My first introduction to Fred Lebow was Phedip episode #115
where Steve does a great job encapsulating Fred's accomplishment in his "short, but long enough" lifetime. This week, Netflix shipped "Run For Your Life" to me, the film by Judd Erlich.
His story is how an immigrant from Transylvania, Romania escaped the Nazis and the Russians to grow up in NY, make a decent, hard-partying living taking "high fashion" garments and recreating them for people to afford. He is described by another runner as "running like a duck, but slower". While he was never a fast runner, he obviously had a great talent for promotion, and long before sports/event promotion existed, he pioneered the concept and became the father of the NYC marathon.
The archival documents, newspapers, pictures, video clips, and interviews create an wonderful picture of how Lebow et al created all sorts of buzz and dreamed impractically big to create a sport and an industry that previously was seen as a mild form of insanity. From Shorter vs. Rodgers, to NYC in hopeless debt, to the bicentennial, to paying off gangs with clothes, it is a great story.
The movie makes mention of how, unlike some other running leaders and promoters, he was more than happy to have women participate. For example, in addition to all sorts of bizarre stunt runs like the Internationl run from the UN, the New Year's Eve Run, the Halloween run, a backwards race, the 5th Avenue mile, and the Empire State Building runup, he also created the first woman's only race, the 6 mile Crazyleg minimarathon.
It then moves into how, as running became more popular, people began to take advantage of it (a la the runner-who-shall-not-be-named that cheated her way into the Boston marathon) and both genuine and manufactured rivalry with the Chicago Marathon.
The story and movie's touching conclusion is the incredible story of how, after being diagnosed and treated for CNS lymphoma, Fred ran his own race in 1992, arm in arm with Grete Waitz, 9-time NYC winner whose career Fred helped create. At some point in the film, Lebow mentions that when he learned how many people in America run, Lebow said his response was to wonder why the remainder were not yet runners.
With regard to the cinematography and editing, I really enjoyed how the filmmakers used some creative imagery to make static pictures come alive, to transparently stack newspaper headlines on top of one another and even hybridize archival video with newspapers.
Erlich does a great job as a documentarian to show how Lebow meant so many things to so many people, and could be abrasive at times. There is a great clip where he is being interviewed by Tom Brokaw and Fred is goading him because Brokaw's wife completed the marathon and Brokaw did not. So, while some considered him a running messiah, or a champion of the American dream, others found him obnoxious, self-centered and described him as a dictator, but the film lets you come to your own decision.
EXTRAS: Don't neglect the extras on the disc, of which there are many. "Fred's Last Wish" is a short interview with his nephew, Moshe, who ran the 1994 race (two weeks after Fred passed away) in Fred's honor.
BOTTOM LINE: I really enjoyed the film and extras. At this point, I would put it right up there with "Spirit of the Marathon" as a top nonfiction running film.
Run For Your Life, film site
Fred's team, run in support of cancer research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering
ING NYC Marathon