My running-n-reading friend Cari very kindly sent me a copy of this book as she wanted to read it together (then my copy arrived waaayy earlier than hers AND I’ve lost track of where she is in it).  My copy arrived on 18 November and it was so interesting to read about this running hero of Cari’s who has a statue and a race named after him in New York.

Lebow was clearly an impressive and complex characters, who single-handedly changed how big-city marathons work – in terms of arrangements, sponsorship and inclusivity in particular – through a mixture of charm, pig-headedness and chutzpah, all of which were honed in his journey from refugee fleeing the Holocaust through garment factory worker and manager and then business owner to race director. As the author says early on, his was

… a story that embodied almost of all of life’s – and history’s – most important themes: surviving adversity, rising above challenges, overcoming humanity’s worst nightmares and reaching for our individual dreams, working hard to achieve our goals or volunteering to help others accomplish theirs … (xiii-xiv)

It’s very detailed where it can be, on the marathon, its winners, sponsors and Lebow’s relationship with the press and the running establishment, while remaining less detailed on his early life escaping from Eastern Europe. There’s a moving chapter taking us almost step by step through his own running of his race when in remission from cancer, with the crowds calling out his name over and over, and the whole description of the spectacle of the run makes it even more one I want to do myself one day (Cari ran it this year).

It was fascinating to read about amputee Dick Traum running in the first five-boroughs iteration of the race and going on to found the Achilles Track Club for runners with disabilities, which I believe is still going today. The detail of how the marathon developed and needed to attract world-class runners as well as ordinary people was very interesting, too, including some controversial stuff about payments, and I was pleased to see a decent section on all the different groups of volunteers who make it all work.

I would say that the book is a little clunky in the writing and a little bit repetitive. It’s clearly written by an academic who wants to be sure to make links between Lebow’s early experiences, his character and his race directing, rather than a sports writer, and I get that, although he could probably trust his audience to know who Traum etc. are after their first introduction and not repeat the details. Some of the language around disability is a little bit dated now, but the book was published in 2004 so that’s par for the course. The book does have all the detail of Lebow’s life and legacy and so much interesting information about how he did what he did.