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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
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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

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Lebow took over as president of the club in 1972. In the years since, the club has taken over Lebow. Running the operation and making it worldwide in scope has become his obsession. He's at the headquarters every day, usually making telephone deals on one of the four lines that come into his office, and he restlessly prowls the darkened corridors by night, unable to surrender the place to a few hours of quiet. Occasionally he throws himself down on the lumpy couch in his office for a nap.

Lebow wasn't always so driven; indeed, there was a time when he fancied himself as something of a bohemian: "Sidewalk cafés in Paris, quaint little hotels in Barcelona—that sort of life," he says. And he made a determined lunge for it as a youth, but he never could seem to get the knack of hanging loose; probably because he had, what he calls, a bad case of "basic respectability." The Lebow family, Mom, Dad and five boys and two girls, were once the Lebowitzes of Arad, a small town in Transylvania. They survived the Nazi occupation but split up and made a run for it when the Russians seized Romania after World War II. Fred, who was 13 at the time, smuggled himself into Czechoslovakia and then to Holland with a group of refugees and finally wound up with papers as a stateless citizen of Ireland—"a nize Jewish boy like me." The rest of the Lebowitzes are now scattered around the U.S. and Israel. Fred, who has lived just about everywhere in the world, has been left with a strange, softly melodic accent, a blending of Slavic, continental European, upper British and Lower East Side. To Lebow, athletes are "af-leets," females are "vimmin," and every sentence he utters has "O.K." in it.

"So, O.K., so I made my fortune in the garment business," he says. After settling in Manhattan in the early '60s, Lebow attended the New York Fashion Institute (but didn't graduate); then in Cleveland he sold TV sets for a time and ran an improvisational theater. Back in New York, he hit it big in garment center knock-offs. "I was quite good at it," he says. "I got so good I became a high-paid consultant. It is my particular talent that you bring me a designer's original, a $200 garment, O.K.? And I would analyze it and produce the same garment, O.K.? The same garment for $49.95. Fourteen-ounce fabric? I'd change it to 12. Six buttons here; I'd put five. Real pockets became fake pockets; where there once was a lining, O.K., there'd be none. I'd go to Hong Kong or Italy to get them made—all for a handsome commission. I ended up wealthy, O.K., with a sports car, dating lovely vimmin, the works."

Indeed, if it weren't for a seemingly innocent interruption at this point, Lebow would probably be a millionaire today, a shadow Ralph Lauren or Bill Blass. He talks about it matter-of-factly, wearing his usual distracted look, and the realization comes suddenly that Lebow doesn't fully see what has actually happened to him. "I discovered running..." he says, and his voice trails off as he looks into some private universe. It began so innocuously; Lebow started running to condition himself for tennis and, in a matter of months, the joys of running overpowered him. First he stopped playing tennis, and then in one year, 1970, he ran in 13 marathons. His times are, well, O.K. In 1970 he did a 3:19, his personal best, in Syracuse, N.Y., and this year he ran a 3:48 in Paris, a 3:47 in Oslo, a 3:49 in Stockholm and a 3:46 in Columbus, Ohio. He has now run in 30 marathons and two ultra-marathons, one of 50 km., another of 60.

Eventually, Lebow abdicated as king of the knock-offs because it interfered with his running. "In 1977 I started to work less," he says. "Then, in 1978, I did only one or two jobs; one in 1979. I haven't done any in the last two years."

Lebow isn't paid for being president of the Road Runners, having made a bundle in knock-offs, and he has developed an ascetic, almost monklike pride in how little money it takes for him to live. "So far this year I've spent a total of maybe $2,500 of my savings," he says. "I mean, look: I live alone in a rent-controlled apartment for $69 a month; it isn't fancy, O.K.? I sold my car long ago. I don't even spend money on cabs; I run to all my appointments all over town. I wear mostly running shoes and clothing, and they're all supplied free. I don't have any food in my apartment except maybe some fruit juice: I've never cooked a meal there, not even a cup of tea. I eat only two light, inexpensive meals a day, lunch and dinner, and people most often take me to these."

Every evening between 9:30 and 10, Lebow puts away his work and heads downstairs through the darkened club headquarters. He strolls to Central Park, where he runs six miles—a shadowy figure ghosting along in all kinds of weather. On Saturdays he increases the distance to 10 miles and on Sundays to 12.

Lebow does his heavy thinking while running, and there are times, he says, when an idea of such brilliance will leap into his mind that he'll stop dead in his tracks. At one time he would scratch the idea into the dirt with a broken twig, figuring he could later go back and read it. But then he discovered that, if he carried the twig along as a reminder, when he got to his desk, the idea would come back, full-blown, as one recalls a dream from a snippet of random conversation.

Back at his office, his sweaty running clothes tossed into an old cardboard box that serves as a hamper, he often works far into the night, scheming on how to make the Road Runners even bigger. Over the years Lebow has emphasized events for women—he's one of the pioneer backers of women's road racing, and he doesn't turn aside suggestions that this contributed to the inclusion of a women's marathon in the 1984 Olympics. The club also sponsors clinics and fun runs, a series for company teams, and breakfast runs, runs for twosomes, as well as midnight runs. The Fifth Avenue Mile might be joined by the Champs-Elysées Mile in Paris next year—staged by the Road Runners—and Lebow wants to promote similar races in London and Tokyo and Lord knows where else.

In short, Lebow has put the club on a giddy promotional upswing. It is taking in a lot of money, yet operating slightly in the red. The figures are dazzling: The 1980 New York Marathon cost $502,717 to stage, but took in $454,879. This year several new sponsors have been added, and ABC will show it live, for an undisclosed fee. ("Not as much as you might think," Lebow says, "nothing like it pays for a football game.") So the race might finally show a modest profit. Still, expenses keep running ahead of revenues.

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