Ron Rubin, a professor of political science by vocation and a few-times-a-week jogger by avocation, never gave serious thought to running 26 miles, 385 yards in a single stretch until he turned his television to the New York City Marathon one Sunday morning about 15 years ago.
He saw thousands of runners (world-class athletes and weekend schleppers) traversing the five boroughs and millions of fans cheering them on. He heard marching bands inspiring the runners. He signed up.
"I was one of the recipients of Lebow’s vision," says Rubin, a Riverdale resident who has run the marathon six times.
Lebow is Fred Lebow, the Holocaust survivor turned sports entrepreneur who turned the New York Marathon from a few laps around Central Park for a few dozen aficionados into an international event throughout the city that attracts more 30,000 runners each November.
Lebow, who had battled brain cancer for four years, died at 62 in October 1994, three weeks before the marathon.Rubin decided then to write the story of Lebow’s life.
Rubin’s biography, his fourth book, is titled "Anything for a T-Shirt: FRED LEBOW and the New York City Marathon, the World’s Greatest Footrace" (Syracuse University Press).
This year’s race is Sunday, Nov. 6.The 304 pages of Rubin’s book are part psychological analysis (Lebow was driven and influenced by the years he spent in hiding from the Nazis is his native Romania), part social history of the city (Lebow met and befriended people from all social strata), and part marketing text (Lebow caught the wave of a national fitness craze and created an institution.)
Rubin, 63, a Bronx native who has taught 40 years at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, says he approached the book as a social scientist, fascinated by Lebow’s unlikely success in promoting what came to be known as "the people’s marathon." Lebow had no training in marketing or communications.
"I was curious about … how he made things happen," Rubin says. "How was this Holocaust survivor who never finished high school able to change the popular culture of the nation? He mainstreamed the notion of a marathon."
The answer, according to Rubin’s book, is chutzpah. Lebow, who worked in Manhattan’s garment district and took up running to get in shape for tennis, was a natural showman who understood human nature.
Hence the title of the book. Lebow made marathon T-shirts a prized item, both for the runners and the police and legion of volunteers who assisted.
"People asked me all the time how we got over 7,000 volunteers for the marathon … along the course, and volunteers for 100 events" sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club throughout the year, Rubin quotes Lebow as saying. "Never underestimate the power of a T-shirt."
Lebow, a bearded power broker in a track suit, would ask anyone (politicians, corporate heads, athletes) to help out.
"I didn’t realize all the chutzpah it took," Rubin says, sitting in the living room of his apartment. "He was a conniver, of sorts. He knew how to scheme, in an honest way."
This is a New York story. It goes beyond running," he says.
Rubin used the runner’s club files and interviewed some 120 people, including Lebow’s loved ones: runners, race director colleagues in other cities, sponsors, girlfriends and rabbis.
As a committed, Daf Yomi-attending Orthodox Jew, Rubin was intrigued by Lebow’s sometimes tenuous relationship with Jewish observance.
"The book is a Jewish book," Rubin says.
Lebow, born Fishl Lebowitz and raised in an Orthodox home, departed from strict observance after World War II. He never married, and most of his string of girlfriends was not Jewish.
But, the book shows, Lebow surreptitiously kept kosher ("his own modified version of kosher") in the guise of a vegetarian diet. He attended synagogue on the High Holy Days, fasted on Yom Kippur, held a Passover seder and lit Chanukah candles with his running club friends.
Lebow supported the Marathon Minyan that is held every race morning near the starting line.
He made sure the marathon wound its way through the Chasidic neighborhood of Williamsburg, posting "no parking" signs in Yiddish and sometimes shouting from his official’s car, Di loifer darfen vasser, "the runners need water."
And, as his illness worsened, he strengthened his ties to Judaism, reverting to his childhood first name.
"I wouldn’t say I’m more religious, but I am more traditional," Lebow said in a 1993 interview with The Jewish Week.
"He knew he was Jewish," Rubin says. And with his strong accent, everyone else knew.
"In the thick of battle as race-world entrepreneur and deal maker, Lebow would publicly present a minimal Jewish image," Rubin writes. "But even though not the type given to deep introspection about life’s ultimate issues, the savvy promoter’s Jewishness was always part of his self-definition.
"When his boyhood friend from Arad Rabbi [Chaim] Stauber, asked once, ‘How did you get into the running business?’ Lebow, with a self-deprecating observation that running represented a metaphor for the often-forced wanderings of the Jewish people, answered with a question of his own: ‘Tell me the truth, Chaim. After all, when did we Jews ever stop running?’
"Surviving the Shoah shaped Lebow’s "concept of egalitarianism," opening his race to runners of all talent levels, and "it gave him a lot of personal survival skills," Rubin says. "He was willing to take risks. He didn’t get discouraged. He was able to be flexible. He was able to roll with the punches."
Rubin never met Lebow. But after all the research, he feels as though he knew Lebow well.
"I felt for the guy," Rubin says. "When I was writing the chapters, I had tears in my eyes. When I interviewed some of the people, they had tears in their eyes."
Rubin calls Lebow "a genuinely modest man. He wasn’t in it for the money. He never endorsed a product."
Though Lebow came to be indelibly linked to his race, "he saw himself as promoting the marathon," Rubin says. "The idea that he was making people run gave him a lot of pride."
Rubin plans to run in the Miami Half Marathon in January, raising money for the Chai Lifeline organization. He’ll skip running in this year’s New York City Marathon, but he’ll probably take part in the Marathon Minyan.
Rubin will talk about his book that morning.
And everyone, he says, will remember Fred Lebow.