The Jewish Story Of New York Marathon Director Fred Lebow

I grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist in Australia. In May of 1977, when I was turning 11, I moved with my parents to Pacific Union College in the Napa Valley (where I lived for the next three years and returned to frequently during high school when I lived in Auburn, CA). I was running a mile or two a day at the time and as a way of adjusting to my new home, I began racing long distance in 1978-1979, finishing five marathons (26 miles 385 yards each).

As was my bent, I read many books and magazines on running. There I kept encountering stories about Fred Lebow, the director of the New York City marathon. I always skipped these stories as much as I could. I had no interest in Fred Lebow. I had no interest in such icky self-promoters. I had no interest in tribal identity.

In late 1979, I developed Osgood Schlatter’s disease and had to quit running. That was devastating because at the time running was my primary source of self-esteem.

After 1984, I was able to run again, but never went longer than three miles. In 1988, I got sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and haven’t been able to run since without getting a CFS relapse. As a result, it’s painful for me to immerse myself in that world. I don’t read or watch much about running anymore.

In 1989, I became interested in Judaism and eventually converted to the religion of the Jewish people.

I notice that exploring Jewish identity is a favorite theme in the media (exploring white identity, by contrast, is a horrible thing) but I also get why many non-Jews are sick of it. What’s with this tribal obsession? It’s so contrary to the WASP worldview. Christians love to talk about how much they love Jesus but they rarely talk about their Christian identity. Jews rarely talk about how much they love God, but they love to talk about being Jewish.

The other day, I watched the Netflix documentary on Fred Lebow called “Run For Your Life.”

Fred was born Fischel Lebowitz in 1932 in Romania. He and his family escaped the Holocaust and moved to New York.

A friend remembers Fred in the late 1960s when Lebow worked in the knockoff schmatta business: “All these women were models and they were tugging at his shoulders. I don’t know if he had that set up.”

Friend: “Fred had more girlfriends than anyone I knew.”

To a WASP, working in a fashion knock-off business would have been too humiliating to contemplate as would arranging models to publicly tug at you all night. Many things that are abhorrent to the WASP (and the German Jew) are common to the Ashkenazi Jew. WASPs lack chutzpah. Perhaps that is a reason why WASPs are in decline and Jews are in ascendancy.

Fred could talk about himself without end and he knew how to manipulate people so that he would be the constant center of attention. Fred had no wife or kids. He liked playing around too much.

Peter Roth, Treasurer of the New York City Road Runners Club: “His identity in the world was all about confusing people.”

“It was all about mirrors and shells and moving things around and hiding things. He did that to create the first five borough marathon. He knew that we needed people to believe in us. And we didn’t have anything to believe in yet except for his vision of how great it was going to be. So he assured everybody that the numbers were there for everyone. And he even made up numbers. And he assured the runners that we had plenty of support, plenty of sponsors. We didn’t have it.”

Howard Rubenstein: “The Road Runners and Fred were broke.”

Charlie McCabe: “Fred was out there looking for money. I guess the garment center produces a different sort of salesperson.”

Friend: “Fred felt like he was a missionary, to convert people to the marathon.”

Friend: “He was like a rock star. He had a personality that women were attracted to.”

Anne Roberts, Fred’s former employee at the Road Runners Club: “We were traveling to Amsterdam. We were sitting in the lounge at JFK. Fred said to me, ‘When we go to the gate, you walk ahead of me. I don’t want people to think that we’re together. You’re too old for me, Anne.’ And I’m about 20 years younger than Fred.”

Fred: “I get bored with women easily. That’s the main problem. Once I have achieved anything in life, I’m not satisfied with it. I love the chase.”

This Lebow documentary reminds me uncomfortably of my own story. Kinda like that movie Greenberg (2010).

Near the end of his life, Fred went back to the name “Fischel Lebowitz.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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