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Q&A with Run for Your Life Filmmaker Judd Ehrlich

By Michelle Michalos
Thursday, October 27th, 2011
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Judd Ehrlich

In Run for Your Life, filmmaker Judd Ehrlich chronicles the life of Fred Lebow, the ambitious founder of the New York City Marathon.

In 1976, Lebow united the struggling city by bringing the race to all five boroughs.  He continued to defy the odds by running the marathon for the first time three years after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Run for Your Life tells Lebow’s unique tale with archival footage and interviews with prominent New York figures like Mayor Ed Koch, as well as Lebow’s own family.

Inside Thirteen recently had the chance to sit down with Mr. Ehrlich to discuss his inspiration for the film and the impact of the race on New York City.  Run for Your Life airs Saturday, November 5 at 1 p.m. and Sunday, November 6 at 7:30 a.m. and 12 a.m. on THIRTEEN.

Watch the trailer:

Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to make Run for Your Life?

Judd Ehrlich: I am from New York, born here. The New York City Marathon was always a big event in the life of the city and I would go out and watch the race. I had never run it before, but always watched it and cheered people on from around the world. I always knew who Fred Lebow was because, being from the city, his position was constantly in the press. But, I didn’t know much about him. I became friends with someone named Moshe Katz who I would later find out was one of Fred Lebow’s nephews. He started to tell me some stories about Fred that I didn’t know anything about. As I learned more about him, I felt that we had to make a film about him and I started working on it.

IT: How do you think Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon have impacted New Yorkers?

JE: We talk about in the film how New York City was really in bad shape in the 70s. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy, “the Bronx is burning” was the popular phrase, and people were really scared to go into certain neighborhoods.  People around the world kind of had a negative view of New York City. I think taking the race to all five boroughs – a lot of people had doubts about it. But, it was part of what started to give New Yorkers some sort of pride and the images were telecast around the world and started to give this new vision of what New York could be, to people around the world.

Fred Lebow

IT: Fred Lebow only ran the New York City Marathon once. How long did it take for the marathon to become a reality?

JE: Fred ran 69 marathons in his lifetime, but he ran the New York City Marathon last, which was his baby – really, because he was so busy at the helm of it that he never felt he could actually run it because he was so concerned with making it go off without a hitch and wanted to be in control of the day. That’s why he never ran until he was diagnosed with cancer.

IT: In archival footage featured in the film, Lebow mentions that he lived for the chase in several aspects of his life. Did fleeing his country and his past influence him in any way?

JE: Well, Fred was always running in his life… running towards some things and away from others. In some ways, the film is about what it means to run in a larger sense.

IT: The film features many interviews, including some well-known figures (such as Mayor Ed Koch and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton). Was there anything that you were surprised to learn about Fred’s life from these interviews?

JE: Fred was human, he had his faults, which we talk about in the film, but despite those human frailties, everybody that I talked to and interviewed in the film really had such a love for Fred and for what he did. We had people really going out of their way to talk to us. We had Bob Bright who was the head of the Chicago Marathon and kind of Fred’s rival in the 80s and he was somebody that no one has heard from in about 20 years since he had left the Chicago Marathon, no one knew how to get in touch with him. He heard that we were trying to get in touch with him and he flew from where he was living on a ranch in Mexico to do an interview with us in New York City. And this is somebody who is supposed to be Fred’s rival. So, we sort of found that treatment everywhere we went. The fact that we were able to interview people like Percy Sutton and Ted Corbitt, both of whom passed away not long after our interviews, and we were able to capture some of their thoughts about the race and about Fred before they passed, it’s really amazing that we were able to do that.

IT: What message would you like people to take from the film?

JE: I was not a runner when I started making the film, but I did run the New York City Marathon for the first time after making the film, and I’ve heard from a lot of people that it’s either inspired them to run their first race or inspired them to run, or just in general it’s sort of had a positive effect in their lives in accomplishing whatever goal they’re working on. So, if it can work on a level that’s beyond just a compelling story, that’s gratifying.