Wedged in between a morning of cleaning and an evening of shopping were two inspirational, honorable hours spent watching the world premier of the documentary film Run for Your Life, the story of Fred Lebow and the founding of the New York City Marathon. The film is directed by Judd Ehrlich, who came to the story through his friend Moshe Katz, who is related to Lebow.
Needless to say, the theater was packed with runners. The co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival asked for a show of hands of all the runners in the theater, and easily two-thirds of the room put their hand up. Mary Wittenberg, the current President and CEO of New York Road Runners, was in the audience, as were many of the cast and crew, including Nina Kusick, the woman who won the first-ever NYC Marathon (four laps of Central Park — ugh!).
As a fan and participant in the sport, I already knew parts of the history of the New York City Marathon and Road Runners Club. But this documentary is a marvellous, rich presentation of road running in my city, and of course, an even-handed presentation of Fred Lebow, the “P.T. Barnum” of road running.
I’m not going to give you a rundown of Lebow’s biography — you can get that from Wikipedia; or better yet, you can go watch this movie. (Ehrlich’s team is hoping the film gets picked up for distribution.) In any event, the man and his life certainly make for a great story, whether you are a runner or not.
What I loved most about this film was how the story of Fred Lebow is the story of the New York Road Runners, and of the growth of road running in New York City. I’ve heard pieces of this story told through other sources, but Run for Your Life really pulled it together in one place. Wittenberg even said, in a comment after the premier, how the documentary was a huge assist to the NYRR’s efforts to archive their history. Hearing New York running legends like Corbitt, Spitzer, Rodgers, Shorter, Waitz, and Salazar talk about Fred and the NY Marathon felt like an important thing to be doing. I realize that I am able to train and race as much as I want because of those who came before me, because of pioneers like Fred Lebow.
This movie is full of “Ah-ha” moments, in which I recognized the roots of today’s running culture in the vanguard efforts of Lebow and the NYRR’s. For example, the original NYRR’s were a small group of men who ran solely in the Bronx. I was more suprised to learn that they ran in the Bronx, around Yankee Stadium, than to realize how very few runners were in the community. In fact, the tenor of the film was more homage than expose, more history than recruitment.
I can’t help but briefly compare it to the other movie I’ve recently seen about running, The Spirit of the Marathon. That movie was inspirational, expansive, and sweeping; it made me cheer and wiggle in my seat; it felt like it was trying to convince folks to run the Chicago Marathon. Watching The Spirit of the Marathon was like spectating at a world-class running event. While Run for Your Life had a few of those moments — when Salazar set the world record, when Lebow crossed the finish line with Waitz at the only NYC Marathon he’d ever run — mainly, watching the Lebow movie felt like I was earning my chops as a New York runner by learning our history. Now, I can go forth and be an ambassador to non-runners, runners from other cities, and even local runners who may not yet know the story.
Spirit of the Marathon was very much a movie for runners. Run for Your Life is as much a movie for New Yorkers as it is for runners. I told Husband when I got home that he would have loved the movie, because of all the history of our great city that by necessity comes into the story of Fred Lebow and the NYRR’s. The grandness of the New York City Marathon is certainly captured here. The shots of the river of humanity pulsing over the Verranzano and 59th Street Bridges are enough to quicken my pulse, and make me think how excited I am to be one of those runners this November, running in the footsteps of legends like Fred Lebow.
To Judd and crew: well done, and thank you.