Fred Lebow believed that running is for everyone. He fell in love with the sport on his first run around the Central Park Reservoir, and he spent the rest of his life converting millions of others in every corner of the world.
Lebow was an unlikely leader of the running revolution. Born in 1932 in Romania, he fled war-torn Europe in the chaotic aftermath of World War II and ended up in New York. In the late 1960s he joined NYRR, which at the time was a small club run out of various people’s apartments, and he co-founded the New York City Marathon in 1970 as a four-lap tour of Central Park. He became president of NYRR in 1972 and served in that role and as race director of the New York City Marathon for 22 years, until his untimely death from brain cancer in 1994.
Under Lebow’s leadership, the New York City Marathon became a five-borough extravaganza that attracted the world’s best athletes as well as hordes of recreational runners each year who saw the marathon as the ultimate personal challenge. NYRR membership grew from a couple of hundred die-hards to tens of thousands of people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Lebow embraced them all and in the process created a global phenomenon.
On his watch, NYRR created such enduring events as the Fifth Avenue Mile, the Empire State Building Run-Up, and the NYRR New York Mini 10K (the original women-only road race). In 1984, he brought the IAAF World Cross Country Championships to North America for the first time when NYRR staged the event at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. He nurtured the careers of such runners as Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, and Grete Waitz, who won 16 New York City Marathon titles among them.
At Lebow’s induction into the New York Road Runners Hall of Fame on November 4, 2011, his friend and colleague Phil Greenwald called Lebow “part showman, part promoter, part businessman, part wheeler-dealer—a genius and a tireless promoter who was right most of the time and smart enough to adapt when he wasn’t.”
“The monument to Fred is the New York City Marathon and New York Road Runners,” added Greenwald. “His vision has clearly stood the test of time.”
Lebow’s successor Allan Steinfeld, who served as NYRR president and New York City Marathon race director from 1994 to 2005, said, “There’s been no one like Fred since, and there will probably never be.”
June 3, 1932
Born Fischel Lebowitz in Arad, Romania, into an Orthodox Jewish family.
Immigrates to the United States; later changes name to Fred Lebow and becomes a U.S. citizen.
Takes his first run around the Central Park Reservoir.
September 13, 1970
Finishes first New York City Marathon (which he also co-directs) in 4:12:09.
Becomes president of NYRR.
Directs first five-borough New York City Marathon, with 1,549 finishers.
Stages first Empire State Building Run-Up and first Midnight Run. Invites Norway's Grete Waitz to run the New York City Marathon; she wins in a world-record 2:32:30.
Produces first NYRR Club Night to honor top NYRR members and teams.
Stages first Fifth Avenue Mile.
Brings IAAF World Cross Country Championships to North America for the first time, hosted by NYRR in New Jersey.
Diagnosed with brain cancer.
November 1, 1992
In remission, runs the New York City Marathon in 5:32:34 with Waitz by his side.
October 9, 1994
Dies four weeks before the 25th New York City Marathon; memorial service held at the marathon finish line .
Inducted into National Distance Running Hall of Fame.
November 4, 2011
Inducted into New York Road Runners Hall of Fame.