When the cannon sounds at the start of this week’s New York Marathon, sending 16,000 runners surging across the Verrazano Bridge, one agitated, bearded man will precede them. Riding in an open Jeep, he will be waving wildly, bellowing orders to spectators, and taking total, frantic command of the race. His proper name is Fred Lebow, though critics believe he should answer to others—egomaniac, for instance, or tyrant.
As president of the 21,000-member New York Road Runners Club, the largest organization of its kind in the world, Lebow, 50, may be the most powerful figure in international road racing, but he denies he’s been throwing his weight around. “That’s unwarranted,” he maintains. “Some people think that we in New York are brash or overbearing. But they should compare us to how other clubs are run—the services to our members, how the city benefits from all the things we do. In our general meeting the other night, out of 4,200 votes for president sent in by our members, I received all but 200. If this sounds like bragging, so be it.”
Lebow, who took over the club in 1972 when it had only 300 members, is a master of organization and public relations. “The first thing I did,” he says, “was start developing an awareness of the sport.” Now the club is big business, with an annual budget of $2.5 million. It runs more than 220 races, clinics and classes a year, including the world-famous Fifth Avenue Mile, and last year moved its offices from a few cramped rooms to its new $1.3 million International Running Center in an exclusive neighborhood on Manhattan’s East Side.
The keystone of all this is the marathon itself, which this year will draw top runners from 65 countries—including, for the first time in any U.S. road race, entrants from the Soviet Union. More than two million spectators are expected to line the 26.2-mile route, and ABC will air three hours of live nationwide coverage. Managing such an event is a staggering logistical challenge, yet Lebow has never accepted a salary. Soon that will change, when the building housing his $69-a-month rent-controlled apartment is razed and he is forced to find pricier quarters, but he intends to take no more cash than he needs. “I’m basically a very simple person,” he says. “I don’t even have an unlisted phone number.”
One of seven children of a Jewish produce distributor, Lebow was born in Rumania. His family survived the Nazi occupation, but split up after the war when the Soviets took charge. Fred slipped into Czechoslovakia, then on to England and Ireland before arriving in Manhattan in the mid-’60s. “Those early years taught me to be on my toes,” he says. “As a 12-year-old, I was always on the lookout. I still am—even today.” Later, he made his fortune in the garment district as a high-priced consultant, creating inexpensive knockoffs of designer clothing. Then, in 1969, he started running to improve his stamina for tennis. Once he began, he was hooked. “I looked out of the showroom window one day,” he recalls, “and it was so beautiful I just had to go out and run. I never leave work, not even for a sick day, but I did then.”
Today, monkishly devoted to both running and the business that has grown up around it, Lebow spends only about $3,000 a year of his own money. He dresses in complimentary running clothes, depends on meals and trips provided by race sponsors and patrons, and has virtually no social life unrelated to racing. Several years ago, Lebow, a lifelong bachelor, was deeply wounded when a woman friend left him, and he wondered disconsolately whether running and romance were compatible. He was still wondering last spring when, after the most successful New York Marathon ever, resulting in new world’s records for both men and women, he found himself morose and alone. “It was the ultimate of my dreams,” he recalls. “I knew I could never duplicate it, and I was saddened because I had nobody to share it with. I thought, ‘Where do I go from here?’ ”
Like so many ordinary joggers who hurl themselves into running to escape other pains, Lebow turned to racing for sustenance. He has competed in 12 marathons in 11 different countries this year alone, recording his best time, three hours and 40 minutes, in Moscow. “A touch of masochism, perhaps,” he admits. “But now I can say that caring for a fine woman is more important than the love of running.” Yet he has no intention of renouncing the sport, and there is one event he still yearns to enter. “When I’m in the lead car and we’re approaching the finish line,” he says, “I always wish I were running instead. So one of these days I’m just going to do it. I’m going to run in our own New York Marathon.”