SI Vault
 
The Man Who Runs Running
Bob Ottum
October 26, 1981
He's Fred Lebow, the impresario of the New York Marathon, the Fifth Avenue Mile and 220 other extravaganzas every year
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 26, 1981

The Man Who Runs Running

He's Fred Lebow, the impresario of the New York Marathon, the Fifth Avenue Mile and 220 other extravaganzas every year

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

Upstairs in the police building, Lebow is smooth and expansive. He tells the Traffic Division chiefs what a wonderful job they're doing with the growing number of New York's road racing events, as well as the New York Marathon, and what an immeasurable service this is to the sport. The captains and lieutenants warily watch this Messianic figure in warmups. They already know what a wonderful job they're doing; New York Mayor Edward I. Koch recognizes that the marathon is a showcase for the city, and he has ordered that it be made to work smoothly. As for the sport of road racing—well. Most of the division's chiefs are overweight and half of them are chain-smoking. That's what they think about the sport of road racing.

After the meeting Lebow and his companions stand indecisively on a sidewalk near City Hall. This is on Lower Broadway, and their office is at 89th Street, maybe six miles uptown. "We can grab a cab back," says Lebow. "Or we can take a subway. Or"—he looks around at the midday crush of pedestrians—"or we could run up there."

Run up there. Seriously, now. You mean run through these teeming sidewalks all the way up to....

"Oh, all right," Lebow says. "We'll take a cab."

There was a time, not too many years ago, when the New York Road Runners Club was a quiet little organization. It had perhaps 300 members, which might seem big at first but which is little in a city the size of New York. The Road Runners sort of hung loose, and their byways were mostly sidewalks and jammed streets. The club's one big bash was the marathon, which was conducted entirely inside Central Park. The first one was in 1970—126 runners started and 72 finished—and it is a matter of unassailable history that most of the spectators were the gentlemen standing beneath the gaily striped umbrellas of their pushcarts, yelling, "So, what's the big rush? Stop and buy a pretzel, already."

It was a far gentler time, if things are ever gentle in New York. And there are many club members who recall such days wistfully, for look what they've got now: the biggest club of its kind in the world, a $2 million-plus-a-year operation with 21,000 members that stages 220 running events and clinics a year, including stunts like an annual dash up the stairs of the Empire State Building and, a couple of weeks ago, a very serious one-mile race down Fifth Avenue. There seems to be no end in sight: In 1984 the club will put on the world cross-country championships over a course inside Belmont Park Race Track.

Next Sunday brings the world's biggest and gaudiest marathon, with more than 16,000 runners from 57 countries flowing in a ragged stream through the city's five boroughs. That race involves shutting down 360 intersections to traffic, and it utilizes 1,460 police officers, 200 Parks Department and Sanitation men, hundreds of military and Red Cross personnel, more than 100 buses just to ferry the runners to the start on Staten Island, more than 500 medics and 400 portable toilets. The club provides 3,000 volunteer helpers, including 400 just to work the finish line in Central Park.

Last April, the New York Road Runners moved into a new $1,373,000 headquarters on East 89th Street, a pleasantly shabby, six-story, 40-room mansion that most recently was a psychiatric center. "This building has created a puzzling effect," says Peter Roth, the club's treasurer. Like most of the officers, he is an unpaid volunteer. His earnest, emaciated look bespeaks endless miles of running. "First we operated the whole club on top of Fred Lebow's kitchen table. Then we had a tiny room at the West Side Y. Now we've got this big clubhouse. But you could walk in and somebody might say, 'Well, whadda you want, fella?' And you feel like shouting, 'Listen, I'm a member.' It all represents progress, of course, but some of our members feel that the club has grown too big too soon."

Perhaps. But whatever has happened, for better or worse, Fred Lebow has had a finger in it.

Most of the time Lebow looks worried and maybe a little bit wounded. Certainly haggard. He's 49 years old and pre-leathery; he has a fine start on what one day will be deep seams in his face. He has pale blue eyes, thinning sandy hair and a sinewy, straight-up-and-down body. All in all, he has the look of a steady runner, and Lebow is as steady a runner as any and a whole lot steadier than most. Just now he peers contentedly around his big, jumbled office on the fourth floor, rear, of the old mansion, and smiles. "To think that when I started all this," he says, "all I really wanted was a desk somewhere and a phone."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4