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 family.
We sat down with Ehrlich to discuss his inspiration for the film and the race’s impact on New York City.
Q: What inspired you to make “Run for Your Life“?
A: I’m 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.
Q: How do you think Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon have impacted New Yorkers?
A: 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.
Q: Lebow only ran the New York City Marathon once, toward the end of his life. Why was that?
A: Fred ran 69 marathons in his lifetime, but he ran the New York City Marathon last, which was his baby. 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. 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.
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Q: The film features many interviews, including some with well-known figures including Mayor Ed Koch and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton. Was there anything that you were surprised to learn about Lebow’s life from these prominent New Yorkers?
A: Fred was human and 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 talked to Bob Bright, who was the head of the Chicago Marathon and kind of Fred’s rival in the ’80s. He was somebody that no one had heard from in about 20 years since he had left the Chicago Marathon; nobody 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 famed long-distance runner 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. Grete Waltz also passed away this year — she was such a huge part of the marathon, Fred’s life and the film. She and Fred are actually going to be the first ever inductees in the NYRR Hall of Fame this Friday.
Q: What message would you like people to take from the film?
A: 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. I’ve heard from a lot of people who said it’s either inspired them to run their first race or just in general had a positive effect in their lives in helping them accomplish whatever goal they’re working on. So, if it can work on a level that’s beyond just a compelling story, that’s gratifying.
A previous version of this post ran on THIRTEEN.org.