sister and brother, managed to cover his childhood and the ugly confrontation with the horrors of the holocaust. his family was kept apart for years in the aftermath of world war II. later, in the united states, he americanized his name from fischel lebowitz to fred lebow. then, in a reversal, he reclaimed his identity at because, "he didn't want to die under a false name." this poignant moment is presented, via an interview, as just another "off the cuff" thing fred thought to do.

while most nyc runners (i won't extend that generalization to non-runners) are familiar with the image of fred running the 1992 marathon with grete waitz, there was hardly a dry eye in the theater after watching the footage of fred finishing that memorable run, then-mayor dinkins draping the medal around his neck, and fred slowly kneeling down to kiss the finish line! the film concluded at this point, and the last image we see is of fred and ted corbitt standing in front of the road runners building.

after the movie, director judd erlich introduced the crew and individuals behind the movie. he also took audience questions.

director judd erhlich and current nyrr president mary wittenburg.

director judd ehrlich and me.

final word: go see this movie!

after the tribeca film festival showings, there are as of now, no official plans in place for distribution of the film.

here is link to my prior coverage


Kevin said...

Very well-written review, sir. Very well-written. Now, if it'll just make its way down to Texas (or maybe I can order it on I can see it for myself.
Nice job.

Just_because_today said...

very nice.

rundangerously said...

thanks kevin! hopefully the film will pick up a distributor as a result of the exposure from the film fesitval!

thanks myriam!

CTmarathoner said...

one of the best reviews I've read:), and will send it to Jim !!! Hope others see the movie and the review and are as inspired as I was.
You captured so much of the movie's meaning and especially liked the comment about Fred changing his name back before he died. The clips I liked the best were the marathons from 1970, '76 and 1992, when he ran with Grete at age 60 --when Alan Steinfeld started crying I did also....

Alex Gonzalez said...

This was such a good movie, that I am already yearning for a copy on DVD to watch again and again. Thanks for posting on my site. Your review is awesome. Keep up the great blogging!!
-Alex (aka. Blogrunner)

CTmarathoner said...

what a great review --hope your review gets read and enjoyed, most importantly in Running Times or even SS or Taconic Newsletter? The movie, which was just wonderful and special, effectively captured Fred's spirit as the 'Pied Piper' of the running world and visionary of the NYC marathon. Amazing that he was in the thick of the 1970s running boom and devoted much of his life to the sport --my favorite clips were the marathons of 1970, 1976 and 1992 --and you remembered that he wanted to be remembered by his real name! 'got to run' was his motto...when he had to do 19 miles New year's eve..
When, in the movie, Alan Steinfeld started crying, so did I. 64 is pretty young to pass away. Hope this movie gets good press.

rundangerously said...

thanks alex! you posted a great review too! and love your blog!

thanks emmy!

gary allen said...

thank you! I saw the film on Saturday. Your excellent review is spot on! I first ran the NYC Marathon in 1980. I saw Fred in action and said to myself, "when I grow up I want to start one of these back at home". In 2002 I founded and now direct the Mount Desert Island Marathon. I'd like to thank Fred Lebow for giving me the courage and inspiration to start a marathon. Incidently I ran in the 2007 NYC Marathon which I hoped would be my 50th sub 3 hour marathon to celebrate my 50th birthday. I met my goal and have to believe I had a little help. Thanks Fred! Finally as a quiet tribute from one race director to another I bring a medal to Fred's statue from the event he had a big part in helping create.

Thanks again

Gary Allen
race director
Mount Desert Island Marathon

PS My assistant and I left Maine (Bar Harbor) at 2am on Sat morning and drove down and back just to see this movie, 1000 miles total. I was well worth it and I even got a run in, in Cental Park! We got home at 3am on Sunday morning.

Michael said...

We have 5 copies of the DVD "Run For Your Life" to give away.

To get your free DVD, please visit